What is Pornography?
What is pornography? Even in the U.S., the land of free speech, the Supreme Court struggled to delineate a standard for pornography. While most definitions are vague or abstract, Justice Potter Stewart famously declared, “I know it when I see it.”
Dictionaries usually define pornography as material containing the explicit description or display of sexual activity. Although, many more describe anything as overtly explicit, such as violence, as worthy of being deemed pornography. In fact, the first cut of the 1980’s film Robocop was so violent that the MPAA didn’t know how to rate it and gave it an X rating (at that time NC-17 wasn’t an option). I feel that excessive violence purely for sport or entertainment, such as the NFL and the Starz television series Spartacus, could each be deemed (borderline) pornographic in the amount of gratuitous violence depicted. Spartacus goes one further than American football, however, by showing all the sex as well. If you want to read about the sex exploits of your favorite sports icons, such as the pimp daddy Tiger Woods, you’ll just have to watch the nightly news. Needless to say, it’s not just gratuitous T&A which constitutes pornography.
Personally, I’ve always found it an artificial dichotomy to view only explicitly sexual material as pornographic, when clearly, explicit violence saturates the entertainment industry. And when you stop to think about it, it sounds a little more than unhealthy that no-holds-barred violence is so often esteemed over unadulterated sex. Having the desire to watch the act of sex (something which comes naturally to us) seems more mentally healthy than having the desire to watch the relentless brutality and violence of men pummeling each other. Especially since studies have found that pornography in itself is not harmful to society.[i] I speak only for myself when I say that I’d rather watch a beautiful woman make love to someone rather than a bunch of sweaty men pummel each other and then ending in a big heaping dog pile only to habitually repeat the senseless ritual. Even a good old fashioned sweaty romp–of two going at it like it was the end of the world–is healthier than, say, the brutality depicted on any given pro wrestling show.At the same time, to each his own, there is no reason that a sports fan shouldn’t be allotted the enjoyment they get watching their favorite sports team, and there is no reason a sex fan should be denied the same privilege (again—I stipulate—as long as the sex fan is of legal consenting age). But even if its a teenager sneaking a peek of their uncle’s porn collection, that, in my opinion, is better than them idolizing men who brutalize each other for a living or the violence they might see on any syndicated crime show on television. I don’t know what it is, but to me it’s eerily wrong when a culture fears a penis and vagina more than it does the threat of violence, serial killers, and characters like T-Bag from the hit show Prison Break. Sex is part of our make-up, it’s built into our DNA, it’s basic biology. Gruesome murder, or the weekly torture of Jack Bower on the Fox series 24, seem to me horribly unnatural–but people would rather watch that then even think about sex. Sex–and so too porn–is largely taboo. Tuning in nightly to saturate yourself with scenes of murder and mayhem, however, that’s standard fair. Sad but true.
Sex is not evil. People who think consenting sexual activity is “sinful” have their priorities backwards. But sex, for many, is a personal and private matter. The question is, does porn infringe on their own personal and private sexual lives? Not in the least. Porn does not hurt their sexual relationships, although I have heard from many couples it can sometimes help enhance one’s love life. Like I said though, to each his/her own. The bottom line is, porn is largely harmless. It employs more women than men, and not just the stars but the staff, as one woman in the industry put it:
I’m female and work at a porn company. It’s the least sexist job I’ve ever had. More females than males work here. (And I’m in software development, not a star.) A few months ago I read somewhere that it’s getting close to almost half of porn companies are owned by females… I don’t understand why people think it’s all this violence against women. The FBI checks our servers monthly and we have to abide by the 2257 law where we have to keep the paperwork on the age of every single person in every movie we offer… I just think most people don’t really even know what the porn industry is even like. (link to quote)
According to this insider, the porn industry is *less* sexist than other jobs. Employs more women, thus giving women better job opportunities, and stresses the industry is legal and safe to work in.
I’m certain there are many who would strongly disagree with me on this point, perhaps not because they find pornography damaging in any sense, but may simply find sex embarrassing or too personal. Many more, who are extremely conservative and think sex is in some way immoral, would probably tell me that sex ought to be censored in any society. That’s a good question we should ask ourselves. Should sexually explicit material, such as porn, be censored? If so, why?
I think you will find the idea of censoring sex, even to the extent that we censor the porn industry, isn’t so simple after all. Let’s consider this point, what does censoring sex entail exactly? What would compel a culture/society to censor, or even seek to prohibit, sexual conduct but not other forms of violence and iniquity? In order to discuss this issue, we have to look at what the fear of sex is all about.
