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Published:January 11th, 2011 10:56 EST
How Do We Define Pornography?

How Do We Define Pornography?

By S. D.

In many feminist theory classes, one of the topics that is given a lot of discussion is pornography and why some liberal feminists are actually against allowing pornography in society. One of the most important articles on this subject is Whose Right?, by Rae Langton. He defines pornography as the following:

"...the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; enjoying pain or humiliation or rape; being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt; in postures of sexual submission or servility or display; reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, or torture; shown as filthy or inferior; bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context which makes these conditions sexual." (Pg. 332)

It should be noted that he goes on to say that there is a difference between pornography and erotica, in which erotica is "sexually explicit material other than that covered by the above definition." It should also be noted that he is specifically referring to pornography aimed at heterosexual males. The idea of pornography directed at lesbian or gay people is something these particular feminists don`t want to touch because it`s a sticky subject. (Though other theorists such as MacKinnon or Dworkin might say that all porn directed at anyone is bad because it still does these things to the people in question.)

Sure, if we define pornography this way, I can completely understand why making it completely illegal (for anyone of any age - that`s the goal of these particular feminists) might make some sense. It`s not only because of the people who are filming these porn videos, who shouldn`t be treating women that way. It`s also because watching this sort of thing can actually lead people to believe it`s okay to treat "real" women the same way. (Rather like allowing a child to watch violent movies and play violent video games all the time - violence which in those materials is deemed "good" and "right" - it should not be surprising if the child has violent tendencies.)

However, it is that definition that I take issue with. The basis of this argument against pornography rests on what pornography is actually defined as being. And the definition offered by Langton is not a particularly common one. Pornography has never been defined in this way. Furthermore, in defining pornography in this way, it if something is sexually explicit but doesn`t fall under this definition, it is not pornography and should not be illegal. But when we discuss pornography in the general sense, we are still attempting to make all such sexually explicit material illegal. (Imagine if we define pornography as "a terrorist action against women depicted through pictures or words." The same sort of thing would apply.)

It is certainly difficult to define the word "pornography" as completely as possible. I would argue that the best definition of pornography "sexually explicit material - in the sense that such material clearly portrays various genitals and other body parts in a light that is meant to be sexually arousing." Does that definition encompass the meaning of pornography as fully as it could? Perhaps not. Perhaps there is a better definition.

But we cannot pick and choose the meanings of our words as they are suitable to us if we are to go about making something completely illegal in a democratic way. That much is certain.