What Does "Porn" Mean Anyway?

How we struggle to define pornography, but know it when we see it.

Posted Mar 16, 2019

Pornography is a public health crisis! It reinforces toxic masculinity, contributes to sexual dysfunction, dysregulates sexual behavior, destroys relationships, undermines the sociosexual development of our youth, and puts women and children at risk. Or so we’ve been told. By my count, at least 11 states in the U.S. have made public declarations about the negative public health impacts of pornography. In a world of “fake news,” duplicitous politicians, and, indeed, fraudulent scientists, we’d all do well to engage in a healthy degree of skepticism when bold generalizations are made about the effects of pornography.  

RobinHiggins / pixabat
Source: RobinHiggins / pixabat

Every time I hear a new proclamation made about pornography (if you haven’t heard, some apparently believe that it makes people bisexual now), I find myself asking, just what do they mean by “pornography”? This is not just a high-minded, ivory-tower issue. Understanding what people intend by the use of the term pornography informs not only how we should interpret research findings, but also defines the class of materials that we are constantly told to fear. Unfortunately, the apparent meaning of pornography is anything but straightforward.

Pornography is a promiscuous concept in that it defies commitment to a monogamous meaning. One of the earliest English definitions, attributed to a medical dictionary published in 1857, indicates that pornography is “a description of prostitutes or prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene” (Kendrick, 1987). If this definition were still in use today, it might read something like, “research publications concerning sex work as a matter of public health.” By this definition, I’m clearly a pornographer (please don’t tell my mother). Sure, this definition is quite a departure from how pornography is typically used today, but it does give you a sense of where this concept came from and the possible range of different uses to which it has been applied.

Collecting definitions of pornography has become a bit of a hobby for me. In my reading, I’ve found that even modern uses of this term vary tremendously in their meaning. If you look around you, you’ll come to realize that food presentations, travel photos, poignant literature, and inspirational quotes — virtually any desirable description or depiction — have all been branded as pornographic. Such uses of the term tend to be quite positive and are only loosely associated with sexuality in that they allude to the arousal of desire or to the gratification these materials provide. You might be thinking right now that these applications of pornography are very poor examples of the term’s meaning. After all, we all know what pornography truly is, right?

What if I told you that pictures in National Geographic meet the criteria of some formal definitions of “sexual” pornography, while centerfolds in Playboy do not meet others?  If you read through the academic literature, you’ll find that some definitions focus on the content that is depicted when deciding what is and what isn’t pornographic. Such definitions range widely in where they draw the line: Some claim that pornography is limited to the explicit unconcealed depiction of sexual behavior, while others argue that pornography should be so broad as to include instances of implied nudity or sexual behavior (which helps explain why Bebe Rexha’s father was so upset with her latest music video). Other definitions downplay the importance of exactly what is depicted and emphasize instead the intended or actual function to which the materials are put. Generally, the assumed functions of pornography are the stimulation of sexual arousal or sexual gratification, but other users have been proposed as well, including the subordination of women, evoking offense, and using sexuality to turn a profit.

I think that there are probably two primary reasons that we have so many definitions of pornography. The first is quite straightforward: Radical feminists lay claim to different conceptual territory than scholars of law and social scientists, and each of these groups has provided their own spin on the meaning of pornography. More than that, though, some of the variations in the definitions of pornography can be attributed to repeated attempts to identify or clarify the necessary and sufficient conditions for deciding whether or not a particular example is pornographic. As it happens, this is a bit of fool’s errand, though. Cognitive psychologists have studied how humans categorize things, and they have generally found that people don’t rely on a set of criteria that perfectly differentiate category members from non-members. Instead, they tend to use more complex processes to decide where a particular example falls along a fuzzy continuum that ranges from clear category members to clear category non-members (for a good overview of these issues, check out Murphy’s The Big Book of Concepts). In other words, in the real world, people judge how pornographic something is, rather than whether or not it is pornographic.

NjoyHarmony / pixabay
Source: NjoyHarmony / pixabay

As with many things, academics (with the occasional help from members of the judiciary and legislators) have rather confused the issue, because they are unaware of the basic psychology underlying categorization processes. The failure to acknowledge and accept the natural fuzziness of category boundaries has created an environment where different scholars seek to redress the perceived shortcomings of particular definitions of pornography by simply drawing the line somewhere else. As a consequence, we’re now in a place where definitions of pornography range from the clear and unobstructed portrayal of sexual organs in congress to media that suggest a hint of nudity or sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, definitions of pornography matter a great deal. When conducting research, social scientists rely on conceptual definitions to guide the construction of their surveys or the media they select for their experiments. If some researchers believe that pornography is as broad as photos from a lingerie catalog while others believe that it is limited to the graphic videos involving the sexually explicit subordination of women, it becomes impossible to compare findings from study to study. Indeed, different definitions of pornography may be contributing to apparent inconsistencies in results across studies. Take a minute and ask yourself: Is it reasonable to expect that pictures of exposed breasts stimulate the same sort of responses as realistic depictions of rape? Personally, I doubt it.  

This issue has implications that go beyond research as well. We are in an age where societies struggle with what to do about pornography. In some places, governments are making clear pronouncements about the harm of these materials without really understanding the research base on which such claims rest. In others, they are erecting virtual barriers to protect children from this menace. And in the most extreme examples, countries are even trying to stamp out pornography entirely. In each of these cases, we should be asking ourselves, what counts as pornography?

In 2015, a prominent motel chain in the U.S. prevented me from accessing the website of a professional organization of sexologists, because it had been previously flagged as pornography. There were no dirty pictures and no lewd text, but the word “sex” was used repeatedly on the website. This may strike some of you as a filtering error, and it may have been, but I have my doubts. You just have to take a look at what’s going on in Bangladesh, and you’ll see why. Intentional efforts to censor pornography often cast a wide net on purpose, preventing access to humor and satire of a sexual nature, as well as sexual health information and services. Just take a look at North American history. The first time the U.S. had a serious crackdown on porn, investigators burned condoms alongside 15 tons of objectionable books!

What we mean by pornography matters. If we continue to insist on making it a contemporary bogeyman, we should probably also be having a frank public conversation about what it is we’re actually talking about.  

References

Kendrick, W. (1987). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. New York, NY: Viking Penguin Inc.

Murphy, G. (2004). The Big Book of Concepts. MIT press.