Pornography refers to the graphic depiction of human sexuality whose purpose is to sexually arouse. Such depictions have existed throughout recorded history and have crossed all cultural boundaries. However, our current understanding of pornography, at least in the West, is rooted in the Victorian Era (i.e., from 1837 to 1901), when the legal control of sexual images took on the attributes of a political and moral crusade. Prior to that period, it was more common for the law to regulate sexual acts rather than sexual depictions. Defining pornography and determining its legal status is controversial because of the moral and social claims surrounding sexuality, as well as the political importance of freedom of speech.

During the first half of the 20th century, the two extremes of the debate over pornography consisted, on the one hand, of religious opponents, who called for its prohibition on moral grounds, and, on the other hand, of supporters of freedom of speech, who demanded tolerance of pornographic materials despite the fact that they might be offensive. In the United States, free speech advocates often appealed to the 1st Amendment protections of the constitution and to the abuses of censorship that often and quickly targeted political or literary works.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s permitted pornography to enter the mainstream. Publications like Playboy were no longer sold from under the counter at a few downtown newsstands, but were displayed on the racks of corner stores. The widespread use of birth control and liberal feminism’s celebration of “the liberated woman” contributed to a period of sexual freedom, during which the line between pornography and mainstream art, especially movies, became blurred.

The rise of radical or gender feminism in the mid‐​1970s, however, gave rise to a new and different criticism of pornography. Radical feminists argued that pornography exploited women and acted as a linchpin of the dominant patriarchy—the white, male culture through which men as a class were said to oppress women as a class. In short, pornography was redefined as a tool of male oppression. The counterposition within feminism was and is that the principle “a woman’s body, a woman’s right,” also found in the debate over abortion, applies with equal force to the right of women to consume or create pornography. That position remains a minority one.

The radical feminist attack circumvented the objections to the procensorship forces based on freedom of speech by claiming that pornography had a direct cause‐​and‐​effect link with violence against women, especially rape. Its primary champions, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, maintained that pornography had no connection whatever to issues of free speech, but was in itself an act of violence and an act of sexual terrorism that must be prohibited to protect women.

This call to censor pornography due to its social consequences was not new. The definition of a pornographic magazine as an act of violence, however, was. The contention was immediately countered by women who openly worked in the pornography industry not only as actresses, but also behind the camera. They maintained that their experiences clearly indicated that engaging in pornography was freely chosen.

The radical feminist position also came under criticism for its attempt to distinguish pornography from erotica. A common dividing line between the two rests on the notion that erotica uses sexually arousing depictions primarily for artistic purposes, rather than for sexual ones. Radical feminists wished to define graphic depictions of lesbian sex and of sexual situations that empowered women as erotica. In short, they considered the political or social purposes of the depiction to be a defining factor. As Jill Ridington stated in the anthology Confronting Pornography, “If the message is one that equates sex with domination, or with the infliction of pain, or one that denies sex as a means of human communication, the message is a pornographic one.… Erotica, in contrast, portrays mutual interaction.”

This confusion in identifying what is pornography is not limited to radical feminist writing. It was famously captured in the statement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his opinion in the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): “I shall not today attempt further to define [pornography] … and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.…”

Various attempts have been made to draw lines that would allow the censorship of pornography without the suppression of nonporn. For example, procensorship crusaders in the mid‐​20th century were aware that sexual discussion was necessary to spread public awareness of important matters, such as sexually transmitted diseases. Thus, the law made an exception for graphic sexual depictions that had “socially redeeming value.” This exemption also was intended to allow the circulation of recognized works of literature, such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, although a significant portion of the novel is graphically sexual and clearly intended to arouse.

To those who argue for freedom of speech, the solution to where lines should be drawn is less complicated. There should be no legal lines that attempt to distinguish acceptable words and images from those open to censorship. Freedom to access words and images is a prerequisite to the individual’s ability to think independently. Control of words and images is a prerequisite of social control. George Orwell described the latter process in his book 1984, which described a totalitarian and dystopian future in which Newspeak severely restricted the use of words. The ultimate goal of Newspeak was to make it impossible to utter politically incorrect statements.

Some free speech advocates maintain that pornography is an unpleasant side effect of freedom and must be tolerated to ensure that other ideas and images can circulate. Others argue that pornography provides benefits to both men and women. For example, various studies have suggested that pornography may act as a catharsis, releasing sexual energy that might otherwise be expressed in violence. Other postulated benefits included the idea that pornography is a form of information that offers a panoramic view of the world’s sexual possibilities, and that pornography is a species of sexual therapy. Moreover, legitimizing pornography and other forms of sex work is seen as an important step toward protecting women engaged in these occupations.

As the debate continues, an independent factor exerting a powerful influence on both pornography and society’s acceptance of it is technology. It has been said that in the 1970s, pornography was instrumental in driving the development of the home video market. Today, pornography is available to the point of being ubiquitous on the Internet. The ultimate impact of having Internet pornography immediately, on demand, and in the privacy of one’s own home is not yet clear. A new generation may cease to consider pornography between adults to be an issue worthy of controversy. For those people who currently argue for and against censorship, the moral and political arguments may remain constant, but they also may become irrelevant.

Further Readings

Harvey, Philip D. The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, June 2001.

McElroy, Wendy. XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Stoller, Robert J. Porn: Myths for the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Strossen, Nadine. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Wendy McElroy
Originally published