Pornography, Erotica and the Obscene

My final essay for intro to visual cultrure II.


Pornography, Erotica and the Obscene

A search through the constant ambiguity of sex and art


What is pornography?

My original intent for this essay was to simply compare and contrast famous representations of nudes in fine art to modern soft-core pornography throughout history.  Unfortunately, this seemingly straight forward topic turned out to be more challenging than it seemed at first glance. As soon as I tried to define pornography I arrived at a block; pornography as a term is problematic as there is not one clear definition for what it means, instead there are many definitions fighting for dominance.  As Justice Potter Stewart struggled to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . But I know it when I see it . . . ” The definition for such sexual representations remains ambiguous. Pornography is too subjective a subject to be articulated within one or two sentences, and therefore in my search for answers I continued to arrive at more questions.

When I think about pornography, the first thing that comes to mind is bleach blond haired women with fake breasts who act in ways that are alien to my own sexual experiences.  Contemporary pornography is glossy and fake, it makes sex seem like something that is easy to package up into neat little boxes. Sexuality and intercourse are infinitely  more complex than the majority of popular sexual representations.  Everyone experiences sex in different ways, and appreciate different aspects of sexuality, since it’s such a personal private thing.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines pornography  as “the depiction of erotic behaviour (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.” This definition is a broad one in that it could easily apply to erotica as well as pornography,  but  it’s the most objective definition available.  Pornography teeters somewhere in the middle of what is considered erotica and what is considered obscene, although both erotica and pornography can be considered obscene in their own right.  Not all representations of sexuality are contained under the dirty umbrella word of pornography, in fact most art that involves sex is considered “erotica” or “erotic.”  Pornography and erotica often are contrasted against each other as a way of defining both terms, although sometimes it’s difficult to see where exactly the line is drawn between the two. Pornography is seen to be about power and control, and the women in the works are often dominated and subjected to the masculine figure.  Erotica is supposedly represents gender equality, and there is an aspect of love or Eros.  Alyce Mahon argues that the most important difference between erotica and pornography is intent. Pornography’s only intent is to stimulate the viewer sexually and be used as a sexual aid for masturbation or sex and usually exists for the sole reason of making money.  Pornography is that which does not provoke thought or contemplation. I question this, because to me, any image can provoke thought or contemplation because everything has meaning and everything can be analysed.  Also I find the idea that the main difference between porn and erotica is intent is  problematic in that intent is too subjective and ultimately the meaning conveyed is more important to the viewer.

Was much of the “erotic” art of the past made purely for stimulating the (male) viewer sexually and if so,  couldn’t that “erotic art” be seen as a type of pornography?  Looking back on sexuality in art before the term “pornography” even existed in its contemporary context, one cannot help but ask why some pieces still fall into the category of “erotic art” while they seem to be pornographic by today’s standards.  For example, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Hokusai (1820) appears to be conceived from pure male fantasy both by name and by what the image portrays. The woodcut depicts a naked woman laying on a rocky beach with two octopi. Their tentacles are wrapped around her limbs and one appears to be performing cunnilingus.   It is very graphic and seems to be a precursor to modern Japanese tentacle porn, which is often about rape.

Perhaps what defines pornography is less about what is depicted, but more about the medium on which it is depicted.  Without the advancements of  photography and film, pornography as we know it could not exist.  Photographs and films are easy to replicate and create mass quantities of the work and therefore are ideal for mass producing and distribution.  Writing, cartoons, and  animation are also commonly used as mediums for pornographic images.   By Mahon’s definition of pornography, other mediums such as painting and sculpture would very rarely be used to create pornography since these mediums cannot make as large of a profit for their inability to be mass produced.

Another conundrum I came to when approaching the idea of pornography was how, as a self-proclaimed feminist, do I stay as neutral as possible? It’s also important to consider both sides of the feminist debate on pornography; the anti-pornography feminist  and the pro-sex feminist.  To look at why pornography is causes a divide from a feministic view point, we have to look at representation of women in a much broader sense. Throughout time “images of woman have been seen as the property and providence of men” ( Borzello 10) thus, it’s logical that representations of women in such images would conform to the ideals of the male fantasy. As Laura Mulvey explains through her essay “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”: “Woman… stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” If

this is true in non-pornographic material, then it is especially true in pornography.
Mulvey also talks about the two conflicting  structures that come with the pleasure of looking: “The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen.”  In pornography the first view point reins over the second as pornography is in itself  is more about a detached controlling gaze than the viewer identifying with the image being seen. The viewer watches the female on screen with a desensitization in that she is an object that is quickly demystified.   Perhaps erotica is more developed through the second as the viewer identifies with the person and/or act being portrayed.

