Porn and Public Sphere

How campaigns use online pornography to redefine public sphere

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

29 Pages, Grade: 1,7




What is Public Sphere
Traditional and post-modern approaches – Habermas vs. Fraser
Digital Public sphere

Pornographos, Karma Sutra and the Golden Age of Porn

Attempted definition of modern porn – “I know it when I see it”?
Porn, Erotica & Obscenity – a complex field of blurry lines

Pornography as a Genre

Porn and the public–private–dichotomy
Pornography as part of the public sphere

The Right to Online Pornography

Pornography and recent campaigns
Liberal theory of pornography
Feminist theory
Law vs. Porn


Articles and other Media Sources
Further Readings


“Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it.”

- D. H. Lawrence -[1]

In the 21st century pornography doesn’t have the negative connotation that it had when Lawrence wrote his book “Pornography and Obscenity” in 1929 quoted above. After the sexual revolution, the invention of the birth control pill and the women’s movement it seemed like there are no obstacles to live out the hard-fought sexual freedom and talk openly about any matters related to sex – including porn. It appears that our Western world has entered into an enlightened century with boundless sexual expression. However, there are still some issues needed to be solved, especially with regard to new technical accomplishments. The internet is often rumored to consist only of content related to either cats or porn, but it is true that no other genre has benefited from the internet as much as the porn branch. As a computer user, one is literally just clicks apart from the biggest collection of the digital lust serving any possible fantasy without being exposed to a judging public.

Online pornography has become more private and anonymous than ever before, but on the other hand it has generated an intense public debate. This essay examines how and why debates on pornography emerged in the western world and what the actual subjects, motifs and arguments of the controversy are.

Sex and sexuality are not necessarily private matters anymore in Europe. The opposite is the case. Sex goes hand in hand with capitalism when it comes to pornography. Particularly the internet porn business seems to outdo itself with ever new extravagant sub category and offer. The industry follows the general trend of the media market to always offer new sensations in order to recruit and attract a bigger audience and to maximize the profit in the manner of modern capitalistic keynote. As a result of its adaptation of media techniques, the porn industry generates profit amounting to millions every year and has become an enormous economic force.

To every successful business model there is a downside. Although porn has been emotionally debated in a one-sided manner for a long time, there are nevertheless contemporary and valid objections. For example, many feminists claim that porn is degrading and humiliating towards women and visualizes sex as something cruel and violent, while raising inauthentic expectations. Further objectors of the genre are posed by governments. The general census is that borders of sexual freedom are reached when pornography collides with criminal law, for example in the matter of unjustified physical coercion such as child pornography. Governments are torn between a violation of the law caused by the duty to protect others from sexual assault on the one hand and the duty to maintain and protect basic democratic rights like freedom of expression on the other hand. They find themselves in constant struggle with the internet as a virtual gate to an unprecedented gathering place of pornographic material serving any imaginable kind of sexual preferences – illegal or not.

However, censoring online porn arbitrarily seems to be an ultimate solution only in totalitarian regimes. Nonetheless, several attempts of passing laws to ban certain kinds of online pornography have been made more or less successfully in European countries as well. Two cases, one from Germany and one from Iceland, will serve as illustrating examples to help answer the question of whether pornography can and should be controlled by governmental laws. Using these cases, I will illustrate the manner in which debates and trends developed in these two western countries to attempt to draw an overall conclusion.

This essay predominantly aims to analyze how campaigns supporting the censorship of online pornography eventually redefine the whole concept of public sphere and how online porn in general shifts borders between public and private. It is therefore of great importance to obtain some basic theoretical knowledge about public sphere theory to make clear how this concept is connected to the decision of censoring internet porn. As both factors comprise a wide range of academic fields, the essay will, for the main part, limit perspectives to political and media theory.

First of all, accounting for some cultural and social context, there will be a short overview of the historical development of pornography and some deeper insight to the term itself. The main part of the essay attempts to connect online pornography as a genre to public sphere theory to answer questions on how censorship can affect and damage the whole concept of public sphere needed to maintain a democratic basis for a country.

What is Public Sphere

Public Sphere is a very abstract term that does not become easier to describe as a result of all the theories, perspectives and books written about it.

