Discussing Media Ethics: Why We Need to Ban Inegalitarian Pornography.
By Abby Tattle
Humans are visual creatures who make sense of their world primarily through the power of sight. Therefore, although entertainment media merely imitates reality in its storytelling, these simulations hold immense power in their ability to influence and construct social norms, since they reflect such a familiarity. Since this is the case, the persistence of unethical media, such as child or inegalitarian pornography, causes substantial social harm. In the case of inegalitarian pornography specifically, most of the harms are inflicted upon the female gender. However, the intention here is not to criticize all erotic images. Rather, this essay works to critique and denounce pornographic content which promotes inegalitarian values and sexual discrimination.
The harm which is caused by the production and distribution of inegalitarian pornography is undeniable when considering the parallels between this genre and child pornography. Both inflict psychical and psychological harms on their often unwilling participants. Similarly, inegalitarian pornography blurs lines of consent, as many actress’ are often coerced into these sexual scenes. Additionally, these films depict discriminatory power dynamics, where men dominate the supposedly subordinate woman. Much worse, these scenes can become violent and even glorify rape. This positioning only prolongs conservative, misogynistic ideals to susceptible audiences. Therefore, there should be a push to outlaw all inegalitarian pornography in the same way which child pornography is censored and condemned. Many would argue that there is a moral duty to protect the public from social harm. Therefore, if this genre of pornography is sustaining harm on the physical, psychological, and social levels, such that the harms created by consumption are greater than the setbacks which might be caused by censorship, than it should be forbidden. The porn industry should purge its outdated, harmful, heteronormative depictions of gender, which hold the potential to lead to dangerous consequences including perpetuating misogyny and encouraging rape culture.
As a feminist, I maintain the stance that not all sexually explicit images are necessarily harmful or objectifying. In fact, I believe that erotica should belong in art as a form of healthy appreciation and catharsis. Additionally, some pornographic content has empowered marginalized groups, including porn films which represent those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community, or adult films directed by women which work to correct gender inequality. Also, it can be argued that more aggressive pornographic films which include BDSM or other radical fetishes, provide a safe space for cathartic release so that these practices will not occur in real time. Since the category is difficult to define, throughout this paper, inegalitarian pornography shall be expressed through Professor A. W Eaton’s definition, “inegalitarian pornography: sexually explicit representations that as a whole eroticize relations (acts, scenarios, or postures) characterized by gender inequity” (167). Eaton’s analytical framework emphasizes how this style of pornography incites harm by depicting unfair and unequal gender power as “desirable”.
Pornography, as a whole, is also challenging to define and categorize. This is especially true in a digitally advancing world, where images are easily accessible, traceable, and circulated through the Internet. Additionally, the emergence of this digital medium encompasses both photographs and animation, which has greatly expanded traditional parameters of what constitutes as pornography. In Professor and philosopher Brabandt and Prinz’s work, “Why do Porn Films Suck?”, the pair evaluate if pornographic films can be considered an art form. Many intellectuals have argued that they cannot, since these films are mass produced for purposes of sexual gratification and profit. Yet, Brabandt and Prinz underscore the paradox of this media, noting how many adult films are constructed with aesthetic storytelling qualities. However, contemporary culture appears to conclude that this media is often more obscene than it is artistic, and also that it does not have the best reputation in terms of ethicality. Many perceive sexually explicit content as threatening to social order. Also, pornography, especially of violent and radical fetishes, is frequently associated with the black market. Additionally, the industry sees a great deal of nasty blackmail, especially within production.
Current regulations concerning pornography assumed their foundations from the efforts of Congress to employ censorship during the era of “public interest and the Net” (US Legal). Opponents of this regulation argued that content of this nature should be protected under the right to free speech. However, Congress refuted this by attempting to pass several decency and protection acts in the late 1990s. Yet, all of these bills were challenged by the Supreme Court on the grounds of the First Amendment, and ultimately fell through. Overall, most of these attempts were regarded as threatening, unnecessary federal control. Therefore, the only modern, universally accepted censorship, at both the state and federal level, concerning pornography, directly addresses child pornography. During the 1990s, Congress began to tackle the problem of the growing market of online child pornography. First, the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 was created to stiffen existing federal laws, and to address the new technological issues which the Internet introduced. This act made it illegal to possess, sell, receive, send, or transmit child pornography via the Internet, and specifically, over email. Finally, the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998 was passed to further secure anti-child porn provisions (US Legal). This legislation was justified under the evidence that this type of pornography is incredibly psychologically damaging and harmful to its participants. Additionally, child pornography involves minors who cannot consent to their participation. Ultimately, if there are other genres or styles of pornography which are causing similar significant harms, to workers who have not provided full consent, then these images should also be outlawed. Therefore, it can be argued that inegalitarian pornography should be banned and condemned just like child pornography.