In pornography, not only is the female dominated on the screen, she is dominated and controlled by the often male viewer. Does the male viewer the project himself onto the often faceless male porn-stars? In film pornography there is often hardly any storyline, just fantastical situations, as Angela Carter explains “the function of plot in a pornographic narrative is always the same. It exists to provide as many opportunities as possible for the sexual act to take place… Characterization is necessarily limited to the formal necessity for the actors to fuck as frequently and ingeniously as possible.” (Carter 12) Therefor it is difficult to tell who is the protagonist and who the viewer is suppose to relate to. Perhaps the viewer is meant to be what he is; a voyeur, watching the scene from a hidden location.

Anti-pornography feminists believe that the very existence of pornography damages women’s chance of equality and relations of mutual respect with men.  As Catherine Mackinnon states “women will never have the dignity, security, compensation that is the promise of equality so long as pornography exists as it does now.”(417) Feminists also believe that pornography and the treatment of women as sexual objects silences women.  Anti-pornography feminists did not attempt to eradicate pornography and images that demean women, they merely seek to create awareness and to empower women to voice themselves against these representations.  It’s important to note that representations of women as sexual objects are by no means restricted to pornography.

The other side, the pro-sex feminists, thought the goal of sexual freedom and sexual expression was a more important focus than the sexual victimization of women in pornography. The pro-sex feminists sought to change attitudes about sexuality and women, They believed “we should not agitate for more laws against pornography, but should rather stand up and say what we feel about it, and what we feel about our own sexuality, and force men to re-examine their own attitudes to sex and women  explicit in their consumption of porn… We should make it clear that porn is a symptom of our sexist society, a reflection of its assumptions.”

The right wing view of pornography (the langford report) views anything seen as abnormal as unhealthy. sexuality that exists inside a relationship is seen as healthy. “It then defines pornography as anything that is capable of producing or suggesting behaviour outside of this norm.” Pornography from this view is seen as something that causes antisocial behaviour, and a decline in social values. Although anti-pornography feminists and conservatives both believe pornography is not a expression of healthy sex, but of a warped desire, although feminists do not believe  that pornography is a product of  declining social values; they believe that pornography is caused by antagonism between men as the subjects ofpornography and women as the passive sexual objects.

The left side or the Williams report of pornography believes that the public and private are different because they entail different concepts of freedom and impose different duties on the legislature. The private is seen something that is purely private and personal; something that should have no imposed morality and as little outside intervention as possible. The public is seen as something  in which individuals must curb certain activities for the safety and well being of others. Therefore  they believe that pornography should be available to individuals no matter what unless it can be proved that it’s presence in individuals lives interrupts or disturbs others in society going on there everyday life. Until there is proof that pornography harms society as a whole, the liberals believe that pornography should be given a legal play in our society. Nether feminists nor right wingers can accept pornography as a private matter.

Pornography is quickly becoming normalized; it is on longer seen as a social faux-pas to admit to viewing pornography.   Nothing is shocking anymore. Pornography teaches our children about sex, as many peoples first introduction to sex was through dirty magazines, now there is the internet readily available. Soft-core pornography is now showing up in advertisements without anyone except the feminists protesting it. How do we continue to live in a world saturated in pornography and what long term effects will it have on our society?

Do I believe porn should be illegal? No, but I do believe that the pornography that is being made today is often soulless and cold; and I think that a new sort of realism needs to be brought back to the most widespread depiction of sex that we have today. I think that the way to fix the representation of sex is not to regulate or restrict but to embrace and to take back. I think that if people do not like the pornography that is wide spread right now, we should band together and create something better, or at least support others attempting to do this. Pornography does not need to be a dirty word and I feel that the best way to get rid of something is not to ban it, but to replace it with something that is more meaningful.  Can

Pornography be humanized in a way that is commercially accepted?
What would porn in which the men and women in it are equal, look like? Perhaps like Joe Swanberg’s web series “young American bodies” on  which calls itself “a candid, no-holds-barred look at the intersecting love lives of six 20-somethings in Chicago” that includes an uncensored view of their sex lives with equal coverage of male and female genitals. Maybe just the fact that “porn” like this is starting to show up shows that the landscape of pornography and sexual representation has already started to change.


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