Pornography or sexual materials are seemingly a part of human culture. From antiquity to the present, many societies have employed forms of sexual materials in writing, images, song, or dance for entertainment and/or sexual enjoyment. Not all cultures approve of such material, nor is there societal consensus regarding them. Over the past several decades, the debate in the United States about pornography has become increasingly salient, with a rise in political attention, in part as a result of increased consumption of pornography due to technological advances in the availability of sexual materials and in part from societal reactions to this greater availability. In response, pornography is the subject of research from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and has become a hotbed of contention both within feminist discourse and outside the academy.
Problem of Definition
Discussions about pornography often begin with questioning how to define it. Pornography is difficult to define, as the constructions are politically loaded regarding censorship and given the various ideological positions on pornography. Extensive research exists on the relationships between pornography and society, with followers of each position able to cite findings to bolster their position. Sociodemographic factors also affect individuals’ beliefs concerning pornography. Another factor affecting the debate is that pornography is a lucrative financial industry that generates billions of dollars in revenue despite its disreputable social standing.
Various attempts at regulation have attempted to address problems of definition regarding pornography, obscenity, erotica, and art. Some differentiate between hard-core and soft-core pornography, gay and lesbian pornography, and fetish pornography. All definitions, imbued with subjectivity, have social, political, and moral ramifications. Further, the meanings and understandings of pornography have changed over time, influenced by legalistic and scholarly interpretations or changing societal values. Consensus about a definition thus remains elusive and controversial.
Legislation in the United States has played an integral role in societal conceptualizations of sexual materials. The first federal law regarding pornography was the Comstock Act of 1873. The Comstock Act prohibited transport by mail of any material related to sexuality and contraception. The 1957 Roth v. U.S. Supreme Court decision narrowed the interpretation by defining as obscene only material that was utterly without redeeming social value. In 1970, the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography recommended repealing all laws prohibiting the distribution of sexually explicit materials to consenting adults, as it did not find a causal link between viewing pornography and violence. The commission suggested that pornography could even be beneficial in some circumstances, in allowing for a release of sexual tension. The commission also advocated sex education programs in schools to counterbalance incorrect sexual information gleaned from pornography.
Some differentiate between pornography and materials defined as obscene. In 1973, a pivotal court case, Miller v. California, changed the criteria to assess whether a work, be it literary or video, was obscene. One resulting criterion, the S.L.A.P.S. test, evaluates whether a work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Other criteria include whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the given work appeals to prurient (lewd) interests. Finally, if the work depicts in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state laws, it can be judged obscene. These criteria for evaluating work, resulting from Miller v. California, made banning pornography easier.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, federal prosecutions of obscenity cases and condemnation of sexual imagery increased considerably. For example, a large group of congressmen denounced the homoerotic imagery in the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe in a publicly funded exhibition as pornographic despite Mapplethorpe’s well-respected status in the art world. Fueling the growing intolerance of sexual imagery was the 1986 Report of the Meese Pornography Commission that identified four types of sexual imagery: violent pornography, degrading (nonviolent) pornography, nonviolent and nondegrading sexual imagery, and simple nudity.
The Final Report of the commission claimed that most Americans opposed pornography, but there was a lack of enforcement of obscenity laws; some types of pornography were harmful; and organized crime controlled the pornography industry. The Meese Commission encouraged further legislation using obscenity laws as defined by Miller and recommended that legislators consider restitution for victims of pornography. Many pornography researchers criticized the commission for its anti-pornography ideology and agenda. In addition, numerous scholars condemned the commission’s research as biased and methodologically flawed. Despite the criticism, the Commission’s report is still the benchmark often used when referring to federal guidelines on pornography.
In addition to judicial and legislative decisions, contemporary intellectuals and scholars have influenced definitions of pornography. One definition commonly used is sexual materials intended to cause sexual excitement. This definition, however, assumes a consensus in human response to sexual materials and simplifies the many intentions that a work could have, be it artistic, literary, or political commentary. Some scholars describe pornography as any materials that are degrading and/or dehumanizing to women. These definitions often look at the portrayal of women in sexual materials in relation to men’s behaviors. This type of definition emphasizes gender inequality in society and oppression of women through sexuality. Defining sexual materials in this manner links pornography with various social consequences, especially to the detriment of women.
