Saturday, April 30, 2005

Pornography and Censorship

[Here's another of my old first-year essays from phil 139. Not my best, but it's a fun topic, at least. Comments are welcome as always.]

Does the value of free speech mean that pornography should not be censored?

The issue of censorship is a complex one, which requires some clarification before any useful discussion can begin. To precisely define ‘pornography’ is no easy matter, but for the sake of this essay I will take it to mean “sexually orientated material of a graphic nature designed for recreation rather than education”.[1] It is important to note that this refers only to legal acts between consenting adults – that any sort of abuse (including child abuse) would be covered by existing laws prohibiting the acts themselves, so need not be further considered here. Rather, we must ask whether acts which are acceptable when conducted in private, become criminal or immoral when publicised. Assuming the value of free speech applies by default, what must be considered is whether or not pornography causes sufficient harm to override this liberty.

An obvious objection to pornography is that many people find it offensive. Such appeals to community standards of taste or morality are typical of ‘conservative’ arguments. Yet this sort of complaint is precisely what free speech protects against. The aversion needs to be justified – its mere presence is no justification. One could feel offended by another practicing a religion different to their own, or at persons of a different race using the same public facilities as them. Distaste founded in intolerance is merely bigotry, and cannot justify restricting others’ freedom. Lord Justice Devlin tries to do so by arguing that if the community’s common values were not upheld, “society would disintegrate”,[2] but while this undoubtedly holds true for many criminal laws, it seems rather implausible to apply it to pornography. To Mill, appealing to the preferences of others “is still only many people’s liking instead of one”.[3]

Whilst being offended by others’ actions is clearly no reason to outlaw those actions, being offended by the consequences to oneself is a slightly different matter. One can sympathise with Mackinnon when she insists: “pornography should never be imposed on a viewer who does not choose… to be exposed to it”.[4] It might be reasonable to place some restrictions on pornography, so that it is accessible to those who want it, but others are still free to avoid it. I would suggest however, that such legislation would be unnecessary, for anything which is sufficiently offensive to enough people, could generally be kept distant by the power of social stigmatisation. One would be unlikely to come across public displays of pornography in family-frequented areas, since the intense social disapproval which would otherwise result, could only serve to embarrass customers and disrupt business.

One way of overcoming the arbitrariness of the conservative objection is to appeal to ‘family values’, complaining that pornography fundamentally undermines these. Yet Simons argues that pornography is beneficial for providing “sex by proxy”, quoting Tynan’s example of a geographically separated couple, for whom pornography succeeds in “relieving tension without involving disloyalty”.[5] Such an effect could conceivably strengthen the family unit.

A common ‘feminist’ argument for censorship claims that “pornography is an act of subordination”[6], degrading to women just in itself, rather than due to its consequences. A problem with such gender based objections, is that they clearly do not extend to gay porn. One would assume that both types are of identical moral character, and that any interpretation which contradicts this cannot be entirely complete. Perhaps they could generalise, by saying that pornography is ‘degrading to humanity’. But this is such an abstract and subjective matter, it runs into the same problems as the first conservative objection. Some may feel that it is degrading for students to work at a supermarket for minimum wage, yet it is surely their choice to do so. Similarly for pornography, the judgements of others cannot supplant the judgement of those involved.

It could be argued that pornography misrepresents reality and human nature, thus causing its consumers to have false beliefs. Langton argues that pornography “may simply leave no space for the refusal move in its depictions of sex… ‘Yes’ is one (form of consent). ‘No’ is just another”.[7] Feminists commonly argue that such misrepresentations can cause sexual discrimination or even rape (though there is no conclusive evidence to support this).[8] Another consequence may be that it restricts the free speech of women.[9] Langton identifies a more subtle form of ‘silence’ called illocutionary disablement, where one says all the right words, but they fail to perform the intended illocutionary act. Consider The boy who cried ‘Wolf’: words are spoken, but are not listened to. Langton suggests a similar silencing of women is behind date rape; “something about her, something about the role she occupies, prevents her from voicing refusal”.[10] The word ‘No’ may be said, but its meaning is lost. Whilst such an abstract problem may not fall under the typical scope of ‘free speech’, one might reasonably assert that the spirit of free speech would ideally defend people from such ‘silencing’. Whether pornography actually causes such silencing, however, is rather more doubtful.

