Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet, by Douglas Birsch

A Feminist/Human Rights View of Pornography

A philosophical approach to pornography could be created by joining some feminists' ideas about pornography to the human rights approach to ethics. The Indianapolis ordinance struck down in the American Booksellers case was supported by antipornography feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon, but the court did not accept their view of pornography. The feminists seem to have argued that pornography is a kind of conduct, not speech. Pornography is not speech about sex, it is a form of forced sex. It is sexual reality that eroticizes inequality, hierarchy, dominance, and submission. MacKinnon claims that,

Pornography is a means through which sexuality is socially constructed, a site of construction, a domain of exercise. It constructs women as things for sexual use and constructs its consumers to desperately want women to desperately want possession and cruelty and dehumanization. ^18

She adds that, "If sex is a social construct of sexism, men have sex with their image of a woman." ^19 Pornography creates one image of women, as accessible sexual objects, inferior, desiring to be used, abused, and dominated. Thus, pornography is the conduct that establishes the image of women as inferior sexual objects and creates a sexual reality. It is part of the reality of sex in a sexist society.

I agree with MacKinnon that sexuality is socially constructed, and that pornography is an aspect of the sexual reality that constructs the contemporary view of women.

[[]Cavalier's essay challenges this view]

If pornography is sexual conduct, then the court's view that it is political speech is misguided. As conduct, it might be claimed that it should be protected by the right to liberty. Feminists, however, have argued that pornography harms women. Three types of harms are often identified:

  1. Pornography harms the women who are involved in its production;

  2. It leads to violent crimes against women and hence harms the victims of these crimes; and

  3. It creates an image of women as inferior and therefore harms women by undermining their status as equal and independent persons.
If this is correct, then the considerations discussed earlier would apply. Restrictions on liberty are legitimate if the exercise of liberty threatens to harm another person. Preventing harm is more important than allowing people the complete freedom to do as they wish. In the language of rights, the claim would be that the duties related to the rights to life and well-being outweigh the right to liberty. If pornography harms women, then based on the human rights approach to ethics, pornography is unethical and ought to be restricted since it would violate womens' rights to basic well-being and perhaps even their right to life. In addition, if pornography prevents women from being treated as independent and equal persons, it would interfere with their legitimate range of action and thus violate their right to liberty.

The crucial issue for regulating pornography on the Internet then becomes --whether pornography harms women.

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