Assessing anti-porn feminism

What are the harms caused by pornography as presented by the anti-porn feminists? Helen Longino identifies three main ways that pornography harms women. The first is that pornography, but especially violent pornography is implicated in violent crimes that are committed against women. Secondly, pornography defames women due to the ‘lies’ it endorses which surround the idea that women enjoy being treated as mere sexual objects. The third is that because these lies are spread around society this supports and props up a male-centred rhetoric and attitudes, which “reinforces the oppression and exploitation of women” (Longino, in Cahn, 2016, p346). I will address the harms that Longino has identified in conjunction with the work of MacKinnon and Dworkin. This is because these feminists are known for attacking pornography as a violation of women’s free speech and wanted to make the case for civil suits brought by women on the basis that the prevalence of pornography is akin to libel and defamation of women on individual basis but also as a group (West, 2012). I consider that the unpacking of the second and third harm identified by Longino also rests on an idea of exploitation of women, this will be unpacked as its own type of harm that pornography in the third section of this dissertation.

During the process of analysing the account of pornography as harm I will aim to reject MacKinnon’s conclusion by critiquing her use of J.L Austin’s ‘How to do things with Words’. That said, I will heavily draw upon the anti-porn feminist’s structure and motivation for presenting a case that pornography is harm.

Mackinnon holds the position that pornography is harmful to women because it defines women as subordinate to men:

“We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words that also includes (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assault; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (iv) women’s body parts – including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks – are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (viii) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthily or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual” (Mackinnon, 1987, p176)

Pornography on this account is by definition harm. Cynthia Stark suggests pornography suppresses women by sexualising these concepts, and it generates the view that male dominance is ‘sexy’ (Stark, 1997, p290). Stark goes further claiming that the activities in pornography become engrained in men as normal, this can range from sexist comments to sexually motivated violent attacks (ibid). The crux of the issue, therefore is that pornography is not only mere words, which are protected against regulation due to First Amendment laws on free speech, rather it is a clear act of harm – which comes in the form of the subordination of women, which acts to silence women and denies their right to freedom of speech.

MacKinnon wants to demonstrate that pornography itself is the harm, she wants to move beyond Longino’s more traditional approach that pornography causes harm or does harm to the women involved. This does not mean rejecting a causal connection between harm and pornography. Rather, she is attempting to present a case against pornography on both fronts, one that will be able to meet with and defend against Liberals arguing for the freedom to share and produce pornography. In order to expound the harm that MacKinnon thinks pornography produces, I have drawn on Stark’s article, in which she characterises MacKinnon’s work as containing the ‘causal’ approach and the ‘conceptual’ approach to understanding the harms done by pornography.

In Only Words, MacKinnon argument is distinctly different from the conservative arguments for the regulation of pornographic materials. Traditionally, as shown in previous sections, the harm caused by pornography was ‘offence’ and was linked to ideas of obscenity and resultant moral disgust from society. However, for liberals the reply is simple: offence is not harm, and therefore offence is not a sufficient reason to regulate free expression. MacKinnon is also not concerned with harm as offence. Her framework for harm is based on the subordination of women and this results in the violation of women’s civil liberties, famously it silences women. Further, this harm is not just specific to individuals; rather the harm is felt by the whole ‘women’ category.

The central point that MacKinnon needs to demonstrate is that the harm of pornography/certain sexually explicit materials are not just causally related to women’s subordinate position in society, but pornography in itself is an act of subordination. Cynthia Stark refers to this approach as the “Conceptual View” Stark, 1997). MacKinnon defines subordination as that which involves placing someone in a position that makes him or her lose something. They are reduced and ultimately inferior. We must now ask: can pornography do this? In order to show that it can, MacKinnon draws heavily upon J.L Austin’s “How to Do Things With Words”. I consider that the simple rendering of the structure of the argument that MacKinnon seeks to flesh out is this:

Premise 1: Speech Acts can in principle subordinate.

Premise 2: Pornography is a speech act that subordinates.

Conclusion: Pornography can subordinate women.

The first step is to demonstrate what MacKinnon means by speech acts being able to subordinate. To do this a précis of J.L Austin is needed. He refers to performatives, which mean that we are doing something beyond what we express with our words. There are three categories. Locutionary act, this is concerned with the meaning of the words that you are using. Perlocutionary act, which are words that result in producing an effect. In addition, there are illocutionary acts, which is using a locution to do something (Austin, 1962).