Even if pornography was proven to adversely affect its consumers’ behaviour, the aspect of free speech protecting autonomy, would (if truly valued) still prevent any form of censorship. The ‘Millian principle’, argued by Scanlon, states that harm due to an act of expression causing people to have false beliefs, cannot justifiably be prevented by restricting the expression itself. The key behind his reasoning is that the causal contribution of the expression (pornography) is “superseded by the agent’s own judgement”.[11] To prevent the harm, the state would have to prevent any individual from hearing the false beliefs (about women) advocated (by pornography) in the first place; in which case one’s right to judge for oneself is precluded. Autonomy has been lost because “the right to decide that certain views were false” has been ceded to the state, and individuals cannot hear alternative views advocated even if they wanted to.[12]

Many arguments for censorship eventually hinge on the right of a select group of people to impose their moral beliefs or aesthetic preferences on others. A more practical approach is to claim that the consequences of pornography are too harmful for society to allow, or even that the harms themselves contradict free speech by preventing women from being ‘heard’. There is no conclusive evidence of such harms being caused by pornography, but even if there was, to prevent them by censoring pornography would nevertheless be a breach of free speech. If the harms were shown to be real, and serious enough, then this may well be something society would be willing to do. But the fact remains that the value of free speech does maintain that pornography not be censored.


Devon, P., ‘The Enforcement of Morals’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dines G., Jensen R. & Russo A., Pornography: the production and consumption of inequality, New York, Routledge, 1998.

Langton, R., ‘Pornography, Speech Acts, and Silence’[13]

Mackinnon, C., ‘Only Words’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

McNair, B., Mediated Sex: Pornography & Postmodern Culture, London, Arnold, 1996.

Mill, J., On Liberty, London, Routledge, 1910.

Scanlon, T., ‘Free Expression and the Authority of the State’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Simons, G., Pornography without Prejudice: a reply to objectors, London, Abelard-Schuman, 1972.

Wolff, J., An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.

[1] This definition is found in B. McNair, Mediated Sex: Pornography & Postmodern Culture, p.47. It is a relatively ‘neutral’ definition, which I consider to be a prerequisite for inferring any sort of objective conclusions. Many alternative definitions involve such emotive words as “dehumanising” or “degrading”, which present an initial bias before reasoned discussion has even begun.

[2] P. Devon, ‘The Enforcement of Morals’, p.139.

[3] J. Mill, On Liberty, p.8. It is interesting that Mill himself later says that “offences against decency” (which one could assume includes pornography) “may rightfully be prohibited” (p.146). This is in stark contradiction to his earlier arguments, as J. Wolff (An Introduction to Political Philosophy, p.140) points out, “Here Mill…seems to allow customary morality to override his adherence to the Liberty Principle”.

[4] C. Mackinnon, ‘Only Words’, p.153.

[5] G. Simons, Pornography without Prejudice: a reply to objectors, p.90.

[6] R. Langton, ‘Pornography, Speech Acts, and Silence’, p.339.

[7] Ibid., p.346. Note that Jensen’s analysis of pornographic novels (Dines, Jensen & Russo, Pornography: the production and consumption of inequality, p.90-91) provides the empirical evidence to support this claim: no female characters rejected sex from any man – though many resisted at first but were “overcome by lust” as the man began to force her.

[8] So concluded the (UK) Williams report, and the (US) Johnson commission suggested that it may (if anything) cause a slight decline in sexual crime – in Germany the incidence of rape decreased after pornography became more accessible, leading Kutchinsky to conclude that “these developments leave hardly any doubt that pornography does not cause rape” (McNair, p.62).

[9] Langton, pp.343-8.

[10] Langton, p.345.

[11] T. Scanlon, ‘Free Expression and the Authority of the State’, p.145.

[12] Ibid., p.147.

[13] from Photocopy R6554 in the University of Canterbury library. Other title is Free speech, chapter 33, but no further bibliographical information was available.


  1. Hey... I came across this post and couldn't resist saying a few things. Though I'm not even sure whether you'll see this, as it's not a very recent post. But nonetheless...

    1)You're basing your argument on the claim that pornography is speech, and as such, that it should be protected. Now you could wonder whether or not it's actually justified to base your defence of pornography on such a claim. This is mainly due to the following reason: is porn truly speech, or could it qualify as action? You hinted at that point when you talked about pornography as being an act of subordination. As soon as you can qualify porn as an act, then it can't be defended as speech.