Other scholars define pornography as explicit depictions of men and women as sexual beings. This definition does not visualize pornography as inherently harmful to women and focuses on the consensual nature of the depicted sexuality. From this viewpoint, pornography is a venue for sexual exploration and even liberation for men and women.
Pornography may be juxtaposed against erotica, which is often seen as less vulgar or explicit and depicting loving and affectionate human sexual interaction. In addition, many recognize the blurred lines among pornography, erotica, and art. Some scholars suggest that finding distinctions among pornography, erotica, and art, however, may be subjective and indicative of social class bias.
Ideological Positions on Pornography
Scholars identify four ideological positions on pornography: religious conservatism, civil libertarian-ism, anti-censorship feminism, and anti-pornography feminism. Each position has various beliefs about pornography and its regulation that stem from social, moral, and political ideologies.
Religious conservatism focuses on the moral aspects of pornography, mainly that it is sinful and leads to further immoral behavior by inciting lust. Religious conservatism concerns itself with the harm to the family, children’s moral development, and the sanctity of marital, heterosexual sex. This ideology may include beliefs that pornography leads to rape and sexual abuse. Here the concept of pornography is that it is addictive, leading individuals to need more and more to satisfy their cravings. Proponents of this ideology support censorship and define a wide array of materials as pornographic.
Civil libertarianism, in contrast, strongly opposes censorship of any sort. Libertarians emphasize individual rights and strive for limiting state regulation and involvement in citizens’ freedoms. This view does not see pornography as harmful or as a domain appropriate for state involvement. While some libertarians acknowledge that they might personally find pornography offensive or distasteful, the principles of freedom supersede distinctions of individual taste.
Pornography has been a divisive topic within feminism, resulting in heated debates and alliances among various scholars. Anti-pornography feminism focuses on the harm to women resulting from pornography. The roots of this ideology lie in a radical feminist approach to sexuality that views sexuality, specifically heterosexuality, as a venue for male domination. Men have co-opted female sexuality and reproduction and embodied this practice in pornography. Anti-pornography feminism sees pornography as created with a male gaze for male viewers with unrealistic and degrading portrayals of female sexuality and subservience. Pornography is thus another form of patriarchal control of women through sexual exploitation, much like rape and prostitution. Pornography both causes further harm to women and reinforces the gendered status quo. This position has led to a tenuous alliance between anti-pornography feminists and religious conservatives in campaigns against pornography, despite their disparate ideologies.
Anti-censorship feminism, however, does not see pornography as inherently dehumanizing for women. Sexuality, according to anti-censorship feminism, can be a means of sexual repression of women’s desires, but sexuality can also be a means of empowerment for women. This ideology, which shares similarities with sex-positive feminism, focuses on consensual exchange in sexual interactions. Thus, while acknowledging gender inequality, this position conceptualizes pornography as a means of sexual liberation for women. Anti-censorship feminists fear that censoring pornography could suppress feminism, homosexuality, and other non-normative aspects of sexuality.
Social Factors Affecting Beliefs
Despite high rates of pornographic consumption in the United States, no consensus exists regarding beliefs about pornography. Social scientific research has identified a variety of social factors that affect individuals’ beliefs about pornography, including gender, religion, age, political ideology, and race or ethnicity.
Gender is an important predictor of beliefs about pornography, with women having more negative attitudes toward sexual materials. Many studies find that women are more likely than men to believe that pornography leads to rape and a breakdown in morals. Some researchers believe that these gender differences may be a result of pornography’s creation for a male audience. Others contend that this discrepancy lies in the different socialization of the sexes regarding sexuality.
Religious traits are quite influential in attitudes toward pornography. Conservative Protestants are the most common religious group that espouses the harm of pornography. The Religious Right has been vocal and influential in its condemnation of pornography. The cognitive structure underlying this opposition rests in their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible as well as belief in social contagion of immorality. Even more important than religious affiliation is strength of religiosity. Persons who report strong religiosity, often assessed through attendance at church services, are more likely to view pornography as harmful.
