Pornography’s Many Faces

4 09 2009

Pornography is a complex issue, but it shouldn’t be. There are a few reasons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

it’s complex. For Americans it can be divisive along the Freedom of Expression lines that have customarily guarded distasteful expression from the majority opinion. Pornography, if not really a minority form of speech, still represents a subject matter not commonly accepted as socially approved. The main reason that pornography is a complex beast*, however, is that there has traditionally been a lack of consensus about how Pornography is defined. In an exploration of this issue, and in preparation for an essay I’m about to write on the subject, I thought I would run through a few of the more common definitions of pornography that have held weight over the last century or so.

 The original meaning of the word ‘pornography’ comes from the Greek root word ‘Porne’, for prostitute. So the form of pornography was originally as a list of prostitutes and the services one could *ahem* *cough* obtain from said *cough* ladies. While the word has, obviously, moved on from this form of definition since its conception there is still some usefulness in this definition, which we’ll come to when we consider the aesthetic definition of Porn.

 Another common definition of pornography was based on its function. This is to say, pornography was whatever material designed for the purpose of arousing sexual desire in the reader/viewer through explicit descriptions of sexual acts. This definition is still pretty fundamental to the ‘genre’. One could, for instance remove whatever semblance of plot from a pornographic book and it would still be porn. Take the sex out of it though, and is it still pornography? No. it is a brief pamphlet composed mostly of adjoining scenes. From this functional definition comes the old maxim of porn being literature read with one hand. Appropriately or not this also implies a male oriented nature in pornography, which is relevant when we come to look at Feminist definitions.

 A liberal mind, open to sexual explicitness, might tend to say that sexual explicitness doth not the Porn Book make. In the wake of serious literature that contained within its content scenes of explicit description, a liberal definition of pornography might choose to draw a line between sexual literature and porn on Aesthetic grounds. Pornography, they might say, is not just the explicit depiction of sex; it is also badly written with no character development or plot to speak of, save what is absolutely necessary to move the reader from one sexual encounter to the next. This aesthetic definition tends to couple itself** with literary definitions which, similarly, seek to define pornography as a genre along aesthetic grounds. In this way Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence is not pornographic, as its detailed descriptions of sex come within a social and literary context.

 The aesthetic definition harks back to the original idea of pornography as a list of prostitutes’ services. The aesthetic idea considers porn to be no more than a list of sexual exchanges described in utilitarian*** detail.

 At about the same time that the Aesthetic/Literary definitions were gaining strength, the strength of moral definitions of pornography was waning. The moral definition is closely tied to obscenity law, where something is obscene is pornographic if it (more or less) has the effect of corrupting those into whose hands it is likely to fall. The moral definition of pornography as a sexually corruptive force tends to be focused on the effect that pornography has on the reader/viewer, rather than the aesthetic of technical components of the material. As such, it is seen as being corruptive because it promotes an unrealistic idea of sex in a vulnerable mind, a view based on male sexual fantasies rather than a fulfilling reality. This definition was traditionally adopted by conservative voices who sought to prevent the creation and dissemination of pornography through legal means. Strangely, though this definition fell out of favour, more or less, with the rise of the aesthetic definition, it was revitalised and re-adopted by a new, antithetical force:

 Feminist definitions of pornography are a mix of Moral and Functional definitions (which were always pretty similar to begin with) with their own social slant. In basic terms the feminist idea defines pornography in terms of its power relationships. Like the functional definition it sees pornography as material that aids lust, but more specifically as an aide to male masturbation. As such pornography is inherently a male artefact that uses women as the centre of male ‘sexual gaze’, turning women into sex objects subordinated for the purpose of satisfying male sexual desire. Like the moral definition it also seeks to define pornography by the social effects it has, which is generally seen as reinforcing a male subordination of women socially and sexually. Some more extreme views see pornography as being a contributing factor in rape and the abuse of women.

 While the feminist idea of porn I definitely driven by a social agenda rather than a desire for literary understanding, the truth of the power-relationships inherent in mainstream pornography is hard to deny. Interestingly, the definition doesn’t tend, in the abstract, to differentiate between pornography that is well written or pornography that isn’t, instead being concerned with whether or not it represents an anti-woman idea of sex. From this definition comes the divide between pornography and erotica, where erotica is seen as sexually focused material that presents a ‘realistic’ or ‘balanced’ idea of sex without subordination.

 I myself, while I recognise the inherent issues surrounding the politics of representation, am uneasy with a definition that has an agenda. I am attempting, in preparation for this essay, to organise my brain around a non-pejorative definition of pornography, so that pornography can be well written or badly written, masculine or feminine, and also change in line with social norms. What was pornographic for Victorian England is no longer pornography for us, so I see the need for a definition that takes changing contexts into account. It may end up being a definition based on the notion of authorial intent, but also coupled with a functional, response based evaluation.  

 Perhaps it should be material that, in social context, had the effect of being sexually explicit material with the aim of sexual arousal. This would need to differentiate between material that was not intended for this purpose but which might be adopted as an aid to masturbation. This would be a fringe, and aberrant form, however, and probably needs a definition of its own based on user re-appropriation rather than as a genre of intent. This non-pejorative definition, also, would need to allow for the existence of  pornographic ‘moments’ within a non-pornographic text.

 It will require some consideration.


 *          A complex beast of many backs.

**        So to speak.

***      One Handed




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