We are currently updating our lesson on PORNOGRAPHY to teach more directly about liberty, harm, and care! A lot has gone on in the world of pornography and the average boy accesses porn between 11 and 12 and in 15 seconds can be introduced to what most of us would consider “hard core” and the majority of us would see as “degrading.” 

When you think of mainstream US culture, you probably don’t think of porn.

But, did you know that people in the US spend over $10 billion on porn each year?  That’s more than is spent on the NFL, NBA, and major league baseball combined!  It’s also more than people spend on buying music or going to the movies.  Major corporations have made money off porn, including General Motors, Marriott, Comcast, and Time Warner.

These statistics reflect movies, magazines, and other media that call themselves porn.

But as a society, how do we decide what exactly porn is?

  • How do we define porn vs. art?
  • What’s the difference between erotica and porn?
  • Should erotic books or novels be considered porn?
  • Could some music videos be considered porn?
  • How about Cosmo magazine?

Reading and Discussion:  John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Mill’s father was a disciple of the philosopher Bentham who brought us utilitarianism – that is, the idea that moral decisions should be made with an eye to “maximize utility.”  What does this mean?  It means that we should try to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  All people feel pleasure and pain, and any moral system should take this into account.  Bentham’s father schooled him at home and taught him Latin, Greek, history, and other advanced topics.  At the age 10, Bentham wrote a history of Roman law.  At age 20 he had a nervous breakdown.

Like Bentham, Mill believed that we should decide moral questions by looking at utility, or the usefulness, of deciding one way or another.  This concept is also called consequentialism because we look at the consequences of an act or a belief to decide if it’s good.  Mill (1867) wrote, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness…” (p. 7).  But he wasn’t interested in the quantity of pleasure that a society or an individual could get in the end; he was concerned about the quality of happiness.  And he thought people could acquire a deeper understanding of what happiness is through education and experience.  Self-development, for Mill, is one of the most important tasks of being human.

What kind of happiness ought a society strive for?  Is it up to the person or the specific society?  Mill said it was possible to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures.  Is it a higher pleasure to go to the symphony than to a baseball game?  Is it better to read a book than to watch TV?  Or is making that distinction just being snobby and elitist?  Mill (1867) said, “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, then that is the more desirable pleasure” (p. 12).  It would seem, then, that he wasn’t taking a stand on which is higher and which is lower.  But if that’s the case, why did he think that having higher pleasures made it more difficult to be happy?  Mill thought that those who have higher pleasures might be more dissatisfied in life.  That is, if all you really like to do is sit around and watch TV, it might be easier to achieve that happiness.  But he also said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied…”  (p. 14).

Here is the whole quote:

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Mill, 1867, p. 14).

So obviously Mill considered some pleasures to be “higher” than others, and sitting around watching TV probably would not be on his list of the highest pleasures.  But he didn’t think a society should compel a person to go to the symphony rather than the baseball game.  He respected the individual’s right to pursue his or her own pleasures.

Individual Freedom

In his book On Liberty, Mill argued that an individual should be able to do whatever she or he wants, as long as it doesn’t bring significant harm to anyone else.  Mill (1859) wrote:

“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 a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right” (p. 12).

His argument was that a society that protects and respects individual liberty will support individuals’ own reasoning about moral questions and thereby help people to realize their potential based on their own interests.

Mill also argued for “free speech” or “freedom of expression.”  He believed that only by hearing a “collision of truths” do we ever come to know the real truth.  Humankind is imperfect and there will be a lot of opinions about what’s good and bad, right and wrong.  So, freedom should be given to a lot of different characters and points of view, as long as doing so doesn’t harm anyone.

Discussion: Pornography and Harm

Pornography comes from Greek roots: porno meaning “prostitute” and graphy meaning “to write.”  If you think about it, women in porn are treated as sexual servicers, like prostitutes, and so the term makes sense.

Common arguments in favor of porn are: a) it is harmless; b) we shouldn’t interfere with what people do or look at in the privacy of their own bedrooms; c) while it might be a “lower” pleasure, who are we to say how someone should or shouldn’t get their kicks?; and, d) porn is free speech, one of the most important principles of a democracy and we should be very careful before restricting it.

Arguments that are anti-porn rely on the principle of harm, and this is a principle laid out by Mill (1859) in On Liberty:  “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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” (p. 12).