Mackinnon’s argument is that pornography is subordination in itself because it is speech act with an illocutionary element. In order to illustrate this, Austin gives the example of a man ordering another man to shoot a woman (Austin, 1962, p101). The Locution of the act would be when the man said, “shoot her”. By ‘shoot’ he means fire the gun, and by ‘her’ he is referring to the woman next to him. The illocution is that the man is urging – in the sense that they have been ordered – to shoot someone else. The perlocution of the speech is that the person was persuaded to shoot the woman. For Austin the distinction is that the locutionary act is reference to what was said, where as the illocutionary act is saying something more because its resting on ‘urging’ the man to shoot the woman. The perlocutionary act is that eventually by saying ‘shoot her’ the man was convinced to do so.

My example based on Austin could be saying to someone: “take home an extra slice of cake for later” after a birthday party, and you agreeing to do so. The locutionary act is referring to the extra slice of cake to take home. The illocutionary act is urging you to take an extra slice home and the perlocutionary act would be that you have been compelled to take the extra slice home. Another important factor that Austin addresses in How To Do Things With Words is “we must notice that the illocutionary act is a conventional act: an act done as conforming to a convention” (ibid, p105). This means that there needs to be an apposite context (Stark, 1997). In the sense you cannot marry yourself to someone simply by saying ‘I do’. Stark notes that there are many elements of these conventions involved in illocutionary acts. For Stark, if there are enough of these conventions in place it means that “the person preforming the locution will be in a position of authority” (ibid, p282).

In support of MacKinnon’s first premise, Rae Langton also argues that subordinating can be an illocutionary act (Langton, 1993). She does this by building upon MacKinnon’s work about why a shop that has a sign that reads ‘Whites Only’ on display in the window is something that can be regulated against – even if it may appear to be free speech. In order to show that this sign is something that can be banned one needs to make the case that this sign is more than just an expression of the shop holder’s opinion about white and black people; rather it is discrimination. The question is why is this sign harmful?

Langton links the ‘whites only sign’ to ‘How To Do Things With Words. Having a sign in a shop window that says “whites only” is not just perlocutory – in the sense that black people are prevented from entering that shop, it is also the illocutionary act of demonstrating that they are of the position that black people are lesser than white people. Hence this type of signage is an illocutionary act of subordination/discrimination. The idea is that a sign in a shop window that reads ‘whites only’ is not speech that is protected under free speech laws, because as Austin would say, you are actively doing something with those words. This takes it beyond the realm of protected free speech because it is not simply an expression of an idea that the shop owner has, it is a direct action of subordination/decimation, as black people are being ranked inferior to white people. This is immoral because it harms the category black by denying their civil liberties.

So, if one can show that speech can be acts, and that they can subordinate black people in the way that the ‘white’s only’ sign does, then by analogy expressions of male/female relationships which rank or subordinate woman can be seen also as speech acts/expressions that are elevated from an idea or an opinion and become the actual act of subordination and therefore a harm itself. This type of thinking is clear in the reasons for why gender discrimination is considered to be discrimination rather than an expression of opinion. For example a company cannot post a job advert with essential criteria being listed as ‘must be male’, because like the sign it has moved beyond freedom of expression and has become harm qua gender discrimination and ranking women as inferior to men.

After establishing subordination can be an illocutionary act – shown via the ‘whites only’ sign illustration, we can now explore the second premise and assess if pornography does subordinate women? Stark holds there are three ways in which MacKinnon and Dworkin suggest that pornography subordinates. Firstly, there are examples when women have had to be blackmailed or coerced or physically intimated in order to take part in the production of pornography. This is supported by the second method of subordination, the actual physical harm that can happen during the making of the pornography. A well-known example of this is “Ordeal”, a book written by Linda Boreman a.k.a. Linda Lovelace. The book, published in 1980s, is a portrayal of her time in the pornography industry and recounts instances of rape during her time in the industry. A third method of subordination is similar to accounts of ‘false-consciousness’, (in this context I have understood it in a Marxist sense, in awareness of true socio-economic position has been obscured because of the way that society reinforces the lesser position of women). Stark remarks, that even if there are women who feel that they have genuinely consented to the pornography process, it can never be truly consensual due to the starting position of male and female inequalities. The result of these vehicles of subordination is that women are ranked as inferior, placing them as just sex objects and it goes on to legitimate and authorise sexual violence against women. If one agrees to this it seems legitimate to say that pornography has the illocutionary force of subordination.

After establishing the hallmarks of subordination, Langton now deals with the authority/context requirement that Austin and Stark maintain is needed for Speech Acts to have illocutionary force. If this is successful then she will have demonstrated premise two, that pornography is a subordinating speech act. What does authority mean? Authority is required for pornography to fully embody an illocutionary act. In sum if pornography does not have the authority then pornography cannot really be considered to be an illocutionary act.

In relation to this topic, MacKinnon writes:

“It is not the speech of a vulnerable minority, but is the speech of a powerful and influential group that represents the interests of a dominant culture, then pornographic speech is at least for some population authoritative” (ibid, p283).

