a philosophy blog

Pornography and liberalism

Notes on:
Lorenne M. G. Clark, “Liberalism and Pornography”

Classical liberalism and utility

The deficiencies of classical liberalism for women’s rights (or indeed human rights, if there are any) are as Clark very clearly articulates them. But she shows a failure to grasp the depth of the problem when she falls back on a common feminist remedy: socialization

Most feminist causes have historically been defended on liberal principles, the right to vote in particular:

The reason for this is clear. The central value of liberalism is the freedom, or liberty, of the individual…. The central value of liberalism is freedom, or what has been termed more specifically “negative liberty.” [after Isaiah Berlin’s characterization in “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Four Essays on Liberty, (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).] “Negative” liberty or freedom is the freedom to do or get what you want unimpeded by interference from others. It is contrasted with “positive” liberty, which entails not only that other persons refrain from interference, but that the person with the freedom in fact has the means or ability to get what he or she wants….

…. Negative freedom can be seen therefore to consist merely in the absence of restraint. Thus, while liberals could accept that it was wrong to prevent women voting, they have more difficulty accepting that effective exercise of the right to reproductive autonomy necessitates providing publicly financed clinics for the provision of safe, cheap abortion…. But [r]ights which necessitate not the removal of legal restraints, but the creation of legal duties on others in order to give persons the means needed to do what they want, are not good causes on which to seek liberal support, because these necessarily involve a reduction in negative liberty….

…. Legally speaking, the right that one has is what is properly termed a “privilege” or “liberty” right, and does not entail that anything or anyone has a correlative duty to do anything, or provide anything, which would facilitate one in actually getting that to which the right entitled one. A “privilege” or “liberty” right is a right which arises from the absence of restraint, like one’s right to use a public park or to vote…. [freedom from as opposed to freedom to]

…. In the face of pre-existing social inequality, the effective exercise of rights can be assured only by creating a legal claim-right which does entail obligations on the part of someone or something else to provide the thing, or the means to the thing, guaranteed by the right…. 178 Thus, the establishment of claim rights is itself an infringement of liberty, or negative freedom, since it makes it mandatory to do what it was before permissible either to do or not to do…. But utilitarianism thus parts company with the central tenet of liberalism in those cases in which greater positive liberty of all demands diminished negative liberty for some. Worse, it is powerless as a moral tool in just those cases in which the loss to some is evenly balanced by the gains to others, because it does not have a principle of justice independent of the principle of utility which would justify such a redistribution even in cases where the original distribution occurs within a domain characterized by inequality…

This limitation of utility as a basis for morality betrays its status as, at best, a rule of thumb, of praxis, and as a maintenance rather than a fundamental moral theory. The two fundamental theories derive from sex.… Utilitarianism, together with Aristotelian virtue theory, because they do not enshrine a principle dear to one sex or the other cannot decide defining cases of value. Their very sexlessness has no doubt supported their appeal to being universal. But universal what? Not moral theory but more like universal rules of animal behavior. Yes, pleasure and pain do tend to govern animal reactions to stimuli and moral conditioning is only a species of conditioning in general, etc…. In other words, their truth as description has mistakenly underwritten their prescriptive authority.

The fundamental question we have to ask is: Is the moral theory of liberalism consistent with equality? [It is consistent with equality among men—just not in a world of men and women.] If it is, then we must be able to show how the mistakes it has made can be explained without throwing out the theory, and hence, how it must be revised in order to prevent similar errors from occurring in future. And if it isn’t, then it is time we turned our attention to looking for or developing moral alternatives which are.

It is not that liberalism must be thrown out but that it must have its territory circumscribed and supplemented by other principles that have at least as legitimate a basis in human reality. The mistake is to think this supplementation happily stable.

