Contributions of the feminist criticism of porn to a sexual education curriculum

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2011

21 Seiten, Note: 2,0




2.1.1. Subordination and Equality
2.1.2. Silencing and Free Speech
2.1.3. Objectification and Autonomy
2.2.1. Sexual education as value education
2.2.2. Objectivist or Relativist

3.1. Pornography - A topic of sexual education?
3.2. Pluralism and Basic Values in Sexual Education




Most of the feminist critics of pornography almost totally neglect the issue of sexual education of adolescents. If they do so, infrequently, they don't take the young people serious and only talk on why and how they must be guarded from the bad influence of pornography. This is strange if one recognizes that most of contemporary anti-porn-feminism is against censorship and in favour of public campaigns for raising consciousness for the sexist dimensions (or essence) of porn. Whereas adults are expected to be capable of maturejudgement on pornography, adolescents are not. What is missing, though, is a comprehensive theory ofhow adolescents become mature tojudge.

I want to discuss in this paper what the feminist criticism of porn has to contribute to a sexual education curriculum. I will first sketch the feminist criticism of porn and show that it is based on a conception of basic values. Then I will have to talk about two of the most important recent debates in sexual education. This is necessary because to answer the question what the feminist criticism has to contribute to sexual education I have to unfold my understanding of what a sexual education curriculum should contain. I will argue, that a sexual education curriculum should take the ethical dimension of sexuality serious and rely on a non-dogmatic concept of basic values. Based on this conception of sexual education I will argue that the feminist criticism has something to contribute to the task of sexual education to support students in their concern to develop an ethical orientation towards sexuality. One of the main contributions it has to make is the notion of gender equality as a basic value and the reflection on the ethical relevance of representations.


The aim of this paper is to bring together feminist criticism of porn and the theoretical discussions in sexual education about the role of values in ethics education in order to better understand how adolescents can learn to deal with pornography and become mature to judge which kind of pornography they want to consume or if they want to consume it at all.

The feminist criticism of porn enlightened how the majority of pornographic representations do reproduce and even enforce gender inequalities in sex life. But they draw implications for the handling of pornography that are not compatible with the needs and experiences of adolescents. In fact they do consume porn and they want to consume porn. There is one consensus in sexual education, that it should serve the needs of adolescents, i.e. giving them orientation in sexual life. (Thomson 1997: 267) This implies that adolescents who consume pornography should be respected but nevertheless encouraged to reflect on the ethical dimensions of pornography. Sexual education should help to develop guidelines ofhow to make decisions concerning their consumation of porn.

This paper is an attempt to show how the feminist criticism of porn can serve the aim to give adolescents orientation in their decisions concerning the consumation of porn. If I succeed the paper will give relevance to a school of thought that has fallen into oblivion first and foremost because of the not-acceptable policy implications the early feminist ciritics of porn were drawing, i.e. censorship and concealment of adolescent's eyes.

I will first outline the major aspects of the feminist crititcism of porn which are pornography as objectification, subordination and silencing of women. In my depiction I will show that all of the three aspects are connected with a concept of basic values which are autonomy, equality and free speech. Values are also one of the central concepts that are highly debated in the philosophy of sexual education. I will outline this debate in the 2nd part of this chapter. This two parts will form the ground on which I will be able to discuss the substancial questions on the role the feminist criticism of porn could play within a sexual education curriculum in the next chapter.


The first and at the same time most popular feminist critic of porn is Catherine McKinnon. Her definition of pornography as the „graphic sexually explicit subordination of women in pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities“ (MacKinnon 1987: 176) has become very influential that even the strongest opponents of anti-porn- feminism had to start with this definition to criticise it. Rae Langton is one philosopher that attemped to revive the old school anti-porn-feminism by giving some philosophical justification for McKinnons arguments. Langton differntiated the feminist criticism of porn in three interconnected aspects, which are subordination, objectification and silencing.