As the key term of a research study, nevertheless, there needs to be a stable knowledge of what we actually mean when we talk of public sphere. To start with a more general and modern kind of definition, public sphere can loosely be understood as “a metaphor that we use to think about the way that information and ideas circulate in large societies. It’s a term in everyday use to describe information when it’s made generally available to the public […].”[2] It is detached from a physical location and needs to be understood as a virtual forum.

However, set in an academic context Jürgen Habermas was the first to start detailed research in the field of normative public sphere theory inspired by earlier works of Immanuel Kant. Habermas developed essential concepts that still dominate contemporary debates. As a German sociologist and philosopher, his approaches and definitions were much more complex than McKee’s general definition quoted above, but also, Habermas continuously supplemented his own concepts in subsequent works and the concepts were refined, enhanced or even refuted by other scholars in subsequent years.

Traditional and post-modern approaches – Habermas vs. Fraser

In 1962 Jürgen Habermas published the key work of public sphere concept The Structural Transformation of Public Sphere (for the time being only published in German - Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit). His concept of the public sphere is “located between the realm of ‘public authority’ (government) and the private realm of ‘civil society’ […]”[3] as a realm that facilitates a virtual arena “for communicating information and points of view”[4]. Talking about public he does not only refer to the precondition of general accessibility but also to the common goal of a public good. That means the engagement within that public sphere is supposed to be blind to class positions and the reason for participating is the mutual will to take part in matters that have a general rather than an individual interest.

However, after examining the history of public sphere he found out that due to the class pyramid of feudal systems there actually was no separation between the private and public sphere until the 18th century. It was then “that a variety of social changes during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany, France and Britain, gave rise for a short period to an effective bourgeois public.”[5]

Bourgeois public in this sense meant the “sphere of private persons come together as a public. Viewed historically, the connection between the public and the private spheres is manifested in the clubs and organizational forms of a reading public composed of bourgeois private persons and crystallizing around newspapers and journals.”[6] This reading public used to meet and exchange opinions in particular locations. “The primary physical setting for this eighteen- century public sphere, argued Habermas, consisted of coffee houses within major European cities”[7]. Although these early developments of public spheres took place in form of a physical gathering, Habermas always emphasized the fact that a physical presence of an audience is not necessary. “The more they detach themselves from the public’s physical presence and extend to the virtual presence of scattered readers, listeners, or viewers linked by the public media, the clearer becomes the abstraction that enters when the spatial structure of simple interactions is expanded into a public sphere.”[8] Considering that The Structural Transformation of Public Sphere was written in 1962 it is remarkable how foresighted his statements actually were, as mass media was just in the starting blocks to become an issue in Europe by then. Habermas did nothing but create foundations for modern democratic societies with a political public sphere that enables citizens to take part in a democratic debate. But his early approach was criticized in some essential points. Although he emphasized for example equal and open access to the public sphere he tends to ignore that the bourgeois public sphere of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century was reserved only for white, educated, middle-class men. Furthermore he has been accused of “over-simplifying the effects of media colonization; […] elitism and cultural snobbery […]” and the missing open-mindedness regarding the fact that “commercialization of the media can have positive effects for public debate rather than being the death of it.”[9]

To summarize that first and major theory by Habermas his concept of liberal public sphere originated in the Enlightenment (“Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding”[10] ) and the French Revolution (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”) described a new emerging public sphere consisting of well-educated, mainly male citizens meeting in coffee shops to exchange opinions, information and knowledge about matters of general interest. “Newspapers and magazines, radio and television are media of the public sphere”[11] and they are coupled as a carry-on-medium of those rational debates. The “ongoing discussions would feed into government and the commercial sector, guiding their direction and holding them to account.”[12] His two main arguments combined, meaning firstly a freely accessible public sphere forming a kind of public body and secondly, that the public body establishes the counterbalance to state institutions leads to what Habermas paraphrased as the basis of a modern democratic society.