Pornography and privacy

…. Legally, it is reflected in debates about privacy, about the areas of one’s life into which others should be legally prohibited from interfering. Among the areas often said to be protected by a right to privacy are those parts of a person’s life designated as “personal,” his or her home and family, or interpersonal, particularly emotional and sexual, life. Other areas dealt with in the same way are freedom of speech and of the press. The right to use pornography relates to both these broad areas and has been justified both because it is personal, related solely to one’s individual private sexual proclivities and preferences, and because it has do with freedom of the press, or more broadly speaking, freedom of information, the right to read and to see what one wants and to the need to promote a wide divergence in the range of available materials.

…. The difficulty is that no one has found a satisfactory method of drawing the boundaries between the private and other areas of life. In the past, the boundary was thought to be a natural one, based on the traditional distinction between the public and the private….

But as is now abundantly clear, it is indefensible to draw the legal boundary between public and private on the basis of the historical division between these spheres of human activity. Privacy functioned historically to protect those who were privileged to begin with….

There is a deeper reason for this. In the face of critical public scrutiny, the heterocosmic foundation of male value is singularly vulnerable to withering ridicule in the same way the dualist is embarrassed by monist taunts to show his cards. What are “duty,” “personal autonomy,” “honor,” “integrity,” etc. if they cannot be cashed out in behavior that materially aids human flourishing? Rather, they are all dependent on the mundane… or so the nose-to-the-ground materialist argues. There is no presumption here that he or she is right, but the defender of irreducible, especially moral, abstractions is driven to avail himself of cryptic gesture and obfuscation.

This is where privacy comes in. The sight of his buttocks bouncing over her prone body (as D. H. Lawrence famously depicted it [in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chapter XII]), the entire filthification of the sexual, the dipping of his dignity into a flesh of a sort that once before wholly enveloped him, a bathetic ritual rehearsal for when again flesh-made-earth shall reabsorb his pretensions, showing him to be made of naught but the stuffs that have all his life surrounded him—the very thought of his connection to such things is an affront, is the source of a life-long embarrassment that must be countered with measures that excuse or deny it. Thus nakedness becomes a violation of something invented, dubbed “dignity”. Nakedness in every sense of the word: naked thoughts, bodies, possessions, the whole of that umbra of his environment, including other beings, that fall under his influence, that he can force a claim to control—this becomes the realm of the private, where the universe has no “right” to intrude without his grudging approval. These new concepts, born of a cover-up, require, in turn, an elaborate apparatus for maintenance and, hence, other august concepts are engendered to serve this function: “liberty,” “duty”, “law,” “desert,”… And logically prior terms—that may have meaning outside his purview—are also enlisted in this effort but given significantly different marching orders, terms such as “justice,” “responsibility,” “fairness,” “freedom”… The world is thus divided into mine and yours and the not-yet-mine or -yours. The first two divisions are realms of trespass. They are private….

The idea of the private is that if a man must stoop so low as to acknowledge his connection with other flesh, then the intimacy of that congress and all that attends it is to be decreed off limits to those whose judgment he cannot control.

For her, privacy is a social protocol. It may be one thing to be desired among others but neither heaven, nor most of the earth, is bound up with it.

More important from a feminist perspective, it protected not only the dominant economic class in the Marxist sense, but the dominant sex-class as well. The traditionally “private” was the sphere of the personal, home and hearth….

…it certainly functioned to condone and encourage the abusive and unjustified practices which were possible within this unequal relation. As is now clear, the family has been characterized by a great deal of physical violence…. Thus, the last place feminists want to see a right to privacy is in the family….

…Greater liberty and equality for women can be purchased only at the cost of less liberty, and a loss of status, for men.

The idea here is correct and goes contrary to the seldom addressed assumption of democratic institutions of the representative variety: that sex is not a relevant factor in representation, that a man can represent the interests of a woman. For instance, that a governing institution with less than 14% of its membership women can represent a constituency 50% comprised of women, such as the United States Senate (its gets worse if you compare other branches of government)…

If anything resembling true democratic representation is ever to take hold in any nation it must be governed by law half the time by women. Not by chance, for that plays into the hands of those who have power and will never willingly relinquish it without its being forced from them.