2.1.1. Subordination and Equality

Langton is using the speech-act theory of John Langshaw Austin (1975) for her argument, particularly his distinction oflocutionary, perlocutionary and illocutionary speech acts. Pornography for Langton is an illocutionary speech act that subordinates women. That is, as she makes clear, we have to untderstand MacKinnons definition of porn that is held to be the subordination of women. (Langton 2009: 26-28) Of course, she argues, pornography is also a locutionary and a perlocutionary speech act of subordination, i.e. it depicts and causes the subordination of women.

But the central claim of MacKinnon, Langton argues, is that pornography is an illocutionary speech act. She compares pornography with the example of the illocutionary speech act 'Kill!' that is said to a trained guarddog while pointing to a particular person. Here it doesn't make sense to say that the dog's killing of the person is just a reaction on the utterance 'Kill!' (its perlocutionary effect) but actually the speaker kills the person by making this utterance, she/he is doing sonething with her/his words. For Langton pornography is an illocutionary speech act like this. The pornographer, by making this statement, is subordinating women like the dog-owner is killing the other person. In virtue of at least three features, Langton argues, pornography is an illocutionary speech act of subordination: it unfairly ranks women as having inferior worth to men, it legitimates discriminatory behavior against them and it unjunstly deprives them of important powers (Langton 2009: 36).

„The claim that pornography subordinates women, however interpreted, is a claim that pornography determines women's inferior civil status.“ (Langton 2009: 29) That is it is connected to the value of equality. Women by pornography's illocutionary force are deprived of their right of being treated as equal human beings in sex life. Their becoming ranked as having inferior worth insofar as they are reduced to objects of male desire. The inequality lies in the unequal distribution of subjectivity in the depicted sex. Only the male interests, pleasure and satisfaction are counted. With this ranking pornography deprives women of subjectivity which it grants exclusivley to men. The 2nd claim connected to the value of equality Langton makes is that pornography legitimates discriminatory behaviour against women. Discrimination is per definitionem violating equality since it is a behaviour that treats someone unjunstly as non-equal based on her or his gender, faith, sexual identity or orientation, ethnicity and so forth. The feminist claim against pornography includes that it makes discriminatory behaviour against women in sex life legitimate. That women are not being taken as equal to men is made to be normal and right by the depiction of unequal sex. The 3rd claim is that pornography deprives women of important powers. The central power Langton has in mind here is the power of women to make their interests and whishes in sex life being heard, i.e. they are becoming silenced. „If pornography silences women, then it prevents them from doing things with their words.“ (Langton 2009: 47) I will talk about this claim in 2.1.2. Here it is enough to say, that if pornography silences women it indeed makes them unequal to men in the right to make their own voice being heard and respected.

Langtons criticism of pornography is among others based on the value of equality. Women are deprived of their equal civil status by pornographies force of ranking them as inferior to men, of legitimating discriminatory behaviour on base of gender against them and by being deprived of important powers that should be distributed equally among all mankind, especially of the power to make their own voice being heard.

2.1.2. Silencing and Free Speech

One important dimension of the subordination of women by porn is, as Langton argues, the action of silencing it performs. As I have said before women are held to be subordinated by being derived of some important powers and one of this important powers is the power to make illocutionary speech acts. Women are deprived of this power by other speech acts, that (re-)produce the conventions that make some illocutions for women in certain circumstances unspeakable. Pornography, understood as an illocutionary speech act, performs actions that (re-)produce gender inequalities in the domain of what is speakable and what is not. Langton concentrates on the ability of performing the speech act of refusal. Those girls who are reported to being date raped actually experienced illocutionary disablement, as Langton argues, because their refusal was not only disobeyed but rather the mere speech act of refusal became unspeakable for them. This distinction is important for Langton since her claim is not just, that women are „perlocutionary frustrated“ (Langton 2009: 54) i.e. their refusal is heard and recognised as refusal but disobeyed, but that the authoritative speech act of pornography derives women of the power, to refuse at all. Part of the subordination and objectification of women, so the argument, is that they are degraded as objects of male desire which, as objects, per definitionem whatever they say can not refuse their utilization by men. Pornography is held to help construct a world in which women are seen as commodities, that can not perform certain speech acts regarding the control over their own bodies, i.e. they are becoming silenced. (Ibid.: 47-62)

