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…intimate levels of experience…

Luno is clearly willing to accept the condemnation of pornography expressed in Longino’s article, indeed, the rightness of the censure he finds rather overdetermined. But the condemnation is a condemnation of something much more than many feminists and their critics, alike, seem willing to admit.

—Editor’s note


Notes on:
Longino, Helen E. “Pornography, Oppression, Freedom: A Closer Look”.


The detachment of sexual chastity from moral virtue implies that we cannot condemn forms of sexual behavior merely because they strike us as distasteful or subversive of the Protestant work ethic, or because they depart from standards of behavior we have individually adopted. It has thus seemed to imply that no matter how offensive we might find pornography, we must tolerate it in the name of freedom from illegitimate repression. I wish to argue that this is not so, that pornography is immoral because it is harmful to people.

because it demeans and objectifies,

I define pornography as verbal or pictorial explicit representations of sexual behavior that, in the words of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, have as a distinguishing characteristic “the demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female…as a mere sexual object to be exploited and manipulated sexually”

because it degrades the personhood or humanity of,

What makes a work a work of pornography, then, is not simply its representation of degrading and abusive sexual encounters, but its implicit, if not explicit, approval and recommendation of sexual behavior that is immoral, i.e., that physically or psychologically violates the personhood of one of the participants…. Finally, that a person has chosen or consented to be harmed, abused, or subjected to coercion does not alter the degrading character of such behavior.

Pornography communicates its endorsement of the behavior it represents by various features of the pornographic context: the degradation of female characters is represented as providing pleasure to the participant males and, even worse, to the participant females, and there is no suggestion that this sort of treatment of others is inappropriate to their status as human beings.

endorses degradation,

…Pornography is not just the explicit representation or description of sexual behavior, nor even the explicit representation or description of sexual behavior which is degrading and/or abusive to women. Rather, it is material that explicitly represents or describes degrading and abusive sexual behavior so as to endorse and/or recommend the behavior as described. The contextual features, moreover, which communicate such endorsement are intrinsic to the material; that is, they are features whose removal or alteration would change the representation or description.

endorses sexual servitude,

Pornography lies when it says that our sexual life is or ought to be subordinate to the service of men, that our pleasure consists in pleasing men and not ourselves, that we are depraved, that we are fit subjects for rape, bondage, torture, and murder….

Moreover, since nothing is alleged to justify the treatment of the female characters of pornography save their womanhood, pornography depicts all women as fit objects of violence by virtue of their sex alone.

perniciously influences even non-participants,

…Thus, even men who do not frequent pornographic shops and movie houses are supported in the sexist objectification of women by their environment. Women, too, are crippled by internalizing as self-images those that are presented to us by pornographers.

and reinforces inequality.

It is, moreover, to deny our equality at one of the most intimate levels of human experience. This denial is especially powerful in a hierarchical, class society such as ours, in which individuals feel good about themselves by feeling superior to others. Men in our society have a vested interest in maintaining their belief in the inferiority of the (333) female sex, so that no matter how oppressed and exploited by the society in which they live and work, they can feel that they are at least superior to someone or some category of individuals—a woman or women. Pornography, by presenting women as wanton, depraved, and made for the sexual use of men, caters directly to that interest.

To sum up:

1. Pornography, especially violent pornography, is implicated in the committing of crimes of violence against women.
2. Pornography is the vehicle for the dissemination of a deep and vicious lie about woman. It is defamatory and libelous.
3. The diffusion of such a distorted view of women’s nature in our society as it exists today supports sexist (i.e., male-centered) attitudes, and thus reinforces the oppression and exploitation of women.


Longino is careful to define pornography in a way that makes its censure distinguishable from mere prudishness or philistinism. The offending trait of pornographic depiction is that it, when it does not implicitly or explicitly disavow the presumption as in perhaps superficially similar artistic depictions, degrades women and endorses the degradation. (Actually, perhaps, much that excuses itself through artistic license is also pornographic. There is no reason a work may not have both great artistic value and be pornographic, and the latter in the most disturbing sense. Art, I fear, can well operate independently of morality. Those who insist a line can be drawn are being naïve or pragmatic, or the former because of the latter.) The damage is physical, psychological and social. It is not morally defensible.