First think of the argument that we should NEVER restrict free speech, and that porn is a form of free speech.  Mill’s view of liberty is one of the principles upon which our democracy is based, and it is a view that we hold dear.  It is for this reason that the argument for ever restricting someone’s free speech has to do with harm.  Legally we restrict free speech in certain cases.  A person is not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre if there is no fire (and it might not be a good strategy for getting people out of the theatre even if there was one).  And a person is not permitted to say untrue things about another person publicly in a way that damages his or her reputation. That’s slander.  These are both examples of ways in which we restrict free speech to prevent harm.

Given what you have just read about Mill, do you think he would allow porn in society?  See if your opinion changes throughout the chapter.

Does Pornography Cause Harm?

Do you remember the only rationale that Mill believed would justify state interference with a person’s choices? Many anti-porn arguments rely on the principle of harm that Mill explained in On Liberty.

While Mill’s view of liberty is one that underlies our democracy, the argument for restricting free speech usually has to do with harm.  As we just read, we restrict free speech in certain cases to prevent harm.

Our daily activities such as reading books or watching TV, plays, art or looking at pictures all affect the way we understand and interpret our surroundings (Eaton, 2007).  The argument based on harm, as laid out by the philosopher Eaton, states that porn may “train” people that girls and women are inferior to boys and men.
Some other points in this argument are:

  • Our society still has gender inequality in which women suffer many disadvantages compared to men, and this is a grave injustice.
  • The subordination of women is sustained and reproduced by a number of social factors such as socialization, violence, household division of labor, and influences from the media
  • Aspects of gender inequality have erotic appeal for many people, but the erotic appeal of unequal relations is not inevitable; rather, it is fostered by many kinds of representations, from fashion magazines to high art
  • Eroticizing gender inequality is a particularly effective mechanism for promoting and sustaining it; transforming it into a source of sexual gratification makes it easier to accept and enjoyable
  • This kind of pleasure is one in which humans are intensely invested
  • This eroticization makes gender inequality appealing to both men  and women alike; in effect, it enlists our sexual desires in favor of sexism
  • Porn eroticizes the mechanisms, norms, myths, and trappings of gender inequality and thus combines subordination with pleasure
  • By depicting women deriving sexual pleasure from a range of inegalitarian relations and situations, from being passive objects of conquest (as in romance novels as well as porn) to scenarios of humiliation, degradation, and sexual abuse, women are represented in situations of subordination in a manner aimed to sexually arouse

So, by connecting representations of women’s subordination to pleasure, porn is especially effective at getting its audience to internalize inegalitarian views.

While research has never shown that viewing porn causes men to rape or even to mistreat their girlfriends, this argument may be convincing to show that porn is a particularly effective way to get men as well as women to support relationships in which men dominate women.

Porn is often framed through a gendered lens (i.e. how porn shows mens versus women), but is gender the only type of hierarchy that porn can be said to eroticize?  Many sociologists and feminists also consider other types of oppression that porn depicts.  Patricia Hill Collins (2000), for example, speaks on the difference between the portrayal of white women and women of color in pornography:

“Contemporary portrayals of Black women in pornography represent the continuation of the historical treatment of their actual bodies. African-American women are usually depicted in a situation of bondage and slavery, typically in a submissive posture, and often with two white men… White women and women of color have different pornographic images applied to them. The image of Black women in pornography is almost consistently one featuring them breaking from chains. The image of Asian women in pornography is almost consistently one of being tortured” (p. 169).

Collins also discusses the idea that white women are portrayed as objects while black women are shown as animals.  She introduces this idea with a quote from Alice Walker (1980, as cited in Collins, 2000): “Where white women are depicted in pornography as ‘objects,’ black women are depicted as animals.  Where white women are depicted as human bodies if not beings, black women are depicted as shit (p. 170).”  Collins goes on to say, “[The] distinction between “objects” and “animals” is crucial to untangling gender, race, and class dynamics in pornography” (p. 170).  Because white women are portrayed as cultural objects and black women are not, black women are seen as less valuable and more exploitable.  Therefore, Collins concludes, “Race becomes the distinguishing feature in determining the type of objectification women will encounter.  Whiteness as symbolic of both civilization and culture is used to separate objects from animals” (171).

