DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L125-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

1. What is pornography?

The question appears simple, but it admits of many conflicting answers. Etymologically, ‘pornography’ means the depiction of women as prostitutes, and although this may now appear an inappropriate definition, some feminists have appealed to it as part of an argument for the legal restriction of pornography. Thus Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon (1988) have proposed that pornography be defined as ‘the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women whether in pictures or in words’, and they go on to include within the definition representations in which women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects or commodities, or as whores by nature, or as experiencing sexual pleasure in being raped. The definition is contentious for a number of reasons. First, it seems unduly restrictive, since it excludes, for example, gay pornography and child pornography. Moreover, the definition is value-laden. In declaring that pornography definitionally involves the subordination of women, Dworkin and MacKinnon assume that it is morally wrong but this needs to be shown, not simply stated. For these reasons, some writers have proposed a ‘neutral’ definition of pornography, which aims to identify pornographic material by reference to its degree of sexual explicitness and to leave open the question whether such explicitness is morally objectionable or an appropriate object of legal restriction.

An example of this second approach is the 1979 Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in England and Wales (‘The Williams Report’). The Report uses the term ‘pornography’ to refer to ‘a book, verse, painting, photograph, film, or some such thing – what may in general be called a representation’, and proposes that ‘a pornographic representation is one that combines two features: it has a certain function or intention, to arouse its audience sexually, and also a certain content, explicit representations of sexual material (organs, postures, activity etc.). A work has to have both this function and this content to be a piece of pornography’ (8.2). This definition simply refers to the function and content of representations and leaves questions of morality and of legal restriction to be addressed separately.

However, this definition has also been criticized on the grounds that it does not accurately reflect current usage. Thus, the 1986 Meese Commission in the United States declared that ‘the appellation "pornography" is undoubtedly pejorative’, and objected to the Williams definition because it did not reflect this fact. Similarly the US Johnson Commission (1970) declined to use the term at all in its legal recommendations, arguing that it appeared to have ‘no legal significance and most often denoted subjective disapproval of material rather than its content or effect’.

There is, therefore, considerable controversy surrounding the definition of pornography: in ordinary usage it appears to be a pejorative term, which expresses subjective disapproval of sexually explicit material; but it is argued that to be useful in a legal context it must go beyond the merely subjective and make reference to content and function in a way which is, as far as possible, morally neutral.

Citing this article:
Mendus, Susan. What is pornography?. Pornography, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L125-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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