Wendy McElroy: Pornography is Good

McElroy is a strange combination of naivete and intelligence. In the bluntly titled XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, she begins and ends with a description of herself wandering wide-eyed among porn actresses, asking them whether they have ever been coerced and expecting an honest answer.

Then, when she switches gears to ask what pornography is, she offers the most intelligent definition of any of the three women. Observing that "definitions not only control the debate, they can control what sexuality itself becomes" she concludes that pornography is "the explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings." (pp. 43, 51.) She thus avoids a lot of the messes we get into when we try to define pornography in terms of its subtext or subjective intent. For example, definitions that try to encompass only depictions "degrading" to women fail because degradation is subjective ("in the realm of art, games and sex, objectification is one of life's charms," says Marcia Pally.) Attempts to distinguish between "pornography" (bad) and "erotica" (good) hopelessly fail to establish standards that the law can ever use. McElroy takes a common sense approach, defining pornography inclusively, and then asking "so what?" and concluding that "Pornography is words and images, over which the law should have no jurisdiction."

Pornography is a ridiculously knotty subject matter, and there is a slight flaw even in McElroy's definition: it is the adjective "artistic". Obscenity is considered that subset of pornography which is illegal because prurient, offensive and lacking (among other things) artistic value. McElroy defines the superset as being artistic. A subset may not lack a characteristic common to the entire set. McElroy explains that she used "artistic" so as to exclude such works as Freudian analyses of sex. You can reconcile McElroy's definition of pornography with Miller's definition of obscenity by allowing that obscenity, among its other failings, lacks significant artistic value.

McElroy says that pornography is good because:

(p. 129) McElroy's litany is, "A woman's body, a woman's right." She is a follower of Mill: a woman should be free to explore any act or attitude that does not coerce or defraud someone else. Merely causing another distress due to disagreement with your choices is not "other-regarding" action; women who are opposed to pornography have no more right to ban it from the world than the fashion-conscious may ban the tasteless, even though it is painful to see them.

McElroy, like Strossen and Mackinnon, sees what she wants to; her view of the sex industry has nothing to do with emaciated, crack-addicted prostitutes or even with Debbie but concentrates on comfortable, middle class women making the transition from actress-object to producer and distributor of porn. She finds her subjects at meetings of prostitutes' rights groups and anti-censorship organizations, and then asks them to fill out survey forms. All of the women tell her that porno films have not routinely included rape scenes in almost fifteen years.

Its evident that a couple of things are going on here. First, she has simply defined the "sex industry" to include only the comfortable elite, and not the vast majority of the strung-out or exploited. Second, she has allowed herself to be snowed. She didn't go out and make a systematic survey of pornography; she talks almost exclusively about the people she met, and tells us next to nothing about watching pornography herself. I didn't make a systematic study either--every film or TV show I saw is listed in the introduction--but virtually everything involved rape, which is prevalent in more mainstream Hollywood product as well. It stretches credulity to think that sexual violence, which infects the rest of our culture, is lacking from pornography.

Anyway, McElroy concedes that amateur product is driving out the professional stuff. I know a little more about this from having read the entire transcript of the Amateur Action case, where a close-up of a vagina nailed to a table was the operative image. The GIF's and videos in that case included numerous graphic enactions of rape, involving torture by electric shock, candle, whips, clamps, and weights.

In fact, everyone is right. Some pornography is liberating for women to view. Some is degrading and may encourage men to acts of violence, perhaps not directly but by aiding the subtle creation of a world view which says that sexual violence is not violence. The question-- which I will address in the final essay--is whether it should be the law's decision, or the individual's, which pornography is good and which is bad.