Should Pornography Be Censored?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 8 - Applied Social and Ethical Problems
David Ward, presentation to North American Society for Social Philosophy
Kem Stone - 19 June 2008
Before beginning to argue that pornography should be banned or censored, one must not only demonstrate that it
is harmful, either to a person’s individual psychology or to society as a whole, but that the degree of harm which it
causes is sufficient to justify rendering it illegal.  The presentation given by David Ward on this issue is primarily a
response to an article by Helen E. Longino, who argues that pornography is harmful, and that it is harmful enough
to justify censorship.  Ward agrees that pornography is harmful, but does not agree that it ought to be censored.  I
do not completely agree with either of them, as I do not believe that pornography is harmful, at least no more so
than violent video games or rap lyrics that demean women.  Perhaps these things do constitute a certain degree of
harm in that they reinforce pre-existing social prejudices (violence is acceptable, women are sex objects, etc.) but
that such harms are so minor that to make it illegal would be akin to passing life-sentences for jay-walking: the
remedy would be more harmful than the disease.  In this I am in agreement with Ward, though he is willing to grant
Longino far more than I believe her position on the harmful effects of pornography warrants.  I will argue against
Ward’s position that pornography causes serious harm, but argue in support of his position that censorship is not
an appropriate response.

Ward begins by presenting Longino’s definition of pornography, which comes from the Commission on Obscenity
and Pornography, as “explicit representations of sexual behaviour which have as a distinguishing characteristic the
degrading and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female…as a mere sexual object to be
exploited and manipulated sexually” (523).  Some important points to note about Longino’s definition are that the
degrading sexual behaviour is presented in such a way as to endorse the degradation, and that this degradation is
not diminished by the fact that all participants have consented.  Longino charges that pornography is guilty of lying
by saying that a woman’s sexual life is subordinate to the service of men, that their pleasure consists only in
pleasing men, they are depraved and fit subjects for rape, bondage, torture, and murder.  These lies contribute to
a warped image of womanhood in the minds of both women and men, a claim which Longino supports by saying
that a growing body of research is finding a correlation between exposure to representations of violence and the
committing of violent acts, as well as a correlation between exposure to pornography and the committing of
sexually abusive acts against women.  Several objections can be raised to these claims, but they will be dealt with
shortly.

Before offering his first objections, Ward agrees with Longino’s opinion that pornography is harmful.  “She is
certainly correct in claiming that the feature which distinguishes pornographic (and immoral) depictions of sexual
behaviour is the element of degradation.  Erotica
per se need carry no implication of degradation or of the
endorsement of degradation.  It is the addition of the element of degradation which both distinguishes pornography
from the wider class of erotica and which makes pornography problematic” (525).  Ward believes that any
depiction of sexual behaviour in which the pleasure of some participants is treated as less worthy than that of
others is inherently demeaning, and therefore falls into the class of harmful pornography.  I believe that the
distinction Ward draws here between what is acceptable or unacceptable in portrayals of sexual behaviour is
somewhat frivolous, and merely provides an opportunity for some who would otherwise defend pornography to
take the moral high ground.  Apparently those who are aroused by watching normal sexual intercourse are
perfectly entitled to watch such depictions, while those who are aroused by elements of sexual degradation are in
moral error when watching
these kinds of depictions.  Perhaps this argument would hold some weight if it could
be shown that portrayals of bondage or torture actually
cause people to be aroused by such things, but the
obvious truth is that some people are aroused by these things without any kind of prompt from pornographic
portrayals, which merely satisfy a pre-existing demand.  This would be like arguing that films and television shows
with homosexual protagonists actually influence people to become homosexuals, rather than portraying something
that already exists and has existed since before human history.  Charging that erotica itself is acceptable while
portrayals of degradation are immoral is just as arbitrary an ethical distinction as the charge that heterosexual sex
is acceptable while homosexual sex is immoral.

It is therefore interesting that Ward uses the issue of homosexuality as his first objection to Longino.  “Longino’s
characterisation logically excludes the possibility of male homosexual pornography.  If all the participants depicted
are male, and a necessary condition for a portrayal’s being pornographic is that it contain elements degrading to
women, then no depiction which focuses exclusively on male homosexual conduct could count as pornographic”
(525).  Ward’s accusation is that Longino’s definition of pornography is too narrow, and focuses too exclusively
on the demeaning of women.  As Ward points out, men are also demeaned by being portrayed as brutes who are
interested in women only insofar as they can be used as objects for sexual gratification.  Ward also points out,
though he calls this a “minor point”, that there are many pornographic depictions of men as subjects for humiliation
and abuse by women.  I believe this point is more important, as it raises the issue of just how wide a range of
types of sexual behaviour are depicted in pornographic materials.  Just about every kind of behaviour that can be
imagined has been filmed and distributed, and only a percentage can be characterized as “demeaning to women”.  
If Longino’s only objection to pornography is that it degrades women, she might simply argue that only these
kinds of pornographic materials ought to be banned, which is clearly an arbitrary distinction.  Longino seems not
to take issue with pornography in general, but in a certain specific
type of pornography that she happens to find
distasteful.