In spite of his great success and popularity in public sphere theory “Habermas thus formulated an ideal-type Western approach, which reconfirmed the classic construction of European history in which the Enlightenment features as a key period for the constitution of social and moral values and practices in which many Europeans still believe and on which they build societies even today. This interpretation of history remains an ideal type, however.”[13] And he himself stated: “Although the liberal model of the public sphere is still instructive today with respect to the normative claim that information be accessible to the public, it cannot be applied to the actual conditions of an industrially advanced mass democracy organized in the form of the social welfare state.”[14]

It was Nancy Fraser who later on emerged among others voices such as Eder, Lippmann and Dewey that have claimed authority on public sphere definitions. She gained high reputation in the field of post-modern public sphere theory and argues that Habermas’ concept “is not adequate for the critique of the limits of actually existing democracy in late capitalist societies.”[15] Her own approach includes four basic arguments against the constitutive assumption of the bourgeois public sphere:

- “[…] an adequate conception of the public sphere requires not merely the bracketing, but rather the elimination, of social inequality.
- […] a municipality of publics is preferable to a single public sphere
- […] a tenable conception of the public sphere would countenance not the exclusion, but the inclusion, of interests and issues that bourgeois masculinist ideology labels ‘private’ and treats as inadmissible.
- […] a defensible conception would allow both for strong publics and for weak publics and that it would theorize the relations among them.”[16]

Fraser also points out that:

"there are no naturally given, a priori boundaries […]. What will count as a matter of common concern will be decided precisely through discursive contestation. It follows that no topics should be ruled off limits in advance of such contestation. On the contrary, democratic publicity required positive guarantees of opportunities for minorities to convince others that what in the past was not public in the sense of being a matter of common concern should now become so.”[17]

Fraser does not only find a modern approach to public sphere theory but also raises questions of general regard to public and private labels. In the current context Fraser’s approach helps to understand how censorship of pornographic content can be problematic as it is not a matter of common concern, but rather a private affair until minorities (starting the sexual revolution or women’s movement) as a counterpublic sphere made it a legitimate topic of public discourse.

However, academic approaches on modern sphere theory are numerous, going from an excluding elite public sphere to a non-existing public sphere that is rather a “Phantom”[18] as Lippmann pessimistically describes it. In this essay Fraser and foremost Habermas provide a good basis to achieve an introductional understanding of what is meant by public sphere theories, but how can the internet be a public sphere in this sense?

Digital Public sphere

“The internet is often prescribed as the medicine for democracy in a midlife crisis.”[19]

- Kees Brants -

When we look back to the roots of public sphere, we end up in ancient Greece with its concepts of oikos (private) and polis (public) and the market place to exchange political thoughts and ideas called agora[20]. A synonym for agora is forum, a term that is nowadays associated with the internet’s discussion boards for written communication on various matters accessible by a large number of citizens. It is understandable that “such forums, it is thought, can help to create virtual Habermasian public spheres […].”[21] And in fact increasing experiments on liquid democracy and e-democracy are flooding the World Wide Web. Undoubtedly, the internet has a high potential to renew interest in political processes, ease participation and thereby revive the public sphere. It fulfills all criteria Habermas stated for a traditional public sphere, as well as giving counterpublics in the virtual sphere as a whole a voice, as Fraser demanded. So, what are the counter-arguments of not calling the internet a digital public sphere or at least giving it some credit for having a positive impact on the public sphere?


[1] Lawrence, 69

[2] McKee, vii

[3] Hodkinson, 174

[4] Habermas (1996), 360

[5] Crossley/Roberts, 2

[6] Habermas (1996), 366

[7] Hodkinson, 174

[8] Habermas (1996), 361

[9] Wodak/ Koller, 31

[10] Kant, 1

[11] Habermas ([1964], 1974), 49

[12] Hodkins, 174

[13] Wodak/ Koller, 2

[14] Habermas ([1964], 1974), 54

[15] Fraser (1990), 77

[16] Fraser (1990), 77

[17] Fraser (1990), 71

[18] Lippmann (1925): The Phantom Public

[19] Brants, 144

[20] Cp. Hambermas ([1962]1996), 3

[21] Wright, 34

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Porn and Public Sphere
How campaigns use online pornography to redefine public sphere
University of Copenhagen
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ISBN (Book)
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porn, public sphere, Habermas, Fraser, online porn, pornography, ban, digital public sphere, internet, erotica, genre, campaigns, feminism, law, Germany, censorship, Iceland, online pornography, child abuse, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, cameron, debate
Quote paper
Stefanie Groß (Author), 2013, Porn and Public Sphere, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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