Politically conservative individuals tend to oppose pornography for reasons similar to religious conservatives. Those with conservative beliefs are concerned about the effects of pornography on the family and morality. This political ideology supports censorship of pornography and does not see pornography as a civil liberties issue.
Age is also a significant correlate concerning beliefs about pornography. Older individuals are more likely to believe that pornography has negative effects. Education also affects views toward pornography: the higher one’s educational achievement, the greater one’s tolerance of pornography.
The evidence on the relationship between race and beliefs about sexual materials is equivocal. Some suggest that African Americans are more accepting of erotic materials than whites, while others report that African Americans are just as likely as whites to believe pornography leads to a breakdown in morals and an increase in rapes.
As a whole, females, whites, persons who attend church frequently, politically conservative individuals, and people with no exposure to pornography are more likely to support censorship. During the past several decades, U.S. public sentiment has grown increasingly intolerant of pornography, reflected in the growing beliefs that pornography has a variety of negative effects and should be censored.
Relationship Between Pornography and Society
Many critics of pornography express particular concern with the violence depicted in sexual imagery. Numerous reports of abused women reveal that their partners used violent pornography and forced them to enact scenes from films. The majority of research on the effects of pornography, however, relies on experimental methodology that critics question for credibility and accuracy. Scholars point out that the inherent problems with this research include discrepancies in definitions of pornography, extrapolating laboratory research to “real-world” experiences, the use of undergraduates as subjects, linking erotic stimuli with anger and provocation, and questionable amounts of exposure to pornography in such research. Some suggest that violence, whether sexual or not, leads to desensitization toward violence directed at women and acceptance of rape myths. As a whole, experimental research findings are inconclusive regarding the relationships between sexually explicit materials and subsequent attitudes and behaviors toward women.
Researchers also analyzed rates of pornographic consumption and effects. The 1970 President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography reported that as pornography became more widely available in the late 1960s, sex-related crimes decreased. Following the repeal of laws banning pornography in Denmark in the late 1960s, sex offenses decreased. Other research looked at circulation rates of soft-core pornography and the relationship to beliefs about women’s status. Beliefs about gender equality are higher in U.S. states that have higher circulation rates of soft-core pornography. Thus, some surmise that consumption of some types of pornography can coexist with egalitarian beliefs about gender. Research does show a correlation between higher circulation of pornography and rates of rape, but scholars suggest that hypermasculinity and proclivity to violence may be the key variable in the relationship.
The Pornography Industry
Pornography is a booming business, with conservative estimates at $10-$14 billion a year just in the United States. Even many mainstream companies gross millions from pornographic sales. For example, pornographic films in hotel rooms generate nearly $190 million a year for hotels. In fact, more than 10,000 adult films are released every year in the United States, compared to about 400 Hollywood films.
Technological advances have played an integral role in the proliferation of pornography. The introduction of the VCR in the 1970s forever changed the ability to consume pornography privately rather than in an adult theater. Pay-per-view adult films made viewing pornography even more accessible. Finally, the Internet has made pornography readily available. Research estimates that 1 in 4 regular Internet users visits a pornographic Web site at least once a month.
The adult film industry employs many men and women, although careers are often short lived. Women generally earn more than men in the pornography industry. The industry’s biggest growth market in consumers is women and couples. Many women are now directing and owning adult film companies that appeal to a female audience. Although testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV is mandated as a part of workplace safety laws, cases of transmission do occur, as unprotected sex is still normative for many adult film companies. Despite the growth of the adult film industry, this type of work has not gained societal acceptance and remains highly stigmatized and subject to legal scrutiny.
Critics voice concern that women, especially, are coerced into pornography; this view is supported by accounts from people formerly involved in pornography that corroborate these assertions. In contrast, vocal advocates of the pornography industry cite individual choice, freedom, and autonomy. Numerous actresses from the industry have publicly supported their career choices and denied allegations of abuse and coercion in pornography.
Consumer demand for pornography shows no signs of waning, and the industry is a major source of revenue. Scholarly and legal attention to pornography will continue because of the myriad social, political, moral, and health factors involved in evaluating and regulating pornography.
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