Most mainstream pornography is targeted at heterosexual cisgendered men. Its visual focus is on women: their bodies, their behaviours. The men in mainstream pornography are largely hidden from view. The women are there to pleasure the men: they are objects to be used for sexual gratification. The usage is literal, not metaphorical: the typical consumer of pornography is trying to sexually gratify themselves while viewing it, not merely simulating sexual gratification.
This is oftentimes said to subordinate women. It identifies and labels them as inferior to men, and contributes to their systematic oppression and marginalisation within society. Let’s grant that this is possible. How exactly does this subordination work? That’s one of the questions asked in Matt Drabek’s recent article ‘Pornographic Subordination, Power and Feminist Alternatives’. There’s lots of interesting stuff in the article. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this topic. I want to focus on what I take to be its big idea: the contextual view of pornography.
(These are just my notes on the article; not a careful critical analysis.)
1. The Constitutive View vs. The Causal View
The big idea is that the subordinative effect of pornography (if and when it exists) is due to the material and social contexts in which it is produced and used, and not due to its content. I call this the ‘contextual view’. It is to be contrasted with two other views of pornography and subordination:
Constitutive View: Pornographic material is itself constitutive of female subordination, i.e. the publication and viewing of the material is itself an act of subordination.
Causal View: Pornographic material causes female subordination, i.e. those who watch and use pornography go on to subordinate women.
The constitutive view is a little bit obscure, but popular in certain feminist and philosophical quarters. It originates in the work of Catherine MacKinnon, and has been reinterpreted by philosophers like Rae Langton and Mary Kate McGowan (whose work I have written about before). These philosophical interpreters often use speech act theory to defend their views.
The central tenet of speech act theory is that words and symbols don’t simply report on how the world is; they also perform acts in the world. When a registered celebrant at a wedding says ‘I now declare you husband and wife’, they are not simply reporting a fact; they are making a fact. They are creating a marital state of affairs where none existed before.
Proponents of the constitutive theory argue that pornography does something similar. It doesn’t simply depict women in sexually explicit, possibly denigrating and degrading positions. It has performative dimensions is well. One of the more popular claims is that it serves to silence women: it creates socio-normative rules regarding how women are to behave and act. Thus the production and use of pornography is itself constitutive of subordination - not simply a cause of subordination. (If you’re interested, I wrote a much longer analysis of the constitutive view on a previous occasion).
This is to be contrasted with the causal view. This is a more straightforward, less philosophically recondite theory. It holds that the production and use of pornography causes the subordination of women. There are various different understandings of this causal link. Some argue that the men who view the pornography go on to subordinate women in their daily lives: the pornography encourages them to do so. This can often be difficult to prove. Empirical research on the effects of pornography is vast and disputed.
A slightly more sophisticated causal theory has been propounded by Anne Eaton. Several years back, Eaton wrote a paper called ‘Towards a sensible anti-porn feminism’. In it, she suggested that the causal effects of pornography are (or are likely to be) quite complex. In particular, she suggested that there is probably a set of interlocking feedback loops between broader social structures and individual acts of production and use. The idea is that the individual acts of production and use are facilitated and justified by broader social structures of oppression, and they in turn serve to reinforce and reproduce those structures (in small ways). It’s a positive feedback loop: the structures support the pornographic works which in turn support and reinforce the structures.
Although I have contrasted the constitutive and causal views here, it is important to note that they are not necessarily in tension with one another. Someone could support both at the same time. Nevertheless, they do make different claims about the subordinating powers of pornography.
2. It’s Context not Content that Matters
Drabek’s goal is to defend an alternative, contextual view, of the subordinating powers of pornography. One thing that constitutivists and causalists usually share is the belief that the content of pornography matters when it comes to its subordinative powers. That is to say, certain kinds of images and depictions of women matter more. Sexually explicit material comes in many flavours. Some of it can be artful and thought-provoking. Some can be crass, violent and degrading. The generally shared view is that it is the latter — what Eaton calls ‘inegalitarian’ pornography — that is subordinating. Indeed, there is an interesting view among some feminists — Catherine MacKinnon being probably the most famous — which holds that only pornography with inegalitarian content counts as ‘pornography’.
Drabek pushes back against this view. He argues that when it comes to pornography, it is the material and social context of its production and its use that matters. Content has very little bearing on it. This puts him somewhere between the causal and constitutive camps. In certain contexts, the use of pornography might be constitutively subordinative; in others it might be causally subordinative; in still others it might not be subordinating at all.
Drabek’s claim that content doesn’t matter much is a strong one. It seems to fly in the face of common sense. To many people it just seems obvious that some sexually explicit material has more objectionable content than other sexually explicit material and that this difference must have some bearing on its social effect. This commonsense view is taken onboard by legislatures around the world. They often create specific legal bans for pornography that depicts violence or torture, for instance.
Perhaps this is the right approach, but there is an interesting philosophical point to be made about the meaning of any image or symbolic practice. Meaning is never inherent in content. The content-maker chooses particular symbols and images because they mean something in a particular social context; and the content-user interprets those symbols in light of the meaning imposed upon them from that broader social context. And social contexts are highly variable. I have discussed, previously, how the symbolic meaning of particular images and practices changes from culture to culture. Take, for example, the meaning attached to the act of paying for someone to mourn at your parents’ funeral. In some cultures, paid mourners are an insult to the memory of the dead; in others they are an acceptable and encouraged token of affection.