Fear of Becoming Tainted: The Purity Myth
Back in 2008 Indonesia passed an anti-pornography bill. The bill stipulates that anybody implicated in the offense where there is pornographic material could spend up to twelve years in prison. Needless to say, the bill is (as usual) extremely vague. Basically anything that shows a sexually explicit image constitutes porn and can be cited as causing an offense.
It may come as no surprise, however, that this bill has seedy religious undertones. Many women’s rights groups fear that this is only the beginning of an Islamic implementation of Shiria law. In fact, rights activists are worried that it’s an Islamic attempt to “control people’s morality.”[ii] However, I would assert that such a law goes further than a mere simple moral guideline, rather, it is distinctly trying to control people’s sexual habits.
Islam, as with Christianity, both have extremely unhealthy virgin fetishes. Many religions and mystery cults over the course of history have been obsessed with the virginity concept. In conservative cultures, especially those dominated by conservative religious modes of thought, it is no wonder that purity is so heavily emphasized and sexual relations looked down upon. Just as Indonesia seeks to limit pornography, it’s basis is founded in the conservativism of religious thinking which, in turn, it predicated on the notion of virginal purity.
The feminist author Jessica Valenti’s new book The Purity Myth goes into detail about the negative side effects of purity culture and its cultural ramifications. Jessica Valenti argues societal obsession with female virginity, abstinence-only education, and backlash against women’s rights have placed an unhealthy (and unrealistic) sexual expectation on women. By defining women’s worth chiefly through their virginity, purity culture objectifies women by reducing them to their sexuality (just as with pornography), while devaluing other traits such as honesty and compassion.[iii]
Unlike pornography, however, virginity culture does not trust women with their own sexuality. Whereas the sex industry can be liberating for a woman (which we’ll discuss shortly) by allowing her the free choice to choose how she uses her body, virginity culture seeks to control the woman’s reproductive right, dictate how she ought to use her body, and relegates her to a sexual object against her will. Like Valenti, I agree, in order to construct a healthy, egalitarian vision of human sexuality, we must leave the purity myth behind and update our thinking and learn to approach sex maturely and reasonably.
Even so, Indonesia’s law is not restricted only to women. Just this week, one of south-east Asia’s best known male pop-stars, Nazril Irham (aka Ariel), was sentences to three years in prison for leaked sex tapes of him and his ex-girlfriend and current girlfriend.[iv] Muslim protesters rallied outside the courthouse labeling pornography as the reason for “the nation’s moral decline.” Of course, and it’s just a hunch, but relegating women to an inferior status may be the bigger cause for concern.
At any rate, Indonesia’s anti-pornography bill is not just a prohibition against pornographically obscene material, since it inevitably goes further than the mere desire to abolish the sale, distribution, and viewing of such material. In fact, the law allows people to be fined and jailed for the offense of engaging in, or partaking in, sexual activity of any kind (sort of like a far reaching public indecency act). It’s one thing to abolish the material by making it illegal—it’s another thing entirely to demonize the human individual for simply engaging in adult sexual relations.
It’s dehumanizing for a couple of reasons. First, if you did not want to view porn, then you could judiciously outlaw the sale and distribution of it, and so on. But to penalize those consenting adults who, in their Rabelaisian affairs, decide to document their own licentious behavior behind closed doors, then it seems this bill trespasses on their very right to engage in the most basic of human activities (e.g., sex), and for this reason the bill crosses a line. Secondly, once sexual activities or conduct is made illegal, and seeking to punish those who engage in such conduct, then it goes further than just a law against the viewing or spread of pornography. It becomes a law against prurient behavior and sexual activity. Instead of justice, it is a violation on people’s civil liberties and basic human rights.
Prosperity through Proliferation of Porn
First off, I should state that I am a proponent for adult entertainment (for reasons I will discuss bellow). I believe a consenting adult has the right to choose who they sleep with, what they watch—whether it is a rated R movie or a porno—and what they listen to. Moreover, I believe adults who wish to watch other consenting adults engage in sexually explicit behavior may do so, as long as there is the clear understanding that all parties involved are of age and have freely given their consent (and no one is in any real danger of being harmed). But I have sociopolitical and scientific reasons why pornography should be permitted also.