There is a counter-argument that Longino could put forward that Ward suggests but ultimately rejects.  Longino
and those of the same mind could argue that pornography that is degrading to men is not as harmful as that
degrading to women because it does not have the same undesirable effects.  “This line of reasoning would be
similar to that which holds that only whites can be racists, because blacks and members of other oppressed ethnic
or racial minorities lack the power to act upon sentiments of racial hostility” (526) Ward points out that this
objection also fails to cover male homosexual pornography, as gay men are clearly part of an oppressed group
whose sexuality has been depicted in a distorted way by our culture in the same way as female sexuality has been
distorted by the kind of pornography to which Longino objects.  Also, the objection does not take into account
whether the depictions are intrinsically demeaning, but focuses only on their purported effects.  I would respond to
this counter-argument by insisting on solid evidence that depictions of demeaning sexual behaviour have harmful
effects in the first place, which is the issue that Ward turns to next.

The strongest claim against pornography, as Ward points out, is that it
causes violent behaviour towards women.  
Yet the issue of causality is so wrought with philosophical difficulties, especially in terms of human behaviour, that
to prove such a claim is next to impossible.  Longino points to studies that show a correlation between exposure
to pornography and expressed attitudes towards women.  Yet these experiments do not measure behaviour, nor
do they even measure real attitudes, but only the attitudes expressed by the subjects undergoing the experiment.  
Such studies can neither prove nor disprove a causal relationship between pornography and violence towards
women.  And even if a correlation between exposure to pornography and violent behaviour
could be shown, we
would still be left with the philosophical problems of whether human behaviour is to be explained causally and
what the nature of causality is
per se, as well as the very practical problem of determining the reason for the
correlation.  As Ward notes, the social science experiments that Longino uses to defend her position make no
room for autonomous judgment between the stimulus and the response.  A subject, after being exposed to
pornography and asked questions to determine any change in his attitude, does not automatically respond without
thinking, but will consider how to respond to the questions asked and give an answer that may only be what he
believes the experimenters want to hear, what he believes they might
not want to hear, or based on any one of an
infinite amount of possible reasons to reply in the way he chooses.  As Ward concludes, it is clear that no study of
this kind can possibly demonstrate the kind of causal relationship that Longino insists is there.

This raises what I believe is the most important point in the entire debate—that human behaviour is not
mechanical.  It is not as though exposing a person to violent pornography leaves them with no choice but to
commit violent acts against women.  People can choose to be abusive to women with or without prior exposure to
degrading depictions.  Ward correctly points out that “we are in some relevant sense
responsible for our
responses to exposure to such things as pornography, both in our attitudes and our behaviour.  If we pursue
seriously the claim that exposure to pornography literally
causes negative attitudinal or behavioural changes, we
are dangerously close to absolving those with sexist attitudes and those who engage in sexual violence from
responsibility for their actions” (527).  If we place all the blame for violence towards women on pornography,
then anyone standing trial for committing such violence could justifiably claim that he is not guilty, that prior
exposure to pornography left him with no choice but to act on the inclinations it caused him to have.  Clearly,
anyone who chooses to watch violent pornography probably already has these inclinations, and may be inclined to
act on them whether or not he sees it done beforehand on video.  Holding the pornographer responsible for the
sex criminal is just as backwards as holding the video game developers responsible for school shootings.  People
not only choose their actions, but they choose their influences as well.  Our justice system recognises that it is the
person who commits the crime that bears the responsibility—not those whom the criminal has chosen as his
influence.

Even if pornography is a negative influence, censorship would not be the appropriate response.  “If a causal agent
produces some undesirable effect, the most obvious solution is to eliminate that offending causal agent.  If on the
other hand, we conceive of the influence of pornography in terms of the persuasive power of speech, remedies
other than censorship, such as counter-persuasion, suggest themselves” (527).  The U.S. Constitution protects
those who hold hate-rallies against blacks, homosexuals, and other minorities, though their speech can certainly
influence people to commit violence.  It would be nothing short of hypocritical to ban pornography for the same
reason, especially when pornography is so much less harmful.  Ward, however, believes that it is seriously
harmful, that it encourages, supports, and disseminates demeaning attitudes towards women and human sexuality.  
That these attitudes are already prevalent in society is no excuse, as pornography still causes harm by reinforcing
these negative attitudes when we should be working to reverse them.  Whether pornography warrants this
criticism is an issue I will return to later on.