Of course it is reasonable to give importance to the impact pornography has on the social construction of gender inequalities in the domain of what is speakable and what is not. Like other representations it does not only depict the social structure but also modifies it, reproduces and produces certain conventions which then delimit the possibility to make certain illocutions for persons of certain social positions. But pornography, for sure, is not the only and probably even not the most influential force in this social construction. Merchandise, literature, TV, movies, school education, etc. could be probably much more influential since they affect much more people than porn will ever do. This does not fundamentally challenge Langtons argument because it gives a worthy inside in how pornography participates in the (re-)production of gender inequality. But it seems suspicious, that she is so keen in her focus on pornography as the one and only cause of the eroticization of violence and inequality in sex, that one might suspect her to overlook sociological evidence to win support for her attemp to gain philosophical evidence for an argument in favor of the censorship of porn. If pornography is held to be the one and only source of gender inequality in sex it is, of course, easier to call for censorship than if we acknowledge it's multifold causes since e.g. it is practically impossible to censor all representations that (re-)produce gender inequality.

The debate around the silencing claim against porn is based on the notion of free speech. Interestigly both camps, pro and against censorship, rely on it. Those who are against censorship claim from a liberal perspective that pornographic speech should not be censored since as speech it is and should be secured by the liberal principle of free speech. Langton, in favour of censorship, claims that, since pornographic speech does silence women and disables them to perform illocutionary speech acts, is actually deprives women of the right of free speech. So we have a conflict between the right of the pornographer to produce pornography and the right of women to equal illocutionary ability to men in sex life. Where we have such a conflict, she argues, it's the responsibility of the court to trade the right of women against the right of pornographers and she is fortunate that the trade-off should be in favor of the right of women to perform illocutionary speech acts concerning such a fundamental right as sexual self-determination. (Cp. Langton 2009: 29f.)

Langton gives an enlightening account of how the concept of free speech can and for Langton should be broadened in so far as it is concerned not only with the legal possibility to perform certain locutions but also with the possibility to perform illocutions, i.e. words that are being counted as the actions they by the speaker are intended to be. This possibility is shaped not merely and even not primarily by law but rather by conventions that are object of social construction. In this broadened understanding speech is never free, since the felicity conditions of all illocutionary speech acts are shaped by conventions that determine what is possible to say and what is not for a certain person in a certain environment. Nevertheless social conventions can be criticized not because they do delimit but because they do delimit the possibility to perform certain illocutions unequally. People of different genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, etc. are unequally enabled to perform certain speech acts. It is the responsibility of philosophical reflection of the society to depict such inequalities and reflect on it's causes. In this sense Langton did an important work in depicting one cause of gender inequality in the illocutionary ability in sex life, i.e. pornography. Anyway the anlysis of the causes leaves the question open of how to deal with them. If the unequal distribution of the possibility to perform certain speech acts is (re-)produced by other speech acts, how should we deal with this speech acts? Questions like this could and should appear in the discussions of sexual education classes that take the ethical dimensions of sex serious.

2.1.3. Objectification and Autonomy

For Langton the idea of the subordination and silencing of women „is in part the idea that women are somehow treated as more thing-like, less human; so a central theme in feminist work on pornography is that of objectification.“ (Langton 2009: 10) Treating women as „sexual objects or commodities“ (MacKinnon 1987: 176) is of course objectification. Also the silencing claim is linked to objectification, since „Objects do not speak.“ (MacKinnon 1987: 182, cited by Langton 2009: 10) In a way pornography, Langton argues, is an authoritative speech act that objectifies women insofar as it declines the possibilities of women to exercise some powers of the subject, like sexual self-determination by conduct and speech.