Drabek takes a similar view of the content of pornography. Its meaning is highly variable and this has an impact on its subordinating powers. Some ‘plain vanilla’ pornography, for example, could be highly subordinating:
Consider a case of seemingly banal or harmless sexually explicit materials, perhaps a short video of a man and woman engaged in uneventful sexual intercourse or the banal Playboy photos mentioned by [Gail] Dines…I think banal pornography often does contribute to gender subordination when it is produced and viewed in the right social and material contexts. Adolescent boys and girls who view this material internalize and advance assumptions about the body and about sex.
Contrariwise, some pornography with seemingly offensive content could be unobjectionable:
The genre of sadomasochist pornography, in particular, is full of material that is unabashedly inegalitarian, but often careful to incorporate discussion and enactment of explicit consent and positive sexual exploration among practitioners. The eroticization of violence, humiliation, and gender inequality are common, but often done in an affirmative way.
Again, it is the context that matters. If used and interpreted in the right way, banal sexually explicit material could reinforce gender oppression and violent or humiliating material could be empowering or affirmative. What matters is how the people producing, using and consuming the pornography understand it. For example, the ubiquity and banality of certain pornographic material might be key to its subordinating powers. It might be because it is so widely used and consumed (and socially accepted) that is has a strong subordinating effect. Whereas the transgressive and uncommon nature of some pornography might be why it doesn’t have this power.
3. Conclusion: The Possibility of Feminist Pornography
Drabek uses his contextual account to argue for the possibility of truly feminist pornography (note: there already exists pornography that is classed as feminist). That is to say, sexually explicit material that does not have a subordinating effect but actually helps to reverse or breakdown sources of gender discrimination and oppression. His argument makes sense in light of the contextual account. If content doesn’t matter (or doesn’t matter that much) then it should be possible to create contexts in which pornographic materials are produced and used in a way that does not support subordination. Drabek gives some illustrations towards the end of his paper. He suggests that feminist pornography tends to have educative and political intentions and uses.
I find this idea interesting. I quite agree that context matters, but I have some resistance to the notion that content doesn’t have a significant part to play. To be clear, Drabek never says that content counts for nothing. He just says it isn’t the major driving force. What I wonder, however, is whether certain types of pornographic material have context-insensitive meanings. Or, to put it another way, whether certain social and material contexts are so widely-shared that content ends up playing a decisive role in their meaning and broader social significance.
This is something I explored in previous posts about virtual rape and virtual child sexual abuse. There, I looked at work done by Stephanie Patridge on the possibility of incorrigible social meanings. Her suggestion was that some content will have a meaning that is relatively invariant across contexts. Examples in her papers included racist jokes and images, as well as some sexually explicit material, e.g. material depicting racially motivated sexual violence or rape fantasies. The meaning attached to such content was, according to her, incorrigible (i.e. incapable of being revised or changed). Patridge’s argument was thought-provoking but in the end even she seemed to acknowledge that there were contexts in which such seemingly incorrigible meanings could be altered. For instance, somebody from a racial minority could use racist imagery to make a political point or to educate social peers. (It seems that Drabek’s vision of feminist pornography is somewhat similar.)
But Patridge refined her argument and suggested that although some people could use transgressive imagery and content in a positive way, those who used it for humour or sexual gratification could not. So if you were sexually gratified by images of rape or sexual violence, then we were probably always going to be entitled to make negative inferences about your moral character, or the character of the society that encouraged you, or the likely social effects of your being gratified. The upshot was that content and context both mattered. In some cases, the context is relatively invariant and hence the meaning that attaches to the content is also relatively invariant.
This doesn’t contradict or undermine the contextual view. It does, however, highlight an important consequence of it. If we can change the context in which pornography is produced and used, we might be able to change the meaning that attaches to its content. But if the context is difficult to change, then we may not. The reality is that the context in which pornography is consumed and used is one involving sexual gratification (Drabek accepts this in his paper). To put it bluntly: people try to get off on pornographic material. That aspect of the context is relatively invariant. Yes, sometimes pornographic material might be displayed for artistic and educative reasons, but those occasions are pretty infrequent. Given the relative fixity of the context, I suspect that the meaning attaching to particular kinds of pornographic content is also going to be relatively invariant. It will be very hard to reform the meaning (and hence the social effect) of certain sexually explicit materials. Only changes to the content will have that effect. This is what is striking to me about the S&M example given by Drabek. It’s only because that material includes, in his characterisation, documented discussions of affirmative consent and boundary-setting that it is saved from being problematic. If you stumbled upon images of women (seemingly) being tortured, raped and humiliated, and used that imagery for the purposes of sexual gratification without knowing about those discussions of affirmative consent and boundary setting, then there would be something problematic about it. The content of the material is what changes our moral perception.
In short, in some cases the context of usage is so fixed that content is the only thing that can make a difference. In those cases, content will count for a great deal.