Professor Eaton provides the strongest support to ban inegalitarian pornography in her work, “A Sensible Antiporn Feminist”, by eloquently emphasizing how, “pornography poses a threat to women’s interests by making inegalitarian treatment seem desirable” (168). Eaton’s argument does not intend to attack all pornographic images, but rather highlights the ethical problems within this specific style. She clarifies how, “Some antiporn feminists construe the term so broadly as to encompass all forms and genres. This position has been justly criticized for ignoring the often liberatory power dynamics that characterize much gay and lesbian pornography, S/M (sadomasochistic) pornography, and pornography made by and for women” (168). Her opinion seemingly understands those who argue for the catharsis in representing unconventional values or content in storytelling. She believes that the depiction of varied types of intense pornographic fantasy are necessary in order for healthy expression and liberation, even if this means including non-conservative or eccentric sexual images, like bondage or homosexual coitus. However, Eaton emphasizes how the subset of pornography which glorifies unethical action, such as rape or domestic violence, is incredibly problematic. When pornographic violence is marketed such that it worships a misogynistic condition rather than lust, then there is a significant problem worthy of reevaluation. Eaton stresses the obstacle which inegalitarian pornography incites against the feminist plight since, “Like gender inequality itself, the erotic appeal of unequal relations between the sexes is not inevitable, regardless of whether it is natural. Rather, this particular form of sexual desire is fostered by various kinds of representations, from fashion magazines to high art”, she notes how these media messages are, “a particularly effective mechanism for promoting and sustaining [gender inequality]” (168).
Eaton’s argument against inegalitarian pornography refer to consequentialist theories concerning emulation. Proponents of “The Emulation Argument” emphasize the susceptible nature of the human brain. Empirical evidence concerning violent media content and aggression reveals that after a period of routine consumption, audiences will begin to emulate the aggressive attitudes and behavior depicted onscreen. However, this process is often subconscious because emulation is an internalized way of learning. Therefore, routine viewing of pornography which glorifies inegalitarian conduct may begin to influence those who watch the content. Eaton highlights how these works only further normalize the “rape culture” which is allowed under the continuation of gender inequality in contemporary societies. In other words, allowing pornography of this nature is no different than victim blaming in rape cases. The fact that a woman may still be shamed for “enabling the rapist”, perhaps, by wearing a “mini-skirt” during the time of the attack, uncovers the ridiculous gender discrimination and bias which is rooted within the core of society. As a society, we have a tendency to penalize women rather than punish men, which only exposes the epidemic of modern gender inequity. Eaton’s framework makes an effort to emphasize the problematic nature of our habits, by noting how, “Sexism is not an all-or-none phenomenon but rather exists on a continuum of severity. Sexual assault is an example of a severe injury that is accomplished through a single, isolable act”. Ultimately, by allowing these disturbing, discriminatory images, we are enabling and validating misogyny and gender inequality, which only preserves patriarchal society.
Additionally, Eaton accentuates how this genre is not only damaging to society as a whole, but also how it causes individual harm to the women who are involved in the porn industry. She writes, “the harms can be physical or psychological or both. Third, there are degrees of interference with women’s interests, from mild interference to complete impairment” (168). Eaton insinuates the mistreatment of the women in the porn industry. Although there are a substantial amount of actors/actresses who willingly participate and consent to acting in pornographic films, the industry has gained a negative reputation throughout history, with instances where certain actresses have been roped into contracts which involve sexual coercion and involuntary participation in certain sexual acts. Often times, these women become stuck working on films, especially if they lack a college degree, and this unfavorable career becomes their only source of income. Blackmail of this nature is not only psychologically traumatic, but if an actress does not fully consent to violent pornographic storytelling (including scenes that depict “rape porn”), than she may suffer physical injuries. Additionally, Eaton highlights how women’s “interests” can be set back. Consider how having “Adult Film Actress” on a resume would be received in the contemporary job market. Individuals who start in the porn industry may struggle to find a “reputable” career following their time working in pornography. Ultimately, inegalitarian pornography is not only problematic because it encourages the persistence of unethical behavior and values misogyny in society, but because it can also instigate individual psychological and physical harms to the woman who participate in the production of this content.