Essentially pornography decides the acceptable treatment of women – and for the majority of people that consume pornography – it is this verdict that counts. If one accepts that pornography does have this authority then it may have the illocutionary force of subordination. Shrader and Moses discuss structural violence and identify it as macro-level political, economic, and social policies which also involve opinions, religious or cultural “that permeate society” (Moser and Shrader, 1999, p7) and govern the way individuals and groups live their lives. Farmer shows that it is violence that is “exerted systematically”, and “indirectly” by those people who are a part of a social order (Farmer, 2004, p307), and then the individuals perpetuate the structures by acting within them and accepting them. We can see this approach clearly replicated in the way in which MacKinnon talks about pornography possessing the authority that Austin requires to be a performative act. In fact it is so pervasive that even the women involved are now contributing to the narrative.

An objection can be made to the ‘authority argument’ by showing that the structure is circular. Circular because it seems to hold that pornography is authoritative because the authoritative group in society is producing it.

Addressing the topic of authority leaves the door open for pornographic materials that are produced from ‘a vulnerable minority’. It would follow then that this type of material would not meet the illocutionary threshold as it lacks the authority. This would be pornography produced by the minority groups within society, and would also include pornography that challenges the regular order of sex and society. Initially this is positive, and can be seen as mirroring feminist ‘erotica’. However potentially there are still problems with this type of porn in terms of the Kantian framework, which is discussed in the next section. Also, there is potential for that minority groups could still produce pornography that subordinates within their own minority; an example could be ‘feminist porn’ that could exclude transwomen.

Stark argues that MacKinnon has failed to really show that pornography itself is a subordinating action and argues that MacKinnon can only use the causal arguments. She does this by going through the ways in which MacKinnon shows pornography is subordinating, and replies them. Firstly, she dismisses the first and second account of harm done to women that comes from coercion and force and so on, because she is of the position that this is not a quality that is only attributed to pornography, and that clearly any type of expression that causes such clear instances of harm is considered morally objectionable.

Secondly the issue of the subordination that comes from false-consciousness is difficult to address without recourse to casual factors. In the sense that it seems that we can only say that something reinforces inequalities between the genders by appealing to how we see society operating. For Stark, this is a demonstration of MacKinnon fundamentally appealing to the causal viewpoint, whilst also showing that it is an act in and of itself. The upshot therefore is that because MacKinnon has not sufficiently demonstrated that pornography is a speech act, and still draws on casual factors.

Edwin Baker develops a similar criticism of MacKinnon, in relation to her assertion that pornography takes a leading role in the suppression and oppression of women, he questions when we are no longer required to take her points literally. In his book review of Only Words, Baker addressees MacKinnon’s claim that critics take her work metaphorically when they should take it literally. MacKinnon exemplifies this when she maintains that when a woman is even saying the words, describing the sexualised acts of subordination “they are pornography” (MacKinnon, 1993, p66). It seems to follow therefore that if I were sexually assaulted, the retelling of the events to someone else, would then make me pornography. This is also reflected in Stark’s analysis of MacKinnon’s claims that pornography is masturbation and masturbation is a substitute for sex, this is because MacKinnon makes the case that men are aroused by pornography (i.e. 2D sex) in the same way they would with 3D sex as it were. MacKinnon is required to maintain this position because she does not see a real distinction between the representation or depiction of an act and the act itself. However, for Baker, this is too far and we are left questioning, “when do we stop taking MacKinnon literally?” (Baker, 1994, p1182)

As well as the above-mentioned internal criticisms of MacKinnon’s account of the harm caused by pornography being subordination we can also assess it externally. Wendy Brown objects to MacKinnon by suggesting that MacKinnon’s view of the harm caused by pornography is far too gendered, and that gender is linked far too heavy handily to sexuality. She argues that MacKinnon’s work on pornography requires that women are to be written and to be defined as parties that are only subject to injury, who are passive and where the men are always the sexually active parties, however she holds that this is problematic for the feminist agenda. (Brown, 1997). Brown is of a view that is in line with the more radical feminists who are reluctant to accept this essentialising of women as sexualised victims.

I consider that a further major difficulty with arguing for the claim that pornography is an illocutionary act that has the force of subordination comes from the work that J.L Austin has done in relation to speech and real performances, as in works of poetry or stage plays. In lecture two of How to Do Things With Words. He is of the position that performances are not examples of ordinary language; rather they are ‘hollow and trivial’ derivatives of speech proper. If this is the case then it seems that because pornography is a performance, in the sense that it is scripted, actors are paid and play people who they are not in real life then for Austin, it will fall out of the remit of performatives in the way that he considers poetry or a stage play does.