The myth that women and men are equal has been used to preserve, ironically, the status quo. The reasoning goes like this: women and men are equal politically, right? So they are interchangeable because equals can be substituted for each other, one can just as well stand in for the other, that is, men can represent the interests of women because men and women (to repeat) are equal. So there is nothing inherently amiss with a governing institution overwhelmingly dominated by men… And, subsequently, there is nothing to urge any change toward parity, far from it. (Cf. Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.)

Parity assumes that women and men cannot represent each other because they are not interchangeable with each other, because an apple will not always do where an orange might, because, as it were, they are different, as different as they can possibly be and still be human. (This is the key Weiningerian insight. So great is that difference that one side or the other has at times been tempted to deny any common humanity at all: “We are human, the other sex is something else entirely, either proto-human or bestial—even at times angelic—in any case, lacking in certain qualities essential to the kind.” We argue elsewhere at the level of metaphysical and moral theory why it is a man cannot, even with the best will in the world, represent the interests of a woman.)

For women to ever really achieve their just share of political influence they must not just empower themselves, in the same act, they must disempower men. What women gain must be taken from men. It is not a matter of everybody having more or even keeping what they have. Sexual politics is a zero-sum game, as Clarke goes on to explain.

On the principle of like liberties for all, marriage must be turned into a relation of mutuality, and the relationships within it must be subject to regulation and control.

Why, then, has the demand for privacy centered so exclusively on preserving the traditional domain of male privilege? And why do the staunchest defenders of that view fail to see that in invoking these principles within a domain characterized by fundamental sexual inequality they are in fact both reinforcing that inequality and sanctioning its worst abuses? At the very least, adherents of the liberal ethic must acknowledge that there is no natural basis for deciding on what is private and what public for the purpose of entrenching a legal right to privacy, and that the traditional area of the private is the area most in need of loss of privacy in the name of promoting greater positive liberty and greater equality….

Equality cannot flourish without limiting the privileges some already have in both the private and the public spheres, because the inequalities of the present system were a product of the unequal attribution of rights in the first instance; thus greater equality and liberty for those least advantaged under the present system necessitates placing restrictions on the privilege rights of those who are presently most advantaged….

What is needed, at base, is a reappraisal of what is harmful. That, too, has historically been defined in terms of what the dominant sex and the dominant economic class find “harmful.”… Physically coerced intercourse between husband and wife was not regarded as harmful, much less as redressable. It was regarded as “normal”…. The right that husbands had with respect to access to their wives’ sexuality and reproductivity was a claim right, since wives had a legal duty to honor the conjugal demands of their husbands. It goes without saying that no similar right was accorded to wives and no similar duty devolved on husbands….

…. Thus, the structure of marriage with respect to sexuality and reproductivity represents a clear violation of Mill’s approach to the private, since it accords rights to some which prohibit the exercise of like rights by others….

…. It is this same unwillingness to acknowledge that men have been advantaged in what they have been legally permitted to do in their sexual relationships with women which makes them intransigent about the pornography issue, because pornography stands as a living testament to men’s ability to use physical coercion within the sexual context…. While the basic principles Mill enunciated certainly do not commit liberals to continuing to uphold this inequality, it remains to be seen whether or not liberalism can survive and transcend the limitations of its own historical perspective…. I cannot say I am hopeful about the outcome….

Pornography for dummies

Clark is justified in her pessimism here. She may not even realize how hopeless her call for liberalism’s reform is. The allure of pornography for men is all-revealing of their relation to the visible and tangible world…

The sight or suggestion of a naked female form is so highly charged for him because it triggers, like nothing else in his experience, feelings and associations across a spectrum that ranges from helpless awe and humility to bitter resentment, from feelings of warmth, comfort, and safety to those of self-loathing, from a nervous craving to caress to an impulse to subdue, exploit and destroy. She brought him into the world; he was never consulted; she brought the world itself into existence and has ever tended it; he cannot escape his need for her or it; and she will likely escort him out. The significance of her role in every aspect of life is given, predetermined, and as evident as the objects of his senses while he must struggle to define his role, to justify his being here. Her body and mind are integrated into each other and into her environment in a way his can never be. His very sex seems not a part of him, not subject to his will. Rather, he perceives it as subject to hers. She decides where and when to grant him harbor in the folds of her flesh. But his role is fundamentally transitory. Even her kindnesses to him he perceives as motivated by pity for his homelessness. He does not really belong here, however accommodating she may be. [Ed. Note: In his notebooks, Luno puts it, “He is always guest in her house. Always guest. Always hers.”]

