Nowadays, it’s extremely difficult to be online without seeing some references to porn or the objectification of women, however subtle. That being said, certain types of porn are morally and fundamentally problematic, due to this said objectification. Whilst men are not exempt from this objectification either, males are still the most frequently targeted audiences of porn, meaning that their preferences are enacted in most everyday porn.
What is porn?
Pornography is a verbal or pictorial representation of sexual behaviour, where women are often viewed as merely sexual objects to be exploited and manipulated, for the male gaze. Whilst not all porn subordinates women, with genres like romantic erotica made specifically for the female gaze, the majority of porn is degrading and demeaning to the status of women.
It should also be noted that it is perfectly natural for human beings to have sexual feelings and desires, and we shouldn’t shame ourselves for having these inclinations.
Problematic, degrading porn
The problem lies here. Violent and degrading pornography, as well as and non-violent but degrading porn, subordinates and silences women; ultimately harming them.
Although the objectification of others can be arousing, it isn’t in every situation. Sexual feelings are problematic when they objectify and silence others. For instance, degrading (or even violent) porn that subjectifies women to a specific standard of beauty, such as always having a shaven vulva, is arguably not as harmful as the erotisation of violent sexual relations.
This is due to the simple fact that violent porn denies women of their freedom of expression, treating them as a commodity. This type of porn focuses on male consumers and their sexual fulfilment, rather than the sexual fulfilment of both parties.
It’s not permissible to ignore the wishes of another rational agent or autonomous human!
Feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that male porn actors exemplify ownership of the woman, as the woman is treated as a possession. This notion is therefore completely incompatible with autonomy.
Pornography can subject a woman to being a slave for someone else’s pleasure.
It can be said that slavery entails treating a human being as a ‘thing’, and using them as an instrument of one’s desires. This denies the slave autonomy! Pornography, like slavery, reduces an individual to a set of body parts and can thus be substituted by a different similar body.
Consequently, porn actors are merely tools to an end that will please the viewer alone. This ‘possession’ of women’s bodies is dehumanising as women are suppressed of their own desires and intuitions, ultimately turning themselves into objects that please the sensibilities of men. The silencing of women, denying them freedom of expression, is more problematic morally than the subjectification of women within porn as it shows immense inequality.
This subjectification of others that creates arousal is not limited to the porn industry. It can also be arousing being placed in a position of power at work as one has authority. This can extend from a manager’s supremacy over an employee. Acting in such a way in the workplace, however, further illustrates the distorted imagery of the female body to meet the pleasure of the male gaze. Such arousal out of position of power can wrongfully condone, or sometimes even encourage, the belittlement of women. This is deeply problematic in a world in which we aim for equality between the sexes!
On the continuation of women being treated as possessions, from a philosophical standpoint, degrading pornography objectifies women as it also treats them as a means to an end rather than means in themselves, subjectifying them to sexual solipsism.
Solipsism is the theory that everything is in one’s mind and so only one’s own mental states can be known to exist. As degrading pornography objectifies women, reducing them to things, the sexual solipsism of dehumanisation becomes evident.
This dehumanisation illustrates that autonomy is taken away from the woman as her mind is undermined when objectified — thereby treating human beings, who should be autonomous, as if they were things to provide a service without their own agency.
As this is inappropriate and morally problematic, as it cuts people off from genuine connections, we should be morally assessing pornograpy in the same way that all other dehumanising behaviours are — such as rape and domestic violence.
This very treating of people as a means to an end is inherently wrong, as people should be treated as means in themselves. Violating an individual’s autonomy, within pornography, fails to show the moral justice of their humanity as they are treated as sex objects.
This affirms the Kantian claim that within sexual situations, women are treated purely as bodies that can be instrumentalised. And it is this objectifying attitude that dangerously promotes a dehumanising mindset towards in-person sexual partners as one may idealise and project this objectification upon them.
Other types of porn
Although violent and degrading porn objectifies and silences women, that is not to say that all pornography does the same.
Some porn depicts characters engaged in erotic power play such as teasing, spanking, constraining, controlling and pretend coercion.
Whilst some find this arousing, there is a significant difference between erotic power play and male characters committing violent acts against female characters who are clearly being subordinated.
Arguably, all porn is using people as a means to an end BUT as long as a person is treated with respect to their autonomy, they can be objectified, but not silenced.
This is more morally correct!
Having the freedom of expression is the most important factor for morally, unproblematic viewing.
Langton, Rae. “Sexual Solipsism”. Philosophical Topics. Vol 23, no. 2 (1995), pp149-187.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Objectification”. Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol 24, no. 4 (1995): pp249-291.
Bauer, Nancy. “Pornutopia.” N Plus One, (Winter 2007): pp63-73, file:///C:/Users/wow/Downloads/20200602T071945_phil2617_pornutopia.pdf.
Langton, Rae. “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts.” Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol. 22, No. 4. (Autumn 1993): pp293-330.