Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Defining Pornography

Pornography is a notoriously hard word to define. Although it should simply be a matter of verbalizing the concept the word denotes, there is too much variation in its use, and too much subjectivity involved. If we say that pornography is material that sexually arouses the viewer, then we are lost, because vastly different things arouse different people, and what arouses one frequently disgusts another. Alternatively, if we define pornography as obscenity, then we are losing base with anyone who thinks their porn is inoffensive, perhaps even beautiful. We can define pornography as material that explicitly depicts sexual activity, but then we have to contend with people who insist that nudes can be porn, and with fetishists who insist that shoe catalogs are porn. We can either just as stubbornly insist that they're wrong, or try to find a more inclusive and precise definition for what makes porn porn.

And things get even messier when we get into the shouting match between pornography and erotic art ("art" being another notoriously hard word to define). It's easy to just say that all erotic art is a form of pornography (even if a more sophisticated form), but if there is a meaningful distinction between "porn" and "fine art porn" - and I believe there is - then how do we denote that in our definition of pornography? And if we define porn based on what it depicts, then where does softcore erotica fall in - material that intends to be sexy but does not depict explicit sexual activity? Should we include intention in our definition? If anything that arouses can be porn, then anything in the world could count as porn to the right person.

My favorite working definition for "pornography" is any visual or written material that is created solely with the expectation of inciting sexual arousal. Thus, amateurs who share images online and companies who sell them for profit are both producing pornography, because their aim is to incite animal lust and nothing else. But art, even when lewd, differentiates itself from porn by containing another level (or multiple levels) beyond the sole intent to arouse. It may arouse, or it may disgust - and this may be a calculated part of its effect - but there exists in it some other level of interpretation in addition (or in substitution) to that. The nature of that level may not be obvious or even well-defined, but it exists, and that's what makes it art.

On the other hand, lots of material not intended to incite sexual arousal may well do so when viewed by the right person. This material does not become porn just because somebody gets off to it. It was not created as pornography, it does not make sense to realistically describe it as such. What about explicit depictions of sexual activity that are not created to incite sexual arousal? This could be pictures taken for educational or research purposes, or pictures taken with the intent to disgust viewers with the vulgarity of our animal nature (even as others will surely be turned on by such sights). It seems contrary to the creator's intent to call this pornography, even though others (e.g., judges and law officers) may effectively do as much.

The problem, really, is that the word "pornography" is used in too many different ways. I think it may be just as productive to dispense of the word altogether, and start afresh. We need a word to describe media that depicts explicit sexual activity, regardless of intent or interpretation. We need to decide if there should be a different word for different forms of media (written, visual, audiovisual, etc.). We need another word for material that, personally, turns a person on, regardless of content or intent, that could be applied to anything, non-judgmentally. And we could probably do with another word to describe the sort of material produced by the media industry interested in turning people on. What they produce may or may not depict explicit sexual activity, and may or may not, in actuality, turn any particular person on, but it is material designed to turn some person on.

As I write now, it becomes clear to me that we need a different word to denote three separate forms of pornography - porn in content, porn in intention, and porn in interpretation. Porn in content would be a straightforward and objective determination - either it depicts sex or it does not. Porn in intent is simply a matter of asking the creator, "do you intend to turn people on?" And porn in interpretation is the most subjective form, which is anything that turns a person on, and will depend on the person being asked, and should therefore be a word forever married to its subject, as in "my porn" and "your porn". These three forms may certainly overlap at times, but this will absolutely not always be the case.

I leave it as an exercise for our culture at large to discuss this proposal, and (with a vain hope) determine the appropriate words that shall henceforth be used. Certainly, if one of my readers has any ideas, please chime in among the comments.

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