So it should not surprise us to find him making a virtue of his disability in seeking his dignity, his true vocation, his raison d’être, in some transmundane mission, in heterocosmic abstraction, unbounded by the material—which in its grosser forms finds fault with the empire of the senses and all its furnishings where she plainly reigns supreme. There, she so easily comes to represent what he cannot ever be or have. And it is on her that he may then train his impulse to destroy and degrade or, at least, marginalize. To see her stripped of clothes, of meaning, of whatever trappings of dignity; to toy with the living symbol of life that is her body, to do to it what he cannot do to the whole universe whose gall it was to never ask his permission in presenting itself to him.

It has higher forms, this consciousness of not really belonging. It is behind the drive to overcome nature and fate and to a human creativity stemming not from physical but rather mental conception, the only kind available to him. Art and science and the practical utility of their fallout in craft and technology are lame attempts to show himself worthy as a guest and a not entirely superfluous object of her indulgence. But these artificial efforts, modeled on her originals, are made possible exactly because of his essential alienation. His ability to objectify, to experience himself separate from what garners the attention of his consciousness or, rather, to choose the direction of that consciousness—this facility comes from the fact that, in the first instance, that is how the world presents itself to him. He has about as much trouble with identity as she has with role issues for this reason, that is to say, identity is his strength in the way role is hers. (If it seems the two are not equally appreciated and we are slighting her, in remarking on it, that in itself is a symptom of the problem whose surface Clark grazes.) He is acutely aware from his earliest moments of the boundaries of his control and limitations of his efforts to transcend them. He is acutely aware of them because he so much wants to transcend them.

She, in contrast, is encouraged to seek her comfort within a network of relations to others, the creation and maintenance of this network becomes her life task, and nature conspires to ensure she does. The price she so often pays is that the development of an identity in isolation, as a node in that network is forsworn and the appreciation for the irreducible dualism of integrating subjectivity, on the one hand, and the necessary distancing of objectivity, on the other, the perception of which is strongly tied to a developed identity, is, in her case, atrophied or stunted.

For him, investing the other with subjectivity is an acquired skill and taste—and is never, but in the most stylized manner, actually realized. Analyzed closely, his most heroic effort at depicting it reveals traces of a paint-by-numbers scaffolding. Nevertheless, the stylization of this experience is his greatest contribution to human culture; it is what he achieves at his best… That said, it does not detract from his suspicion that no matter how gracious a guest he may make himself out to be, his calling is always away from here. The awareness adds the darkness, the shadows perceivable in all that he does: he knows that all that he creates can and will be used for destructive purposes and by him, no less.

The act of making love to a woman is also the act of raping her—whether she realizes this or not. In the best case, she only thinks she is surrendering her body willingly. She thinks this because, for a spell (or under one), she may believe she grants this meaningful intimacy to a being who shares with her the same view of things, but because this can never be—except perhaps through a phenomenal effort of imagination, she is always raped. (This is what moved Weininger—and others, Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker sect, the Jains, even early strains of feminism, etc.—to make a quixotic call for universal celibacy.) Her physical intimacy is obtained under false pretenses. And if, more often than we might suppose, she is herself not entirely unaware of this, making the act objectively less rape than conspiracy, it does not excuse him from moral judgment. Moral rape is the exploitation of a being whose subjectivity is not served. He cannot serve it because he cannot accord her the privilege of having a subjectivity in the first place. He sees her as object in that critical moment. It is no mitigation of the offense that the object appears to cooperate. This is or should be a reminder to him of how removed he is from the scene, any scene. It is his fallen state. Intimacy is morally tantamount to murder. (“Love is murder.” Weininger famously wrote.) In his troubled relation to sexual connection he seeks even further objectivity. To rob her not only of a conscious subjectivity he can recognize—of being itself—but, finally—to assuage one part of his conscience while aggravating another—he robs her even of three-dimensions. He prefers her flattened, in images on paper, on screen, now washed of the smells and textures that would be too immediate and tangible reminders of his fallen state. Thus, the meaning of pornography for him and why it is not going away anytime soon…

