The Nature and Purpose of Pornography

Are the following three situations examples of pornographic consumption?
1. A male medical student closely studies the anatomy of the female body in a textbook by way of preparing for a gynecology exam.
2. A model poses nude for a form-painting art class, in a somewhat provocative pose.

3. A man spends several hours poring over video material of children being sexually violated by adults. He is sexually aroused by what he witnesses, and steadfastly continues clicking through to view fresh and increasingly rough content and material.

Very few of us will identify situation 1 as an example of pornographic consumption. More of us may say that situation 2 could be pornographic, though we want to hold onto some distinction between “art” and “pornography.” More or even most of us, though, may think the third situation typical of pornographic consumption. But it isn’t—or at least, it needn’t be.

Consider the following scenario. You are quietly reading a book in the library, and a friend is sitting quietly nearby also reading a book, when I disrupt your reverie by swiftly walking up to your friend and slapping him on the cheek. What has happened? Suppose that you actually turn to me and demand “what’s going on here?” And I responded plainly, “I just slapped Bill on the cheek,” you would reply, “I see that you slapped Bill. But why did you slap him?” This dialectical progression reveals the real meaning behind questions aimed at identifying and understanding human actions, questions like “what happened?” or “what was that you just did?” or most simply, “what are you doing?” In fact, our “what” questions commonly are really “why” questions. You don’t understand my actions until you understand my reason-for-acting, why I am doing something.

What these scenarios indicate is that we can’t assess the moral quality or even the identity of human actions simply by observing physical processes or behaviors. Rather, we understand human actions and their moral worth by understanding an acting agent’s aims, means, and motives for acting. Self-defense and murder, we know, can look identical physically or behaviorally, but they are radically unlike morally.

The production and the consumption of pornography are human activities. (From here, I’ll refer to production and consumption together as pornographic communication.) Accordingly, pornography, in both its production and consumption, is intentional in structure—that is, what identifies pornographic production and consumption is the intent of the parties involved in that production and consumption. So in an effort to identify what is pornographic or non-pornographic, it isn’t enough to delineate or envision a collection of physical behaviors that is “off-limits.”

Following Alexander Pruss, whose excellent book One Body lays out a philosophical defense of the Christian sexual ethic, I want to say that pornographic production is the production of material intended for pornographic consumption; that is, it’s a function of the intentional structure of that consumption. So, what is pornographic consumption? It is the intentional use of representational material to induce arousal precisely at how the sexual elements of that representation are organized or portrayed. And, again, pornographic production is simply the production of material intended for pornographic consumption. The organizing principle of pornographic communication takes as its telos, its final and ultimate end that remains structural even if it isn’t realized (fully) in any particular act of consuming pornography, the arousal and ultimately the orgasm of the viewer. No producer of pornography would for a moment protest otherwise. Indeed, every “directorial” decision made in the production of pornographic material aims precisely at the arrangement of any and all elements of the product so as to result in a stimulus that will arouse the viewer sexually. That and nothing else is the “point” of pornography, which under this definition properly includes literature and other non-visual representational imagery meant to induce sexual arousal.

Admittedly, dishonest or unreflective people will sometimes pretend that pornography is just “admiration for the female form” or something on par with aesthetic appreciation. Case in point: I was saddened but also a bit tickled to come across the following line from a well known actor concerning his penchant for strip clubs: “The ecdysiast’s art, the appreciation of the female form, and the prurient music handpicked by the dancers contribute to an atmosphere I truly enjoy.” (For those of you mercifully not in-the-know, an ecdysiast is a strip performer.)

These are the words of none other than Crispin Glover, the strange man best known for playing George McFly in the classic film Back to the Future, but also known for his bizarre portrayal of Grendel in the equally bizarre 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf.

But no matter how prettily one tries to describe the dehumanizing experience of visiting a strip club, or of consuming pornography, the simple response to any objection like this is to point out the following: Were the producers of pornography to turn out material that contextualized naked or semi-naked women in postures, environments, and vis-à-vis other so-called “actors” and “props” in a set all the elements and arrangement of which minimize or eliminate the easy arousal of sexual pleasure, this material simply would not be considered, by either the producer or consumer, to be pornographic. Indeed such a definition as this easily encompasses several classical works of art focused on the nude feminine form. Such works find a place in art museums, not the back racks of adult bookstores.

Because it offends the goods of marriage and personal integrity, pornographic production is always immoral. (Pruss and others have defended this claim at length elsewhere and I will be assuming it for now.) The production, and even limited distribution of artistic media that depicts the human person in sexually explicit ways—that is, by exposing the genitals or female breasts—is not always immoral, and even when immoral is not always pornographic. (Pruss illustrates the first claim by pointing out that someone who had caught a famous politician on tape in an adulterous affair might prudently distribute it to a small circle of media authorities, should the police be unresponsive; and the distribution of sex tapes in revenge against a former lover would be immoral, but could be motivated simply by the desire to humiliate, rather than intended to sexually arouse the viewer.)

The key to pornographic production is that its content is intentionally sexually solicitous even if not necessarily sexually explicit. A painting of the Child Jesus nursing at the Virgin’s exposed breast is sexually explicit, but not sexually solicitous. (This isn’t to deny that even some religious art flirts with the boundaries between being intentionally arousing but also and more centrally, essentially religious in theme and emphasis.) Much of modern advertising is sexually solicitous even when not sexually explicit, and much of modern advertising includes as one of its aims the arousal of the viewer. Watching the Super Bowl a few weekends ago—which is now the most watched domestic program in American history—I witnessed several commercials that easily classify as pornographic.

Pornographic consumption, too, is always immoral for similar reasons to pornographic production, but pornographic viewing or use is not always immoral. Law enforcement or anti-trafficking agents might often pore through pornographic content in order to attempt to identify victims, ascertain crucial personal information about perpetrators, or otherwise carry out their official duties. In fact I described just such a scenario in the third situation above.

Note, too, that sexual arousal itself is neither sufficient nor necessary to the definition of pornographic consumption. It isn’t necessary: The hardcore pornography addict may consume “softer” pornography—images that previously would have aroused him but no longer do, by dint of the law of diminishing returns—without being aroused at all, though he intends to be aroused by what he is viewing. Nor is arousal sufficient here, since it can be purely involuntary and unexpected, as in the case of an anti-trafficking agent reviewing content for signs of criminal conduct (again the third situation with which I began).

One can pornographically consume non-pornographic material, and one can use pornographic material non-pornographically. The aforementioned law enforcement officers can use pornographic material in a non-pornographic way. Conversely, the man whose worldview is warped by habitual pornographic consumption learns to pornographically consume many images or persons whose self-presentation is not remotely pornographic in nature. Sadly, pornography is a cultural project, and advertising, film, and even fashion often threaten to make pornographic consumers of all of us, even those who have never visited a dirty website or seedy literature store.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted and adapted from Bradley’s paper “Passionless Love, Erotic Healing,” delivered at the 2015 Edith Stein Project.