The debate over whether pornography has a detrimental effect on society has been long and hard. People’s opinions are often stiff and rigid, and most are unwilling to bend over backwards in order to accommodate alternative viewpoints. Innuendo aside, the fact remains that it isn’t quite clear whether or not pornography is a dangerous institution. Arguments made by Catherine MacKinnon and Sallie Tisdale attempt to further this dialogue. After carefully examining each woman’s work, it can be said that pornography is dangerous, in that it often distorts reality and projects it as “real”, but by the same token, this is one of its biggest assets.
Catherine MacKinnon, in her coldly written essay, states that pornography (and the obscenity laws of the United States) are key in promoting the institutions of male dominance. She clearly makes the distinction between morality and politics early on, stating that her feminist perspective stems from a political base, concerned with power versus powerlessness. MacKinnon goes on to say that pornography takes images of women being hurt, raped, and degraded and turns them into objects. These objects are then taken as “natural” images among men. When men see women in this light, they assume that this is how women are to be treated. (This distortion of reality by a medium is often talked about extensively in media theory, namely Marshall McLuhan’s “media is the message” thesis. In this thesis, he states that news media create a “pseudo-environment” in order to make sense of our vast world. In doing so, they inevitably create a distorted version of our world, omitting integral items and sensationalizing others. We eventually come to believe that this “pseudo-environment” is the real world.)
While attacking obscenity law, MacKinnon points to Justice Stewart’s statement regarding what is obscene and what is not, “I know [obscenity] when I see it.” She uses this except to clearly show exactly how relative and abstract the current obscenity laws are. The laws take inherently male interests and clothe them in gender-neutral rhetoric. (The laws are able to do this partly due to the ever-present distinction between public and private in the United States legal system. Women are relegated to the private sphere due to their irrationality and emotional behavior, while men are permitted to occupy the public sphere because they are rational and supposedly objective.) The body of the law is based solely on male partiality – what is obscene to a woman is often left by the wayside. Pornography, she states, has the same problem.
Pornography institutionalizes gender inequality by fusing the notion of dominant/submissive with male/female. By seeing this role-playing in pornography, once again, she assumes that men and woman will ascribe to this idea in their real-life encounters. Theoretically, this stimuli can cause an increase in sexual aggression against women.
MacKinnon also uses Immanuel Kant in her argument, by applying his moral theory that all people are to be treated as ends in themselves. In pornography, she says, women are used as means to the end of male pleasure.
Overall, MacKinnon’s argument gives the appearance of being very tightly woven. This is mainly because she uses such cold, academic language to emphasize her point. She takes a very limited view of pornography and refuses to comment on anything other than heterosexual, dominant/submissive porn. She refuses to admit to the fact that there are times when people want to be treated as objects, or that a woman could actually enjoy engaging in sex work. By doing this, she alienates not only women (by making these women feel ashamed and deluded), but men also, for assuming that they are all predators and easily influenced by a low-budget, unrealistic movie that hides in the back room of video rental stores. While reading the article, her tone of voice sounds almost scold-like. Cocky, if you will. MacKinnon takes the idea of feminism (an ideology that should empower woman as a group, a diverse community bound by their “femaleness”) and separates women into “enlightened” and “deluded” categories.
Sallie Tisdale takes a radically different approach to pornography. She believes that porn has value within it. It has “distinction, meaning, and significance”. She makes the astute claim that porn would cease to exist if it was devoid of all value. Although her acceptance of porn is qualified, in the sense that she is against pornography that exploits children or animal and she says that “a lot of porn is junk”, it is still apparent that her view is monumentally different than that of MacKinnon. She describes certain porn as “almost Jungian” with repetitive and exaggerated movements, filled with “mythic potency and symbolic acts”. (Obviously, this type of description would be impossible to extract from MacKinnon.)