There is absolutely nothing new or surprising about this. Expressions of the feeling of post coitum triste and its intimations date from before Aristotle (not to mention Freud); and before biblical times one of the most beautifully evocative examples can be found in the oldest surviving literature in the West, from at least 3000 BC, in the lamentations of Enkidu at his death scene in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. It has been repeated a thousand times in a thousand different ways. And this male incapacity for intimacy has scarcely been lost on perceptive women, Marguerite Duras, for instance, describes it with precision in The Malady of Death, and in the essay simply entitled “Men”….

But to return to liberalism’s intransigence to reform, its inability to concede to other values than freedom (viz, in its exclusive sense: freedom from) a comparable pride of place, the problem has to do with the nature of rules. It is a far more tractable project to tell people what they cannot do than what they may. Recall most of the Decalogue is largely couched in the negative. Why should this matter? Because rules are made against a background of utter fractiousness, against a willfulness that will do anything and everything merely because it can be done. In what kinds of beings does this total irresponsibility reign? Not human beings as a species: recall what we said earlier about the predisposition to role-keeping in women. In a world void of any morality consisting of rules and restrictions, women, we submit, would fare quite well—provided, of course, also that there were no men to wreck the moral landscape. Liberalism is an attempt at a moral scheme whereby willful autonomy is indulged in a responsible way. “You may do whatever you want consistent with not causing harm others and with others being allowed to behave the same.” The assumption is that out of such indulgence enough of what is creative and constructive will emerge to compensate for the waste.

But why should autonomy, in particular, be indulged? a woman may well ask. Even granting the liberalist assumption, aren’t there other indulgences we might permit ourselves that would also result in good things, in things that conduce to not just the minification of suffering or boredom but the actual flourishing of all sentience on the planet? For example, we might seek to place alongside the freedom from the freedom to in the full knowledge that these two superficially similar conceptions are deeply at odds. But now interest should accrue to the challenge of facing and dealing with this conflict…a task that requires that we reconsider what equality of men and women means. We must face the fact that the greatest slogan since the Enlightenment has come to obscure more than it reveals about human beings… In the aftermath of having risen to the occasion of entertaining the lofty thought that all human beings are equal we have yet to ask if we know what it means to say such a thing about creatures as different from each other as women and men.

But to question this would no longer be liberalism. Mill, for all his vaunted sympathy with the plight of women, failed to see how male his instincts were. The irony is that this enemy of paternalism modeled it exactly in thinking he—a man—knew what was good for women.

…. The trend among feminists is clear. More and more of them are coming to see pornography as a species of hate literature. Hate literature seeks to make one dislike and despise the people depicted, to make those persons seem inferior and unworthy of our respect. It seeks to set them apart and to show them as relevantly different from “us” in a way which justifies “us” in treating them differently, or it shows them as deserving to be treated badly because they have no respect for “us” or “our” values. What it must do to succeed is enforce a radical sense of their difference, their non-identity, with “us,” a difference which is either utterly distasteful to “us,” or one utterly opposed to “our” shared goals and values….

Once again Clarke, as many other feminists, accurately sketches the practical effects of pornography. But there is a mistake in the structure of her critique. She portrays men as being wrong in perceiving a radical difference between themselves and women. The difference is so extreme as we have said earlier: it is as a great as any that can be imagined between two subspecies without actually discrediting their shared subsumption: It is a wonder they interbreed.