    2) Now, you dismiss porn as being an act of subordination of women because you think that feminists are not being consistent, since they should also consider gay porn as being an act of subordination, due to the fact that "both types are of identical moral character". This argument doesn't hold if you consider that feminists don't oppose porn on moral grounds, but exclusively because it may harm women. As such, male gay porn doesn't come in the equation (though lesbian porn does, since as the argument goes, it's mainly produced for men, and as such, may lead to some harm).

    3) Also... you used the principle of autonomy to justify access to porn. But again, it doesn't quite work. You say people should be free to decide whether or not statements are true (ok, let's suppose porn is speech). I'm inclined to agree, though there are exceptions. What about hate speech, such as racist speech? Should such statements that can potentially heighten racist discrimination be allowed? Wouldn't such statements diminish the autonomy of black people for instance? Now obviously, it is not proven that pornography amounts to hate speech, but the opposite -ie that porn is similar to hate speech- is nonetheless at the heart of a fierce debate that cannot be so easily dismissed (eg: porn shows a distorted image of women's sexuality, objectifies women, etc. Studies have also shown that rape myths -such as the belief that women actually enjoy being raped (!)- are more easily believed by people having been exposed to even short viewing of porn). The principle of autonomy has to be used carefully; there's clearly a balance process that has to take place here...

    I understand you wrote this a while ago, but i'd be curious to know what your views on the subject are now and if they have changed. It sometimes seems that you had pretty clear-cut views (ie: that porn should be legal) before you even looked at the debate, and tried to shape your argument accordingly... Now, I might be wrong. But I was just thinking you might have, because that's the state of mind I was in when I started my own essay on porn... until I realised that it wasn't going to work. I do believe that censorship cannot be justified on the ground that some people claim that their "moral beliefs or aesthetic preferences" are better than others'. However, once this is established, there's still the crucial need to see whether or not certain kinds of porn have consequences on other people... I'm clearly interested in women's rights here. It just seems like you dismiss this side rather too easily. This is especially true if you base your defence of porn on the right to free speech.

    Now as I said, I'm really curious about what you think, and whether or not your views have changed.

  2. Hi Alexandra, I don't think my views have substantially changed, though I might make some slight modifications to the arguments made in this two year old essay.

    The core issue is the empirical question whether pornography causes real harm (e.g. through promoting pernicious attitudes towards women, or triggering rapists, etc.). I'm not aware of any conclusive evidence that supports such a claim. I would guess that religion does more harm than pornography.

    But if we could show that there was significant harm done, then the issue would certainly warrant more careful examination. In particular, we would need to judge whether the benefits of censorship are worth the breach of autonomy that it entails. That's not something we can answer without getting into the finer details. (Much like the question of whether hate speech ought to be criminalized. Incitement to violence obviously should, but for more mild forms of immoral suggestion? I'm not so sure about that.)

    So, yes, I agree with you that there's a "balance process" involved.

  3. Hi, thanks for replying...

    You see, that's my problem with pornography. It is much too often thought to be totally harmless. While I haven't come across any conclusive studies on the matter that would actually prove that pornography directly causes harm to women, there is no doubt to me that it is linked to some serious damage. That said, we'll have to agree that it is not justified to prohibit porn, or even to censor it.

    Now does the correlation between porn and harm allow us to act on the question (given that we agree on the correlation between porn and harm)? I think so, though it obviously cannot be through coercive action that would curtail people's right and liberty to watch porn. The best solution I have come up with is along the line of some sort of sexual education and/or courses on the idea of representation (obviously a bit unpractical for adults, but anyway I do believe the issues should be tackled at a young stage). This would exclusively be in the intention of giving people the tools that will enable them to see that porn is situated in discourse and that it doesn't depict reality (it is truly surprising that quite a large number of people believe that porn is a depiction of raw reality). Since I have come to the conclusion that this distortion of reality in porn is the most objectionable (because linked to harm), such a solution would benefit everyone. Obviously it is a long-term solution rather than a short-term one.

    I definitely have strong doubts about immorality being a strong enough justification on its own to prohibit/censor anything. I'm not even sure I would qualify porn as immoral. It all depends on your definition of immorality.


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