We can agree it is indeed not. But the problem is that the pornographic taste in men is much more deeply embedded in the male character than Longino seems ready to acknowledge—though she is scarcely alone. Male sexuality is concentrated in the visual or the visually evocative to a degree inexperienceable by women, whose erotic impulses are more diffused throughout every sense and every surface… Pointing this out does not excuse the objectification of women or the gutting of their subjectivity. It may, however, help explain male ambivalence to sexuality, his feeling of the wrongness or “sin” of sex. We do not mean here certain religious attitudes exclusively. (Though these are, no doubt, related.) More primal than any such attitude is his existential alienation from material existence: his feeling of enslavement to it, his longing for power over it, his resentment of woman for her relative identification with it, his inability either to share her intimacy with it or to completely disown it in death. She is constant reminder to him of what he is not, and can never be… Thus he will pervert this world and the chief symbol of it in his life if he cannot feel himself fully a part of it and has not the courage to excuse himself from it. He will make it the object of his will. He will make rules concerning it and then plot to break them. Sex will be better—less a reminder of his incapacity—when it is stolen. It is best stolen when taken from those that can be demeaned and made to seem and feel worthy of it. Thus, pornography. Looked at in the context of his other pastimes—literal violence and war—this form his essential criminality takes may seem less depraved.

If we could ban pornography—I mean really ban it in a way that has never happened before: we do not mean merely making it more enticingly hard to get, which is what has usually been accomplished by attempts—men would devise new ways to objectify women. (“Statutory rape” is more than a labeled crime; it has become its own category of pornography precisely because of its illegality. In some Muslim communities, images of a woman’s unveiled face are a form of pornography.)

“So what is one to do who still feels that, even if true, this does not excuse pornography and the perception of women it implies?”

Work to make it legal to kill your male children at, or before, birth and look forward to the possibility that genetic engineering will make cloning an alternative to the propagation of the race by conventional means. Charlotte Perkins Gilman pictured such a world without men in her 1915 in novel, Herland. Though she had the luxury of inventing a story that precluded the messy part, the removal of existing men.

“You are joking?”


“…short of that?”

Make him feel as guilty as possible. Point out to him that it was a man (Kant) who first formulated the principle that it is wrong to treat another human being only as a means and not as an end. That he does not live up to the rules he makes, to the abstractions he creates, to his own dissatisfaction with the way the world rests at the edge of his senses. That he is a liar and a hypocrite. That he really has no business here, that he really should be dead… He already half-believes this, by the way (in case you hadn’t noticed), and you, by your efforts, might just help speed him on his way to doing something about it.

“Will that work?”

No. Some men are too far gone to listen you. A very few will listen and perhaps draw the conclusion and act on it, but these probably already know and do. Most will go on as before: they will understand you, concede you are right, but prefer to live in a misery of guilt, for, in the depth of their depravity, it has come to suit them… Note that I am addressing here genuine compliance, not the mere appearance of it. Actually the word “compliance” is already—all by itself—suspicious. If mere compliance would satisfy you, there might be hope, but you would be right to demand more. You want authenticity in the “respect” you ask for. And that is what makes your case tragic.

“What is the point of all this guilt? We merely want to be treated with the respect, no more than minimal human decency requires! Are you saying that is too much to ask?”

…and expect it to be genuine? Yes, the plea is rather quixotic. Here is how you might proceed: You had better get used to pleading for respect. You had better make a song of it. Hum it everyday forever and ever. You must make him forget who he is. You must make contact with what measure of the feminine principle you can find in him and ally yourself with it against the other side of him. You must create internal strife. (What I mean by ‘guilt’.) Then you may succeed for a time in eking out concessions from him. It will be hard work and it will never end. I predict your resolve will be eroded against his intractable hardness. Though you may succeed in sculpting it into a form that—by severely taxing human imagination (as Marguerite Duras put it), both yours and his—may satisfy you for a time. The power of this imagination will be so great that it will preclude the value of truth and install appearance in its place… But then you will want to rest in your exhaustion and then it will begin again…

Until, that is, men, as we know them, disappear. And a new species of being with a different set of liabilities emerges for the entertainment of the cosmos.

“Is this what you really want?”



[See also commentary on Lorenne Clark. ]

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, pornography, sex differences, male criminality (Saturday August 12, 2006 at 2:12 pm)

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