They both eat, drink and defecate, breathe and bleed, etc.— but as we argue elsewhere they don’t even do these things in quite comparable ways. They do them in ways that reflect the view from their side of a chasm whose width becomes even more evident as we attempt to articulate and analyze higher order values and perceptions. What is important to and what is understood by women and men, as distinct groups, are what concerns us here…

Pornography is morally problematic. But it is so not because it entails differences that aren’t there or because it causes men to treat women in certain despicable ways—the former is not correct, the latter hopelessly entangled with the depravity permeating all male perceptions of women. It is a problem because it is shameless. That’s right. At the risk of sounding prudish and Victorian, it is the open celebration of our connection to the natural world coupled with the denial that we are anything but. It is the exploitation of consciousness for purposes that have neither the integrity of innocence we perceive in animals nor the painful clarity of high art. It is aesthetic travesty…and as such it is an emblem of a specifically male moral failure.

But the immediate question is: does it degrade women? The ugly truth is no, not anymore than they already are in the minds of men. As a woman, you are right to think you glimpse an ugly truth about men in pornography. You are deluding yourself to think you can rehabilitate men, that is, make them feel sexuality as you do.

But perhaps the real question is: do women feel degraded by it?

The answer to this must be answered by them and it may indeed have political consequences. But then it ceases to be strictly a moral question. To the extent it does them genuine harm in this sense, they indeed ought to enjoy—to borrow the male conception of the term—freedom from it.

Which leads us back to how power, political and otherwise, ought to be apportioned, as we briefly alluded to earlier.

The reason it is not moral is that the native male conception of morality is not consequentialist. Pornography has already been condemned because of how it arises—that is, how it is distraction from his heterocosmic mission. That others may perceive harm in it after the fact is neither here nor there. And from a woman’s perspective, where an utterly different set of moral goals and constraints applies, nothing is absolutely condemned or condoned in isolation from its place in overarching eudaemonistic structure. In other words, does it fit, does it work, does it, in the scheme of things, conduce to our well-being? If not, what can be done about it? If pornography is seen as a—perhaps sad—but inevitable cost of having men around and if having men around really is unavoidable (despite their own uneasiness with being here), then perhaps a better way to manage their grime might be found. The task for women devolves to a question of housekeeping.

Pornography is a method of socialization; it is the tangible, palpable embodiment of the imposition of the dominant sexual system which is a part of the dominant sex-class system….

But we exaggerate how socializable men are.

Pornography has very little to do with sex, certainly with any conception of egalitarian sexual relations between the sexes, but it has everything to do with showing how to use sexuality as an instrument of active oppression, and that is why it is wrong….

This is clearly wrong. Pornography and sex crime, generally, definitely has everything to do with sex, just not sex as women are apt to conceive it. It is not for him the most intimate gesture possible for sealing a relationship. Sex is always about one of two things for men: it is one form his aggression may take, or it is the other form: the flip side, the side that requires surrender. It is about taking or being taken, using or being used. (Love, let’s be clear, is something else entirely for him, if not quite so starkly for her.)

Sometimes for a brief instant and in the best of circumstances, he may feel he is partaking in some event of cosmic significance. But the fall from this state of grace is swift. In the aftermath, if not already in anticipation, he cannot help but feel the act was one of betrayal—to her, to himself, to whatever has meaning for him.

Let’s be careful not to demonize them…

…. Prohibitions against the dissemination of any form of information function to preserve the status quo and to prevent the development of a critically reflective morality which is itself necessary to pave the way for needed social change. The principle has much to be said for it. But that cannot change the fact that when it is uncritically made to apply within a domain characterised by inequality and by frankly abusive behavior, a domain which is fundamentally shaped by a framework of social relations and institutions which makes all sexual relationships between men and women fundamentally coercive in nature, it is bound to produce results which will be unacceptable because harmful to those who are in the preexisting inferior position and who stand to be most affected by the attitudes and beliefs, as well as the practices, of those who use it.

…. What is the harm if all it does is give a guy a bit of a rush?… First, it is not “normal” to get one’s rushes from just anything…

The typical way in which women are depicted in pornography certainly reflects a view of them as inferior to men, as inherently masochistic, and as primarily of value as instruments for the satisfaction of male lust. That is, in itself, offensive to women, and is a straightforward objective affront to their dignity as equal persons. So on that ground alone, pornography ought to be prohibited, just as we prohibit material depicting other social groups in such a fashion….