Reading and Discussion: In Defense of Porn as Free Speech

Many pro-porn arguments build on Mills’ ideas about individual liberties.  These arguments often assert the following:

  • Porn is harmless
  • We shouldn’t interfere with what people do or look at in the privacy of their own bedrooms
  • While it might be a “lower” pleasure, who are we to say how someone should or shouldn’t get their kicks?
  • Porn is free speech, one of the most important principles of a democracy, and we should be very careful about restricting it

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a national organization whose slogan is “Because freedom can’t protect itself.”  The ACLU works to protect individual rights and liberties as they are laid out in the Bill of Rights and U.S. laws.  Consider the arguments of their president, Nadine Strossen, against censorship of pornography, from “Nadine Strossen: ‘I find the pro-censorship feminists politically naïve.’”

Q: So you oppose the antipornography feminists tactically and substantively?

Strossen: Right. And more than that, I do not see all pornography as conveying unmitigatedly misogynistic messages.

Q: You look at it yourself sometimes?

Strossen: I do. I find some of it physically beautiful, the way one might find paintings of nudes physically beautiful.

You know, what you see in a particular image is so subjective. Take the kind of image that feminists might find objectionable – an image that might convey a woman being raped, a woman not involved in voluntary sexual activity. If you read Nancy Friday’s books of sexual fantasies reported by thousands of women, she says a significant theme is women being turned on by images of rape-not real rapes, of course. The way she explains it is that in a society where many women still believe it is bad for them to voluntarily want sex, these images are acceptable to them.

Obviously, I’m not going to defend the actual rape of a real woman for the purpose of creating a pornographic picture. But many supporters of MacKinnon and Dworkin do not just say that pornography causes rape, but that it is rape.

Q: The antipomography feminists would say that your ideas on sexual literature are the end product of your oppression as a woman.

Strossen: I find that deeply insulting. That, to me, is degrading and dehumanizing. It’s saying, “You are less than a human being. Your feelings are not really your own, your ideas are not really your own-and your body is not really your own.” Well, what’s left?

Reading and Discussion: By Allowing Porn, Could We Be Restricting Free Speech?

Catherine MacKinnon (1989) argues for the censorship of pornography on the grounds of free speech. Consider what this legal scholar has to say about pornography from the perspective of protecting the free speech of women and other oppressed people:

“Possession and use of women through the sexualization of intimate intrusion and access to them is a central feature of women’s social definition as inferior and feminine… In contemporary industrial society, pornography is an industry that mass produces sexual intrusion on, access to, possession and use of women by and for men for profit. It exploits women’s sexual and economic inequality for gain. It sells women to men as and for sex. It is a technologically sophisticated traffic in women.

This understanding of the reality of pornography… must contend with a legal tradition of neutralization through abstraction from the realities of power, a tradition that has authoritatively defined pornography as not about women as such at all, but about sex… Uncovering gender in this area of law reveals women to be most invisible when most exposed and most silent when used in defense of speech. In both pornography and the law of obscenity, women are seen only as sex and heard only when mouthing a sexual script” (pp. 195-196).

“In liberalism, speech must never be sacrificed for other social goals. But liberalism has never understood this reality of pornography: the free so-called speech of men silences the free speech of women… First, women do not simply have freedom of speech on a social level. The most basic assumption underlying First Amendment adjudication [law] is that, socially, speech is free… This tends to presuppose that whole segments of the population are not systematically silenced socially prior to government action. Second, the law of the First Amendment comprehends that freedom of expression, in the abstract, is a system but fails to comprehend that sexism (and racism), in the concrete, are also systems. As a result, it cannot grasp that the speech of some silences the speech of others in a way that is not simply a matter of competition for airtime” (pp. 205-206).


  1. According to MacKinnon, whose free speech is protected when pornography is allowed?  Whose free speech isn’t protected?
  2. What parts of her argument do you agree with?  What parts do you disagree with?
  3. If you think that pornography restricts free speech of oppressed people, what should the solution be?
  4. In society today, do you think everybody experiences the right to free speech equally?

 The Making of Porn: Is it Ethical?

Why do some people believe that the making of pornography is unethical?  Reasons include:

  • Sexual exploitation, especially of economically and racially oppressed women
  • Rape in the making of porn
  • Poor working conditions or pay
  • Payment in exchange for sex is always unethical

It’s interesting to consider these arguments in light of the fact that prostitution is illegal.  What is the difference between prostitution and porn that makes porn legal?