The argument against objectification is based on the Kantian phrase that it is morally wrong to treat someone as a mere means and not also as end in her- or himself. Human beings are to be treated as subjects and not as mere objects. If pornography does treat women as mere objects of male desire it is to be morally objected since it denies their autonomy. The notion of treatment is multifold, as Langton tries to show, and there are different ways of treating someone as an object which she explores in her essay. She distinguishes „non-attribution of autonomy“ from „violation of autonomy“ (Langton 2009: 233). Both can appear independently. One can fail to attribute autonomy to someone without violiting her or his autonomy. E.g. does social policy treat the human as something that is handlable and whose actions can be somewhat directed by social policy measures, but it is not violating her/his autonomy since she/he nevertheless can do other than she/he for statistical reasons is expected to behave. But when it comes to ponography it is not clear if there could be an example for non-attribution of autonomy without violation of autonomy. The non­attribution of autonomy to female characters in porn is manifested by the violation of their autonomy by treatment of a certain kind that is not a matter of attitude but of conduct of the male towards the female characters. Women do appear as lacking autonomy becuase they are actiely treated as non-autonomous beings. The other way round is more common, i.e. the depiction of women whose autonomy is violated but nevertheless attributed to them. In sadistic porn which includes rape one central point of the excitement is that the will of the women is recognized but disobeyed. So autonomy is attributed to her but overcome by the male character. Anyway when we remember Langton's earlier claim that some porn is an authoritative speech act that delimits the possibilities of women to make the autonomous speech act of refusal it gets clear that this kind of porn does not attribute autonomy to women (since they are deprived of the capacity to make the autonomous speech act of refusing sex which is so central to sexual self-determination) and violates their autonomy by the acts depicted in the movie.

Langton also describes another case of autonomy-violation in pom which presupposes the attribution of autonomy to the female character involved. On the base of an anlysis of the movie Deep Throat, which has been described as a depiction of the liberated women which autonomously and enthusiastically wants the sex acts depicted in the movie. For Langton the autonomy- affirmation here serves the autonomy-violation, since on the one hand the actress of the liberated women has been coerced within the process of production and on the other hand the film legitimated autonomy-denial of women that have been raped by people from the male audience of the film. (Langton 2009: 237-240) For my opinion this argument is not valid since Langton is confusing the conditions of production of the film and the content. Unrecognized the depicted sex acts the working conditions of the film can either be good or not. A women does not have to be raped to depict rape in a film. On the other hand a morally not objectionable depiction of sex can be produced under circumstances of coercion and even rape. The perlocutionary effects on the conduct of the male audience of the film is another issue. Of course it is thinkable that men after watching the movie started thinking that what the female character of Deep Throat deliberately wants is what women want. But the core of Langtons argument is that porn is the illocutionary subordination of women. If she wants to show that porn is the illocutionary objectification of women she has to show that porn ranks women as objects, legitimizes autonomy-denying treatment of them and deprives them of some important powers connected to subjectivity. It is not clear if Deep Throat can be the right example to make such a claim.

The feminist criticism of objectification in porn is connected to the value of autonomy. The autonomy-denial which porn is supposed to be this school of thought links to the Kantian idea that noone should never treat anyone as a mere object but ever also as an end in her- or himself. One criticism of the feminist argument against objectification in porn is that it does overlook the word 'mere' in the Kantian phrase. As Leslie Green (2000) argues, there is nothing bad in treating someone as an object when we don't treat her or him as a mere object. In our daily lives we treat others as objects all the time, e.g. market sellers, post officers or taxi drvers. Anyway, we normally don't treat them as mere objects but recognize that they are also subjects and do possess autonomy but in the special situation of buying, sending a letter or using a taxi we use them instrumentally. Also in „ordinary sex we need others as objects in some of the most ordinary senses of the term: they are intentional objects of our desire, we want to see, smell, touch and taste their bodies.“ (ibid.: 45) But this does not have to come together with autonomy-denial since we can treat our sex partners as not merely objects of desire but also as ends in themselves.


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Contributions of the feminist criticism of porn to a sexual education curriculum
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin  (Institut für Philosophie)
Pornography and Objectification
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ISBN (Buch)
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Felix Mayer (Autor), 2011, Contributions of the feminist criticism of porn to a sexual education curriculum, München, GRIN Verlag,


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