So, too, it should be possible for men to identify the sadism and attitudes of sexual aggressivity into which they are socialized and so act both to counteract then, and to be angry at a social system that produced that response. In short, it is not a mark of personal depravity or immorality to be aroused by such material. Given the cultural pattern of which it is a manifestation, that is not at all surprising. Indeed, it is just what we would expect. But what must be recognized is that it is a socialized response, and that it is a response about which men as well as women should be both concerned and angry.

Even today, in 2004, many feminists, such as Gloria Steinem in a recent lecture, still attempt to temper their outrage at men by appending to their lists of righteous grievances remarks to the effect that we must take care not to “demonize” men, that it is the system, not being born boy, that should be the target of blame and reform. Males can be “fixed” through proper tending during their development. Whether it is a propensity toward violence or the objectification of women, these are things that may—from within a suitably restructured family and social framework—be remedied…

We find no fault with the idea that such restructuring ought to occur even in the direction suggested by Clark and Steinem and many others. The problem is that it shall not succeed because boys and men are demons. (If you haven’t noticed by now, “ought” never implies “can” from within the native male morality…)

Their behavior is perverse even without outside encouragement. (Anyone who may still doubt this should be introduced to the subject by reading June Stephenson’s Men Are Not Cost-Effective.) Because when all is said and done it is premised on their uneasiness (to put it mildly) with being alive. And Clark, along with entire generations of feminists, has swallowed whole the idea that men are merely anatomic variants of women, that what may well work with women should work with men, too. As Sylviane Agacinski, for one, has noticed, the very idea of this sexual interchangeability is itself a patriarchal legacy. The liberalist, better than most, should know where that idea came from.

The restructuring ought to occur because it is mandated by both a feminine morality which cannot abide willful negativity and by a masculine morality which, at its purest, cannot tolerate irresponsibility. Similarly, there are only two truly moral reasons to punish criminals: because we want to make them better and because they deserve it. The desire to make better and the desert that follows upon the willful violation of rule are genuine moral considerations. Success at making men better, either as expectation or, let alone, as motivation, is not.

The possibility of success may well be, in practice, what moves people to do things, what must be dangled in front of them, but that is a concession to their near infinite capacity for self-delusion, and, in that regard, it is a matter of indifference to the ultimate feminine principle of flourishing while, at the same time, a positive affront to the male one of transcendence.

The bottom line is that we shall not eradicate pornography, either that present to the senses or that in the minds of men. Yet it is, all the same, a proper object of moral harassment.

To the extent that men are able to internalize the conviction that women and men are equal persons, and that men are not justified in using physical coercion to force women into sexual servitude, they must recognize that the pleasurable responses they get from pornography are inappropriate to that conviction and are destructive to their ability to form self-images consistent with it.

But they shall never internalize the equality of women and men except in the most vacuous sense, one vulnerable to heavy infusions of hypocrisy. The best we may hope for is to get men to accept that they must surrender half of their freedom from to permit her the freedom to. Tying this surrender to his own moral instincts is the only way to get him to make a genuine effort to behave decently.

But that does not entail that they are in any sense to blame for those responses: they had as little choice about that as they did about their names.

Regardless of what may in some material sense be true about choice, no man believes that he is ever without choice. So he is to blame and he knows this.

But we have, then, given strong arguments in support of the view that the eliciting of a pleasurable response is not in itself any reason to condone the sale and distribution of pornography, and that a proper understanding of the nature and causes of that response gives men as well as women solid grounds for objecting to the material which occasioned it. I believe that many more men would be able to understand and accept the feminist perspective on pornography if they could come to realize that they are not responsible for their sexual responses to it given the pattern of socialization which exists to mould us all into a set of social relations which institutionalizes male aggression and female passivity.

Indeed, men feel they are not to blame ultimately. They are not to blame for being born. But once born, blame begins for them with a vengeance.