The following article criticizes the making of porn because of the exploitation of porn workers.  While you read this article, think about whether the way porn is made today is ethical or unethical.

From ABC News: Porn Profits: Corporate America’s Secret

Disability and Porn: Progress or Exploitation?

Does our society think of disabled people as sexual?

Read the following excerpts from “Is Sex for the Disabled the Last Taboo?” by Helen Croydon.  (Note: You must log in to view this article.)

http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/relationships/ article6912760.ece

  • With sex for the disabled arguably being a taboo in our society, how do we evaluate porn with disabled people in it?
  • Is porn with disabled people exploitative and dehumanizing? Or does it have a positive impact by teaching that disabled people are sexual too?

Consider the viewpoints expressed by the following bloggers.


Remember the arguments for free speech, against harm, for protecting rights, and against oppression in porn. Considering these arguments and the opinions expressed above…

  • Do you think that porn with disabled people is a positive force?
  • Do you think that this porn could be improved?
  • How is your opinion on porn with disabled people similar or different to your opinions about how women or people of color are represented in pornography?

Reading and Discussion: Pornography and Insensitivity

Clifford Orwin (1996) asserts, “The final pitfall of the new abundance of televised suffering is also the most ironic.  It is the danger that constant exposure to such suffering will not sensitize us but inure us to it” (p. 49).

There are studies in which psychologists have exposed college-aged men to violent porn over a period of time.  They compared these men to others who were shown something else.  Then they looked at the effects.  It was true that those men who were exposed to the violent porn became less caring about rape victims.

Consider the following article from the Washington Post: Porn, Violence, Free Speech, the KGB, Google, and the Democrats

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you buy the argument, based on exposure to violent porn, that porn in general causes insensitivity to women and to the harms caused by rape?
  2. In 2009 The NY Historical Society showed photographs taken of Blacks who were lynched in the U.S.  Brent Staples wrote of the photographs that the images of people suffering had a numbing effect and even normalized them.  By looking at so many in a row we become desensitized and they lose their shocking effect.
  3. Given much of the porn today is created to be a male fantasy of what women desire or how women might really enjoy sex, does it cause harm to boys and men who then develop distorted views?  And to their relationships with girls and women in the future?  Is it training in insensitivity?
  4. Now consider Silverberg’s questions:
    1. Question: How do we hold Google, Yahoo and the other billion-dollar facilitators pimping for the global brutalizes to account? (We know what some of these corporate “defenders of free speech” really believe given their past multinational helpfulness to the Chinese government in oppressing political free speech.)
    2. Question: How do we protect art, sexual pleasure — including good-old-erotica — and free speech without turning our children into the sorts of people who would have done fine in the old KGB but may not be what we want tomorrow as neighbors? I don’t have the answers. Suggestions?

Obscenity & Child Pornography

Obscenity (federal constitutional law).  Believe it or not, there isn’t a law in our country about “pornography”.  The word used is “obscenity,” and the law goes back to 1973.

In Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the Supreme Court set out a three-prong test for obscenity.  It inquired whether…

  1. “‘the average person applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest”;
  2. it “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law”; and
  3. “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

There’s another law that tells us what’s illegal with regard to minors (that’s a U.S. Law).

In Ginsberg v. NY, 390 U.S. 629 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state regulations “adjusting” the definition of obscenity for minors.  The NY statute upheld by the Court contained the following terms:

  1. “Harmful to minors” means that quality of any description or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, when it:
    1. predominantly appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors, and
    2. is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors, and
    3. is utterly without redeeming social importance for minors.

Child pornography, which is a federal statute, is a different matter.  This law specifies what a minor is and outlines all of the kinds of sexual conduct that would be considered pornographic (UCLA, 1999).  The law describes all of the forms that pornography can take; it can be a photograph or data stored on a disk, but it can also be any visual depiction that has been created, adapted, or modified to show an identifiable minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.  The “identifiable minor” part means that cartoons don’t count.  Identifiable means that it looks like it was based on an actual person even though no proof of the actual identity needs to be given.