The Porn Report, published by Melbourne University Press, collected interesting statistics on porn. The researchers found that there is no difference between right wing or left wing constituents when it comes to viewing porn, and more surprising still, they found that over 60% of pornography viewers happened to be religious (interestingly enough only 32% of atheists view porn regularly). Also, worthy of note, is that women who view porn increased nearly two fold in just over a decade.[v]
Interestingly enough, societies with burgeoning adult entertainment industries tend to have less crime against women. In fact, it is well documented in modern countries like America and Japan where, it seems, the more prolific the porn industry the less violent sex crimes against women there are. Experts have stated that, “It is certainly clear from the data reviewed, and the new data and analysis presented, that a massive increase in available pornography in Japan, the United States and elsewhere has been correlated with a dramatic decrease in sexual crimes and most so among youngsters as perpetrators or victims.” [vi]
Milton Diamond, a sex specialist at the University of Hawaii in association with the John A Burns School of Medicine and Department of Anatomy, Biochemistry and Physiology has shown us that in countries with dense populations, such as Japan, an increase in pornography is closely tied to a decrease in sex crimes against women. Astonishingly enough, from 1975 to 1995 violent crimes against women in Japan decreased by a whopping 60%, as the porn industry nearly quadrupled in size during that same period.[vii] Although there are likely to be other mitigating factors, such statistics seem to suggest that pornography may have a larger role in maintaining women’s overall safety and well being in modern societies.
On the other hand, in countries without an established porn industry, or which actively ban such forms of adult entertainment, sex crimes against women are higher than those with an established porn industry. I think conservatism is partially to blame for the belief that women are only good for child rearing, for the purpose of breeding, because often, in such cases, conservatism adheres to the aforementioned purity myth—thus objectifying women as “sexual objects.” Porn also “objectifies women” but for a couple key differences we must keep in mind.
First of all, in a virgin fetish based culture the woman has no choice, the social norms are in place, and she must conform. If not, she is often punished—and in many societies she could face serious injury and harm for simply being caught speaking to another man (let alone having any sort of physical relationship with him).[viii] In a free society a women may choose the adult industry as a means to get ahead, or because she really does enjoy sex, and so her choice to sell her image, which then gets objectified, is a choice she makes.
Secondly, in a virgin fetish based society the woman cannot choose not to be objectified, but in a free society a porn star can decide to quit and pursue another carrier, such as the famous Sky Lopez did after she quit the industry. While other women, such as Jenna Jameson, maintain that making porn is not to be seen as disgusting (since what is disgusting about a beautiful woman having sex?), but rather, one should respect the right of the women to choose her own profession and what she does with her body is nobody’s business but her own.[ix]
Patriarchal Mentality vs. Exploitation for Benefit
In studying Japanese women’s history, the area of focus for one of my degrees, I mainly focused on the ramifications of a largely patriarchal society and how this has impacted the role of women in Japan. I have spent considerable time studying idol culture (e.g., pop-idols, gravure idols, etc.) and the adult entertainment industry (e.g., AV idols, hostess, health, and snack courtesans, etc.).
Studying Japan has given me an interesting perspective on the objectification of women since, unfortunately, Japan remains deeply entrenched in its patriarchal history, which, as a consequence, lends to a booming idol craze. At the same time however, since there has never been any women’s suffrage movement, Japanese women must either succumb to patriarchal cultural norms or else try to gain power over it.
One way this works is a woman will choose to exploit the adult entertainment industry knowing that she will partake in an entire industry of objectification, but unlike America, I should add, the pornography industry isn’t viewed with the same level of taboo. In fact, as the case with the news anchor Ann Nanba, she chose to become a porn star even though she already had a high salary job. She didn’t choose this line of work for the money, but because she was a sexual woman who genuinely liked the idea of having sex for a living. This thinking is not an alien concept. More recently, Rina Nakanishi left the popular Japanese pop band AKB48 in 2008 to make her debut as the adult porn sensation Riko Yamaguchi. Whereas in America teen idols like Britney Spears take a lot of flak for dressing down, girls in Japan can break the mold and go into the adult industry without being ridiculed as a slut. In a patriarchal culture as rigid as Japan’s, this allows new avenues of opportunity. In a way, it’s a win-win situation.
Other established porn actresses, such as the twenty-seven year old Sora Aoi, have branched out into music, television, and film while maintaining her status as a leading porn actress. Also, her success has allowed her to become an activist in another sense. In April 2010 she used her celebrity to raise funds to help the Yushu earthquake victims in the Qinghai Province of China. Meanwhile, the Japanese porn actress Hotaru Akane, now retired, devotes most of her time to AIDs education at male clinics around Japan and in 2007 was invited to speak at “Worlds AIDS Day” in Tokyo. In 2008 Akane made her debut as a singer in a celebrity compilation album called Melodic Lover.
