Why We Can’t Agree on What is Pornography
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart attempted to define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio. Famously, he said that he wasn’t able to define pornography but said “I know it when I see it.” Even today, definitions of pornography are difficult to pin down, leaving the question “what is pornography?” difficult to get clear about.
Willoughby and Busby (2016) found that defining pornography is still problematic. For example, some people will see a certain image as pornographic but for other’s it won’t be. That’s not really a surprise, because the things that are sexually arousing vary from person to person.
How it varies
This makes the life of a pornography researcher difficult. If you ask someone if they view pornography, different people may give differing answers even if they saw the same set of images. This introduce an elements of unreliability into research regarding pornography usage. For instance, men in the research typically rated some items of sexual media as being more likely to be pornographic than women did. Similarly, people who were religious were more likely to assess items as being pornographic than those who were not.
The research indicated that married people were more likely to see a given item of media as being pornographic than single people (interestingly, this difference did not extend to people who were in a committed relationship but unmarried).
Another surprising result to come out of the study is that some individuals see very few types of sexual media as being pornographic. Typically, these include people who are more regular users of pornography. On the other hand, other individuals see all types of sexual content in media as being pornographic. Both groups seemingly are not making fine distinctions between different sorts of sexual media – it’s all pornographic, or it’s all not pornographic. This has the potential to skew results of research into pornography use, so the question ‘what is pornography?’is critical define in each research instance.
Ultimately, is it as simple as sexual content + discomfort = pornography?
What do you think?
You can test yourself by considering the following scenario. At what point does ‘pornography’ occur, and why?:
1. A couple have consensual sex.
2. A couple have consensual sex and video it.
3. A couple have consensual sex and video it, then watch the video later.
4. A couple have consensual sex and video it, then show a friend the video.
5. A couple have consensual sex and video it, then put the video on a private website.
6. A couple have consensual sex and video it, then put the video on a public website.
7. A couple have consensual sex and video it, then put the video on a public website and charge people to watch it.
8. The couple’s video is pirated and sold by other people.
9. One member of the couple wants the video to be destroyed.
10. The video is remade with exactly the same content but filmed by an pornography producer using paid actors.
Does your opinion change if you substitute ‘married couple’ for ‘couple’? Or if you change ‘consensual’ to another word?
Let me know what you think in the comments. Now, read about who owns your sexuality?
– Tim Hill
Willoughby, B. J., & Busby, D. M. (2016). In the Eye of the Beholder: Exploring Variations in the Perceptions of Pornography. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(6), 678–688. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2015.1013601
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