February 7, 1984 · Cavalier Daily

What's Really Wrong With Pornography?

This opinion article rebuts the view that pornography is damaging due to its sexual objectification of women. Instead, the writer asserts that it depicts an extension of people's common desire to feel sexually and physically attractive. He concludes that pornography is objectionable primarily because of its depiction of women committing sexual acts, particularly lesbian sex, for the pleasure of a male audience.


1984-02-07 What's Really Wrong With Pornography.pdf
Laurence Thomas
Cavalier Daily
Cavalier Daily
What's Really Wrong With Pornography?
I am interested in pornography as it is presently practiced. Now, I realize all too well that none of my distinguished readers have ever seen a pornographic film. And you understand, of course, that neither have I – except for educational purposes, naturally.
It is often said that pornography is morally wrong because it treats people – women, in particular – as pure sex objects. I do not find this view very persuasive.
For, as far as I can tell, the truth of the matter is that upon occasion all of us – both women and men – take delight in being seen as a sex object. If we are told by our dear friend that so-and-so finds us sexually attractive we do not automatically and necessarily consider ourselves to have been insulted or debased in any way.
To be sure, it may be important to us that so-and-so also realizes how wonderfully intelligent we are; otherwise, we would not give the person the time of day. Still, being seen as just sexually attractive has its place in our lives.
If it did not, I dare say that most us [sic] would not dress and carry ourselves as we do. If we were utterly oblivious to being sexually attractive we would hardly be as concerned as most of us are about either how our clothes fit us or the cut of our hair.
And while there are purely health reasons for watching our waistlines, it just does not ring true that all of us our watching our waistlines for that reason alone.
I assume, then, the explanation for why pornography is morally wrong cannot lie in just the fact that women are treated merely as sex objects.
I can get to the explanation I am seeking by first making an observation and then asking a question. The observation is that most pornographic films contain one or more lesbian scenes (recall, e.g., “The Devil in Miss Jones,” which I have never seen).
The question is this: How does it turn out that deeply committed heterosexual men should manage to take a liking to lesbian scenes? I mean to be a deeply committed heterosexual is to have a strong preference that one’s sexual partner be of the opposite sex. Who does what with whome makes all the difference in the world – even in one’s fantasy world. Reality does not mark the boundaries of sexual preference here.
I am not unmindful of the response that lesbian scenes provide men with the “right” object of sexual arousal – namely the bodies of beautiful women, supposedly. But I am afraid that this response is inadequate as explanation for why men take such delight in lesbian scenes.
After all, a lesbian scene is not one in which nude women simply pose; it is, rather, one in which nude women are animated by the sexual passions of one another. And given modern technology, it is certainly possible to have the former without the latter!
So, what’s the answer? On a sexist view of things, (a) men are supposed to have authority over women and (b) the primary role of women is to bear children: when all else is said and done that alone is what they are really good for.
So as long as the behavior of women does not call into question either the authority of men or the role of women as child bearers, then whatever else women might do is rather unimportant. The gay male abdicates his authority over women, which is why he is so despised.
The explanation for what is wrong with pornography is then, quite simple. It embodies the view that any behavior on the part of women – even lesbian behavior – is acceptable when it is in the service of men that women behave. The liking which men have for lesbian scenes may be viewed as the ultimate expression of this view; for, as I have already noted, given modern technology we need not resort to lesbian scenes in order to view the bodies of women.
The masculinity of men is not, contrary to what one would expect, threatened by their viewing lesbian scenes precisely because such scenes constitute yet another expression of the authority of men over women: There for the amusement of men, women are doing exactly what men insist is repulsive.
Whether pornography is inherently wrong, I do not know. I have been arguing against pornography as it is presently practiced. Some people think that we can eliminate sexism without men having to change, in fundamentally important ways, how they lead their lives. This is wishful thinking at its best.
[Laurence Thomas is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. This column is to appear in Carib News and is printed here with its permission.]
Date Added July 23, 2016
Date Modifed December 12, 2017
Collection Cavalier Daily: articles about gender discrimination

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