The way that Austin does this to highlight the distinction between serious and non-serious uses of language. He calls non-serious “mock assertions in fiction or the stage” (Austin, 1962, lecture two). He holds that these non-serious speech acts are beyond his consideration as they are a parasitic use of language, he makes this claim when he says that “language is not used seriously” (ibid, p21-22) and due to this, it is “hollow and void” (ibid).

If it is not language that is significant enough to be considered to have the force that a true illocutionary speech act does, then this supports Stark and Baker’s assertion that pornography cannot subordinate in itself and MacKinnon et al must recourse back to the causal argument, which they are attempting to avoid relying solely upon. Although one may be able to reply to this claim and show the impossibility of making this distinction between non-serious and serious use of language (see Derrida) I consider that it is a significant concern for the anti-porn feminist argument because they have based their strategy on the work of Austin and it is possible that Austin would not consider the pornography to have the illocutionary force of subordination that MacKinnon claims.

Aside from the discussed conceptual form of harm Stark addresses the causal harm that is apparent in MacKinnon’s work (Stark, 1997, p279). It is the position that there is a connection between exposure to pornography and misogynistic behaviour ranging from sexism to sexual assault. Evidence suggests that consuming significant volumes of violent pornography has a positive correlation with acts of aggression against women. Alisa L. Carse, with reference to Lederer’s 1980 report “Pornography: Who Is Hurt” writes:

“[…] exposure to violent pornography can significantly enhance arousal in response to the portrayal of rape, that exposure to films depicting sexual violence can act as a stimulus for aggressive acts against women, and that prolonged exposure to pornography … leads to increased callousness toward victims of sexual violence, a greater likelihood of having rape-fantasies, and a greater likelihood of reporting that one would rape women or force women into unwanted sex acts” (Carse, 1995, p164)

MacKinnon holds that there is a causal link between pornography, and sexist behaviour in the wider community. However it is not to say that the pornography causes these harms, because the argument is that pornography is the harm. As Stark notes if she were to accept the causal account of the harm, then MacKinnon would not need to necessarily show that pornography itself was the harm. Even if MacKinnon does not focus upon the harms caused by pornography, it is still an important avenue to explore – as I will need to be aware of the harms caused by pornography so I can fully present an account of pornography that does not generate these harms. Gail Dines in her book “Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality” claims that we can no longer see pornography as something that is mild titillation, rather we have a generations of young people watching “cruel, violent porn” which she maintains is linked to attitudes towards women, and that men, when having sex are angry, “when real women do not want or enjoy porn sex” (Dines, 2011). The extension of this argument is that men who watch pornography will then commit violent and or sexual crimes against women as these desires have been reinforced, created or legitimised by the societal acceptance of pornography.

Before one can assess the validity of these effects of pornography an understanding of how many people have access to it is required. Dworkin claims that the pornography industry is larger than the film and music industries combined (Dworkin, 1981 p201) although it is noted she has not referenced this statistic. The essential point that she is making is that pornography is now almost ubiquitous, due to the rise of the Internet and the ability to access the Internet on mobile phones. Even if the numbers involved may be “mythical” (Singer, 1971, p3) they are valid in the sense it is social problem like drug addiction that will not go away. It seems that if the pornography industry is a “multibillion-dollar” one then it follows that such an industry could not exist with out huge demand (Hawkins and Zimring, 1991, p53). We can accept the difficulty in figuring out how many people are watching pornography, but it is more straightforward to establish who is watching pornography and what age they are when the start watching pornography. This is the question of who sees pornography. Several sources report that boys begin watching pornography at the age of 11[1].

If it could be 100% causally established that pornography causes harm this would fulfill J. S. Mill’s harm principal and buttress efforts to restrict pornography as a form of expression. However you can dispute the empirical evidence. Further the discourse surrounding pornography is not longer simply revolving around Conservative attempts to save our society from the ills of sex verses a Liberal view that citizens are consumers and can consumer whatever they want as long as harm is not being caused. The feminist approach I have looked at undercuts this traditional Conservative/Liberal dichotomy, and attempts to provide a different reason for the harms of pornography.

This essay has presented the case that pornography subordinates women, and as such the harm is the limiting women’s abilities to access their basic civil rights and liberties. My conclusion is that pornography is not a speech act as understood by Austin and does not have the illocutionary force of subordination. This is opens the opportunity to demonstrate that the real harm of pornography is exploitation

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-randel/parenting-in-the-digital-age-of-pornography_b_9301802.html, http://www.digitalkidsinitiative.com/files/2013/02/Parent_Primer_Internet_Pornography.pdf, https://www.forbes.com/2005/11/22/internet-pornography-children-cz_sl_1123internet.html, https://www.usatoday.com/story/cybertruth/2013/05/14/childrens-online-safety-porn/2158015/?csp=fbfanpagebbc, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36527681

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s