Tisdale’s main qualm concerning porn is not the repetitive images or the cheesiness of it all, but mainly the lack of selection. “Sex is infinitely variable, and porn should be, too,” she says. (On a slighter more administrative note, Tisdale takes a much more relaxed attitude about sex work in her style of writing alone. For example, throughout MacKinnon’s entire article, she never once uses the shortened “porn”. In order to sound more academic she adheres strictly to “pornography”. Of course, distinctions like this are a moot point when Tisdale uses slang such as “big pricks” and “knockers” in order to make her argument.)
A strong argument made by MacKinnon is that porn treats women as objects. Tisdale responds to this by stating that we can choose to make ourselves into objects. There are lots of situations, says Tisdale, where men (and women) enter into this role willingly. She uses pro-football as an example, to show that men turn themselves into physical objects in order to fulfill someone else’s goal. (The team’s, the fan’s, the owner’s, etc.) Tisdale calls MacKinnon old-fashioned, because she abides by an age-old American notion of “protecting the young women”. This view is long out-dated and is no longer of any use in feminist theory, Tisdale claims.
MacKinnon states that distorted images of sex and gender are detrimental to people because it portrays unrealistic notions of sexuality. Tisdale agrees that pornography isn’t a textbook for social relations, but says that some images of sex are better than none at all. She says that women need to get involved and change the face of pornography, not ignore and condemn it. Eliminating porn entirely is an effort in vain, and so we must do everything possible to ensure that everyone’s sexual preferences are catered to.
Tisdale notes that pornography serves several purposes in our society. In porn, she says, “sex is magically separated from reproduction, marriage, and the heterosexual couple.” People have many different types of orgasms and intercourse is only a part of sex. Sex in porn is had by people of varying ages and appearances and treats taboos openly and sometimes humorously. Porn emphasizes foreplay and gives a broad view of what can be erotic. Porn “validates [people’s] desire”, and “uproots traditional female roles of passivity”. It creates “emotional confusion, stimulates introspection, and presents a world without a nuclear family”.
Martha Nussbaum attempts to mediate these two positions in her essay, but fails miserably. Her section on pornography does little more than clear up some basic misunderstandings of MacKinnon and her counterpart, Andrew Dworkin. Her writings were helpful in that they outlined exactly what MacKinnon wants to do about pornography. (Not using criminal law to punish makers or distributors of porn, but simply to be able to sue based on harm caused by these materials.) One relevant thing she notes is that MacKinnon never makes a distinction between law and morals. In our society, many things that “morally problematic” are legal. This is not a bad thing, says Nussbaum. She also states that the link between pornography and sexual violence is a weak one at best. She states that it is unclear exactly what we should “hold the producer of a work liable for” should it harm someone. (She points to Dostoyevsky’s work Crime and Punishment which gave rise to copycat murders, though the book is considered a great literary work.) Lastly, Nussbaum points out that if these laws were enacted to protect people, inevitably, they would be abused in practice. “Judges are likely to prove bad judges of sexual stereotypes and their effect”, she says. Nussbaum’s critiques of MacKinnon are useful, but her argument does very little to promote a pro-pornography point of view. She doesn’t touch upon any of Tisdale’s arguments and chooses to stay on the beaten, academic path rather than venture out and express some of the more controversial issues regarding porn and its social effects.
Pornography is not an inherently good or bad thing. The context in which it is shown is an integral part in understanding and appreciating it. As Tisdale states in her essay, pornography needs to be politically incorrect at times, otherwise there is no thrill. And that is what porn provides, an outlet for pleasure saturated with a sense of illicit thrill. There is nothing socially damaging about porn – it is meant to be taken with a tongue in cheek, a semi-realistic portrayal of a basic human activity. (Or not so basic, depending on what happens to turn you on.) In strict feminist critique such as MacKinnon’s essay, the idea of fun and sexual play seems absurd and illogical. I wonder when anti-porn feminists came to the conclusion that having fun was no longer an acceptable activity to engage in? Feminist critique addresses the average human being as stupid, shallow, and easily fooled by pornographic images, and this is where the true degradation of human beings is most apparent.