My point is, that if women choose to make a living off of sex, the oldest profession there is, and enjoy the work—then I don’t see why we should deny them this right. As the above women have proven, they’re not merely one dimensional nymphomiacs. Rather, they are hypersexual women, and ought to be respected for it, instead of admonished or shunned. Also, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that pornography isn’t just a cultural side effect wrought by a patriarchal society ending in the objectification of women, as this is not entirely true either. In fact, even if there were no patriarchal basis for such an industry, I’m confident that there would still be a porn industry (albeit somewhat diminished).
In 2003 a study revealed that nearly 10 million American women logged onto pornography websites each week.[x] What this means is, simply put, the demand for viewing porn is not merely coming from males. Even though males dominate the lion’s share of the consumer market, there are enough women, who enjoy watching porn, to sustain a small independent adult entertainment industry. There has long been a consensus that men are more sexually responsive to visual stimuli than women. But recent studies show that it is women who are more responsive to the viewing of sexual imagery. In his book How Sex Works Sharon Moalem refers to a 2004 report that showed women are aroused at the same rate as men, and usually to a larger variety of sexual images, whereas, in a 2007 study, found that men are more focused on faces than women. Moalem explains the reason for this being:
Much of the increased activity is centered in the amygdala, which is deeply involved in processing emotion. So the increased brain activity may be the result of all the time men spend looking at faces. Men may be more consciously responsive to visual sexual stimuli than women because they’re more emotional about it.[xi]
Contrary to popular belief, men aren’t just misogynistic, womanizing, bastards who want to watch sex, but rather, the viewing of sex pulls an emotional trigger in men which stimulates them beyond the mere physical arousal. Furthermore, it seems women are no different. So even if we were to live in a perfect world where the objectification of women was minimal, this doesn’t necessarily mean there wouldn’t be a booming porn industry.
A Controversial Conclusion
Although many will disagree with me, and I invite an informed discussion on the subject, it is my opinion that pornography currently serves a socio-cultural purpose. The sociology and science behind pornography suggests it provides a focus for male aggression and sexual tension, thus lowering the violent sex crimes (such as rape) against women, and the statistical data supports this conclusion. Meanwhile, women may choose to exploit the industry, or else do it for the love of sex, and in either case I have no objections—as long as they are aware of what they are getting into.
Basically, there is a logical conclusion hidden in all this information, whether or not you view pornography as distasteful or not, the fact of the matter is, it’s not harmful to society—but rather is beneficial in more ways than one. That is, quite simply, the more pornography there is—the less sex crimes there are. This trend is a powerful reminder that making porn illegal would only seek to reverse the trend and may even make it harder for women in patriarchal societies to find other means of expression—or worse—may impede upon their very rights by giving them no choice in the objectification of their person (as the case with the virgin fetish cultures seems to reveal). Therefore, it is simply a bad idea to ban pornography outright. It’s a worse idea still to ban the act behind the deed, so to speak, since this only interferes with the sexual emancipation of women. The world currently needs pornography, whether we want to admit it or not. Maybe someday we will evolve beyond our baser instinct, but until that time, Pornography is here to stay.
[i] James Ellias, Porn 101: Eroticism, Pornography, and the First Amendment, p.217 (Prometheus Books, 1999)
[v] Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby, The Porn Report, p.28-30 (Melbourne University Press, 2008) Preview available on Google books:
[viii] —Most recently in Saudi Arabia where four women and eleven men were sentenced to be beaten and flogged simply for mingling. One of the females was a minor, a child, and was sentenced to 80 lashes. A child beaten for talking to another person all because of misguided thinking based on a superstitious purity myth. Of course, there are other factors at play, indeed, this happened in a country which follows a strict interpretation of Islam—one of the most purity fetish driven belief systems in the world. Still, beating men, women, and children simply for having a conversation is an assault on basic human values—and is immoral in the highest sense of the word. See: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3909250,00.html
[x] Milton Diamond, “Pornography, Public Acceptance and Sex Related Crime: A Review,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32 (2009) 304-314; corrected with Corrigendum IJLP 33 (2010) 197-199. Available online:
[xi] Sharon Moalem, How Sex Works, p.100 (Harper-Collins, 2010).