…. Frankly, I think that the argument that pornography is intrinsically offensive to the dignity of women ought to carry the day, but in the interests of completeness I want to go on to consider the other arguments that are brought to pornography’s defence.

Apart from this notion of being intrinsically offensive and an infringement of the rights of women, it will be argued that even if pornography is harmful to the user, it does not lead to direct harm to women, because the phantasies it supports remain phantasies, and it in fact prevents direct harm to women through its cathartic effect. I may say at the outset that I’m not at all impressed with either of these arguments….

Clark cites evidence to support role modeling’s effect on human behavior and that there is no evidence to support the cathartic effect… The question of whether pornography is empirically consequential in either an instigational or cathartic way is morally irrelevant. Even if it could be shown to be cathartic, it would not make it one bit less immoral. (And, as often noted, part, but only a part, of its perverse delight stems from its transgressiveness.)

While the liberal principle behind opposition to censorship is based on a recognition that desirable social change requires public access to information which challenges the beliefs and practices of the status quo, what it does not acknowledge is that information which supports the status quo through providing role models which advocate the use or threat of coercion as a technique of social control directed at a clearly identifiable group depicted as inferior, subordinate, and subhuman, works against the interest both of desirable social change and of the members of the subgroup so identified….

In refusing to count as “harms” actions and practices which serve the interest of the dominant sex by reinforcing the patterns and effects of modes of socialization which support a sexist system, it renders itself incapable of changing that system and of promoting greater equality and positive liberty for women….

That entails that we have to challenge traditional concepts of harm, and of liberty as the absence of restraint….

Liberalism may be prepared to scrap its reliance on the traditional division into public and private, and it may be prepared to acknowledge that the negative liberty and the privilege rights which men have traditionally been accorded, and which legitimize the use of physical coercion in their sexual and reproductive relations with women, constitute a harm and an infringement of the rights of women to reproductive and sexual autonomy and to protection from physical assault. Unless it is so prepared, we can expect little support from liberals on the issue of pornography or any other issues which reflect that basic and fundamental inequality between the sexes.

Clark seems to doubt that we can ever expect liberalism to reform itself on the issue of pornography. We agree. Since liberalism is not, contrary to what is commonly thought, based on a universal moral insight but on a specifically male moral need, it is not likely to do the right thing where it is confronted with moral needs foreign to men. She thinks men might be socialized away from a need for pornography. We think there is a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. One might remove every piece of tangible smut on the planet; it would only force them to use their imagination. (And that might be a good thing—but the argument for that would have to be made on quite other grounds than any raised here.)

What can be done are two things: As previously stated, moral intuitions native to maleness must be enlisted to apply internal pressure on how men feel about their relationship to pornography. It may be, in some sense, a necessary evil, but it is evil and men should not be allowed to feel it is somehow a birthright of maleness. And, second, great amounts of external institutional power must be ceded to women to the point that external impediments to, at least, its excesses are formidable. Exactly how this would work in practice would be a political, not a moral, issue (something to be worked out in the fray), but the larger point, that women deserve and should have one half of all the political power to be had is clear—and that is a moral conclusion, the reasons for which, however, extend far beyond the arguments specific to pornography. (Cf. our discussion of Agacinski.)

Posted by luno in moral education, pornography, sex differences, male criminality, Mill, J. S., feminism (Wednesday September 14, 2005 at 8:42 pm)

2 comments for Pornography and liberalism»

  1. I am still not clear whether you would support making pornography illegal? You seem to be saying it’s bad, but inevitable.

    Comment by marholm — 9/16/2005 @ 2:21 pm

  2. I have presented in detail my views on abortion elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them here. There is a certain symmetry between them and how I feel about pornography.

    Should abortion be illegal? I think not. Is abortion to be encouraged? I don’t think so.

    There is a more intimate correspondence between these two problems, pornography and abortion, than one might think. I will probably explore it later, but this much should give you a hint as to how it might proceed…

    Comment by luno — 9/16/2005 @ 2:38 pm

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