Read the following article by Sara Rimer: Obscenity or Art?  Trial on Rap Lyrics Opens

Discussion: Obscenity Laws

  1. According to the law, something is deemed obscene or not obscene by “the average person applying contemporary standards.”  What are the problems with this?  How does this tie into the article you just read?
  2. An item needs to have “serious artistic or political” value to not be considered obscene.  Well, Larry Flynt, in the 1970’s fought for what he saw as his right to publish porn, believing politically that he was freeing the public up from their sexual inhibitions and thus making a more peaceful world.  How do we decide what’s seriously artistic, literary, scientific, or political?
  3. Where do you think lyrics fit in to having “serious artistic or political” value?
  4. In 2004, at the end of a Super Bowl half time show, Janet Jackson, performing with Justin Timberlake, had what was later called a “wardrobe malfunction.”  Justin tore at the top of her outfit and her nipple was revealed on national television.  She later said that neither CBS nor MTV knew that they had planned this and she didn’t mean it to reveal that much!  What are your thoughts on this situation?

Activity: Mock Trials

Students will play the roles of prosecutors (two), defense attorneys (two), expert witnesses (one for each side), and a six person jury.  There are a number of trials that will take place and each will have a different jury.  Each student in class will have one chance to present an important argument.  Students will be broken up into groups of three (two lawyers and one expert witness) to prepare in class one day, and have the trial the next day.

The trial’s subject is as follows:

  1. possession of allegedly obscene child pornography on a personal home computer.
  2. the singing of vile and obscene lyrics at a concert open to the public, including girls dancing in the background using allegedly obscene moves
  3. Julie Jenkins, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Westport, Conn., said she had simply wanted to e-mail her husband.  The authorities contend that she was—purposely or, perhaps, carelessly—exposing 11- and 12-year-old students to pornography rather than teaching them English.  She has insisted on her innocence, refusing to accept a plea bargain that would have allowed her to walk free.  She portrays herself as a hapless technophobe who was too clueless to unplug a wayward computer.

The teacher will serve as judge and give time for the jury to meet after each presentation.

Each side chooses an expert (who could be a clinical psychiatrist from a prominent university, person from the Department of Justice child porn unit, famous art critic. etc.).  Before class, the experts and lawyers should turn in a bibliography of readings they used to support their case.


ABC News. (2004).  Porn profits: Corporate America’s secret. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=132370&page=1&singlePage=true

Collins, P. H. (2000).  Black feminist thought.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Dreifus, C. (1994).  Nadine Strossen: ‘I find the pro-censorship feminists politically naïve.’- Interview.  Business Library.  Retrieved June 16, 2011 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1295/is_n3_v58/ ai_14874584/pg_2/?tag=content;col1.

Ginsberg v. NY, 390 U.S. 629 (1968).  Retrieved June 23 from http://www.csustan.edu/cj/jjustice/CaseFiles/Ginsberg-v-New-York.pdf

MacKinnon, C. A. (1989).  Toward a feminist theory of state.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mill, J. S. (1867).  Utilitarianism (4th Ed.).  London, UK: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.

Mill, J. S. (1859).  On liberty.  USA: Megalodon Entertainment, LLC.

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).  Retrieved June 23 from http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=287180442152313659 &q=miller+v.+california+%27the+average+person+applying +contemporary&hl=en&as_sdt=2,22&as_vis=1

The Dancing Queen (2006).  Disability porn: The observer.
Olson, K. (2006).  Disability and porn. The Gimp Parade.  Retrieved July 17 from

Orwin, C. (1996).  Distant compassion: CNN and borioboola gha.  The National Interest.  Retrieved July 18, 2011 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2751/is_n43/ai_18298479/pg_5/

Rimer, S. (1990).  Obscenity or art?  Trial on rap lyrics opens.  From The New York Times.  Retrieved July 19, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/17/us/obscenity-or-art-trial-on-rap-lyrics-opens.html?scp=16&sq=obscenity&st=cse&pagewanted=all

Schaeffer, F. (2007).  Porn, violence, free speech, the KGB, Google, and the Democrats.  From The Huffington Post.  Retrieved July 19, 2011 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/porn-violence-free-speech_b_72902.html

Silverberg, C. (2006).  Adult film offers a good opportunity to talk about sex and disability.  About.com

Sexuality.  Retrieved June 23 from http://sexuality.about.com/b/ 2006/06/28/the-disability-activist-and-the-porn-producer.htm

UCLA, (1999).  Obscenity and child pornography.  Retrieved June 23 from http://legacy.gseis.ucla.edu/iclp/ocp.htm

Watson, L. (2007).  Pornography and public reason.  Social Theory and Practice, 33(3), 467-488.

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