If we grant that pornography
is harmful, we still must determine whether censorship is an appropriate remedy to
this harm.  Longino’s position is based on a particular version of the principle of harm: actions which harm
innocent others are immoral and therefore ought to be forbidden.  But Ward argues that this principle is false—
that just because something is harmful does not entail that it is justifiably forbidden.  One could object on
Consequentialist grounds by arguing that a harmful action may only be forbidden if its prohibition causes less harm
than permitting it.  For instance, although alcohol causes harm, the consequences of its prohibition have historically
turned out to be
more harmful.  One could also object on deontological grounds, holding that persons have a right
to commit some harmful actions simply by virtue of their nature as autonomous rational agents.  Because Longino
does not even consider the deontological case, Ward focuses mainly on the Consequentialist objection.

It is clear that the consequences of censorship will be harmful, but Ward must show that these harms outweigh the
alleged harms of pornography.  Any regulation of speech threatens the freedom of expression, particularly in cases
such as these where the terms are particularly hard to define.  If it is resolved to ban all material that portrays
sexual degradation in such a way as to endorse the degradation, the result would be endless confusion and
controversy over what exactly fits into this designation.  “Certainly there would be clear-cut cases, cases that
would count as degrading if anything were to count as degrading, and cases in which the endorsement of the
degradation could be uncontroversially read off the face of the depiction.  But this characterisation is so vague that
the ‘grey area’ between material patently degrading and that which is clearly not degrading is unworkably wide.  It
is a commonplace of jurisprudence that citizens have a right to know clearly what the law forbids.  Under Longino’
s characterisation we would have an unacceptably wide area of sincere and rationally defensible disagreement as
to both the degrading character of portrayals and the point of view of those portrayals” (528).  A definition of
pornography such as the one Longino gives is particularly problematic because it can be argued that no depiction
of degradation actually
endorses the degradation—it merely presents the sex act without passing judgment either
way.  Whether simply filming and distributing it can be called an implicit endorsement would be another point for
endless legal debate.

But giving judges headaches is not the only harm that a ban on pornography would bring about.  It is not without
historical precedent that censorship applied in one area can lead to censorship in other, perhaps less excusable
areas.  Longino would seek to protect women from demeaning depictions, but how can the courts justifiably grant
women such protection without extending this to other groups?  “To single out women as needing special
protection  from this sort of degrading material risks being patronising to women by suggesting that women are
weaker or more susceptible to damage than are members of other historically oppressed groups who have been
subject to degrading depiction” (529).  Furthermore, why only ban
sexually degrading material?  One could use
Longino’s argument to ban any degrading depiction of women.  “We have no evidence that pornographic
portrayals are more harmful than nonpornographic but degrading depictions.  And we have no evidence that
degrading depictions of women are more harmful to women (or society in general) than degrading depictions of
other oppressed minorities defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation are to members of those
groups” (529)

In order to consistently apply Longino’s principle of harm, we must forbid all degrading depictions, sexual or
otherwise, of all oppressed minorities, and if we do this we destroy the very liberties that the principle of freedom
of expression is intended to protect.  For instance, many religions explicitly endorse the subjugation of women, or
demean homosexuals by characterising their behaviour as evil.  Such beliefs may be harmful, but almost anyone
would agree that people are at least entitled to express them.  Ward therefore concludes that the harms brought
about by any large-scale implementation of vaguely defined rules of censorship, because of their infringement on
basic human freedoms, would in fact outweigh the harms of pornography’s influence.

The deontological claim against censorship is that persons are entitled to exercise a wide range of liberties because
of their inherent rights as human beings.  Though Longino does not respond to any such claims, some feminist
writers have argued that pornography violates the rights of women, which come before the rights of a
pornographer to film whatever he pleases.  Yet Ward does not feel that protection from offensive or demeaning
speech is a right, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.  If a person attacks me personally, he may have
offended me, but he has not violated my rights.  He has just as much a right to hurl insults at me as I have to ignore
him and walk away.  If his insults prompt others to physically harm me, he holds some share of the blame, but it is
the people who attacked me who are primarily responsible because they freely chose to act on his influence.  In
the same respect, the pornographer has just as much of a right to film scenes of degrading sexual behaviour as
Longino has to not watch them.  If such scenes influence others to think of Longino as a mere sex object,
they are
responsible for their attitudes and Longino can simply choose to ignore them and associate with more enlightened
individuals.