Eaton’s main claim here is that consumption of this kind of pornography has harmful consequences. Her call to take action against inegalitarian pornography is justified under John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle”. The father of utilitarianism once stated that, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant”. Ultimately, the Harm Principle provides sufficient reason to undercut practices of contemporary liberal-democratic societies, including the freedom of speech. If inegalitarian pornography is causing such harm to women, by setting their interests back, and perpetuating non-progressive thinking which supports malicious misogyny, rape, and domestic violence, then certainly something should be done to end the persistence of this unethical behavior. However, this would mean censoring entire categories of pornography, which might interfere with the creator’s right to “free speech” and limits “creativity” in their work.
However, the normative ethical theory which provides the strongest support for the call to ban inegalitarian pornography lies in Kantian deontology. Deontology, or the study of “duty”, does not focus on the consequences of actions but rather attempts to understand morality in terms of obligation. In this case, the “right thing to do” may have challenging, or significant social repercussions. However, the action is justified because of its moral intention. Philosopher and professor Immanuel Kant introduced the Principle of Humanity which entails that you, “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” In other words, we have the universalized responsibility as autonomous agents to respect one another, and this means that we should never be using someone for our own selfish gain. Kant maintains clear opposition against objectification, which is exactly what Eaton is concerned about in her arguments against inegalitarian pornography. In a majority of pornographic content, women’s bodies are exploited as objects for male pleasure. The female is used as a means to an end, or as an object or prop leading to a man’s sexual gratification. All the while, depicting her as far less competent than her supposedly superior counterpart. Additionally, the consumer of the pornographic content is also participating in using the actors/actresses for selfish purposes of their own sexual gratification.
Although the evidence revealing the harmful nature of this genre is substantial, there are still several counterarguments against the call to ban this content which are worthy of examination. Perhaps the strongest are those which are made against the paternalistic nature of restriction. Though sexual coercion and blackmail are familiar within production in the porn industry, a decent amount of actresses willingly participate in the making of inegalitarian adult films. For instance, Belle Knox, a young adult film actress, describes her experience, “For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy... It is my artistic outlet: my love, my happiness, my home. I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality”. If humans are autonomous beings (and autonomy is one of the core values of Kantian deontology) then by what authority are we attempting to restrict or limit another individual’s right to participate in a career, which although ethically questionable, generates a sense of happiness and liberation? This is why egalitarian eroticism should and must persist in art, but the gender inequity valued and encouraged by these films needs to change. Belle Knox emphasizes the issue of radical anti-porn “feminists” neglecting to understand the empowering nature of reclaiming female sexuality in pornography, “To the anti-pornography feminists out there: I very much respect your opinion. Nevertheless, I want you to consider how you marginalize a group of women by condemning their actions. Consider that when you demean women for participating in sex work, you are demeaning THEM, and consequently, YOU become the problem.” Additionally, censorship poses the issue of reducing the citizen’s voice and negating free speech. Some liberals believe that maintaining the right to freedom of speech, triumphs any negative consequences which arise from the misuse and breadth of this liberty. They believe that a society without completely unrestricted speech becomes a dangerous one. It is in their opinion that the First Amendment was created to be maintained without exception.
Therefore, radical demands for the prohibition of all pornographic content are simply not the noblest solution. This essay attempts to make a strong case for the need to censor inegalitarian pornography-- not pornographic content as a whole. While liberals may argue that no one should possess the authority to make belittling decisions on behalf of others, who feel empowered by this discriminatory genre, or might highlight the issues of restricting free speech, the Consequentialist Harm Principle, and Kantian Principle of Humanity, provide sturdy push back against these counterarguments. Although these two categories of normative thought are usually supposed to be conflicting, each provides a theory which would determine that the psychological and physical harms generated by the consumption and production of this genre, outweigh potential penalties of censorship. Additionally, evaluations of the effects of consuming this genre of pornography deduce how it instigates and permits misogyny and gender discrimination on a social level. Therefore, inegalitarian pornography, which abuses and mistreats its female participants, and interferes with morality of all of society, should be banned and criminalized the same way which child pornography is. This content is undeniably problematic and unethical, and action should be taken to remove this media from circulation.
Brabant, Pentra Van, and Jesse Prinz. Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Eaton, A.W. A Sensible Antiporn Feminism. 2007.
Fordyce, Charles. College Ethics (Belle Knox Case). 1908.
US Legal, Inc. “Pornography.” Internet Law, internetlaw.uslegal.com/pornography/.