Yet such a solution is not enough for Ward, who concludes by stating that although censorship is not a justifiable
course of action, something needs to be done about the harmful influence of pornography.  As he has pointed out
earlier, the best cure for bad speech is good speech, so those who are aware of the harms of pornography should
speak out and try to influence people not to produce or consume it.  For those who agree that pornography is
harmful, this is certainly the best of course of action.  One certainly has a right to speak out against anything one
feels is wrong, though I personally believe any crusade against pornography is a waste of time.  Ward writes, “We
can expect success in this just insofar as people are responsive to reason, just insofar as autonomous rational
judgment intervenes and mediates between sensory input and resultant behaviour” (530).  If success is only
possible insofar as the pornography enthusiast is responsive to reason, I would not expect much success.

People film degrading sexual acts because there is something in the animal nature of many human beings that
respond to such scenes with arousal.  Pornography does not speak to the rational side of the brain—it is wholly
irrational.  The mind of the viewer of pornography is not filled with propositions and logical inferences, but with
only a sensation of pleasure provoked by the images on the screen.  This sensation is pornography’s reason for
existence, the source of its demand, and until the impulse to experience this sensation is stifled, pornography will
continue to be produced.  The desire to derive sexual pleasure by watching others engage in sexual intercourse
has been present since long before the first pornographic image was ever drawn on the wall of the cave, and it will
continue indefinitely unless humanity evolves into a race of artificially-reproduced cyborgs.  Even if pornography
were banned, it would still be produced and consumed just as heavily as illegal drugs currently are.  The demand
is far more powerful than the law is to combat it.

But more importantly, I think that the harms of pornography are greatly exaggerated in the first place.  Those who
engage in sexually abusive behaviour do not get their inclinations from pornography.  Nor does the attitude that
women are mere sex objects originate in pornography.  It may be true that pornography does nothing to combat
these attitudes, but that is not its function.  Pornography does not claim to capture the essence of true
womanhood, but merely to explore her sexuality.  As distasteful as it may be to some, bondage, rape fantasies,
and torture
are pleasurable to some women, and violent images of this kind are pleasurable to some men.  These
kinds of inclinations, as inexplicable and contrary to rationality as they may be,
do exist and will not go away
merely because we stop filming or watching them.

An argument can be made that pornography, when considered as one holistic phenomenon, is actually an
exploration of human sexuality in the same way that physics is an exploration of the mechanics of the universe.  
Some believe that certain scientific experiments cross ethical boundaries, but the central purpose behind all
experiments is to know more about the world.  In the same respect, the central purpose behind all pornography is
to know more about our own sexual inclinations.  One can experience pornography from a scientific mindset, from
a standpoint of self-examination, watching the scenes to determine what one finds arousing, what one finds
disgusting, and where the line between these reactions is drawn.  The women who participate in these scenes have
clearly drawn their own lines and would not allow themselves (in
most cases) to do anything they feel goes
beyond their personal comfort level.  And it is precisely because the comfort levels that people have with regard
to sexuality vary so greatly that for the most uncomfortable people to prevent the most comfortable people from
experiencing the full spectrum of sexual possibilities is a violation of personal liberty.

I will admit that I have not seen nearly as much pornography as Ward and Longino must have watched before
formulating their opinions, but the overwhelming majority of pornography that I
have seen I have found to be
either ridiculous or disgusting.  The female “characters” in these films are usually incredibly dumb, immature, and
concerned exclusively with sex.  I do not personally know any real-life women even
remotely similar to the
women in such depictions, so the idea that anyone could confuse real women with characters in pornographic
films is completely absurd to me.  I find it surprising that so many women take issue with pornography, as the
people and situations in these films are so utterly fantastic and ridiculous that no person with even the most
primitive intelligence could mistake them for a serious representation of reality.  Women such as Longino ought to
realise that the women portrayed in pornography are not
meant to represent real women; that they are merely a
prop, a false woman in a false world created from the imagination purely for the purpose of sexual pleasure.  Real
women are far more than their sexual inclinations, and most people understand that.  The ignorant few who do not
and who think that all women are like the women they see in pornography can not serve as the basis for
dismantling an entire industry, particularly one that will thrive whether or not it is banned by law.

The remedies to the minor harm that pornography does to society over-all are already in place.  For every idiotic,
empty-headed woman in a pornography film, there is a strong-willed intelligent woman on the news, in politics, or
as a character in television and movies.  The average person’s perception of women will be far more influenced by
these portrayals than the clearly artificial fantasy-women in pornography.  Those who do believe that women are
nothing more than sex-toys to be played with will probably not find their attitudes altered very much should it
suddenly become impossible to watch pornography.  And for those very few depraved individuals who watch
violence done to women in pornography and then go out and commit these heinous acts themselves on non-
consenting women, a remedy already exists for this as well: prison.  Those who argue for censorship of
pornography, rap lyrics, violent video games, or any other perceived social ill are misdirecting blame from where it
properly belongs.  If we wish to preserve our freedom we must distinguish between the criminal and the influence,
and place the responsibility for the crime where it belongs.