Pornography : April Alliston

‘La Philosophie dans le boudoir’ ?   Copyright Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images


Pornography : April Alliston

For political reasons, there has never been consensus around any definition of pornography. The concept remains among the most radically unthought and unquestioned terms in common use. Twentieth-century political battles over its definition were virtually silenced by overwhelming resistance to theorizing the concept. To interrogate, to think, to define pornography is a political act—as is also to refuse to define it.

This entry presents a new political definition for the Internet era of a concept that originated with print. The work requires situating the concept within the historical field of controversy surrounding it, before resituating it within the new political conditions made possible by the Internet regime. Historicizing the resistance to any definition illuminates the political and theoretical stakes of the concept at hand.

The term “pornography” was not yet invented in 1764, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred in his Confessions to an unnamed genre he identified solely in terms of its use: “those books that one reads with one hand.”1 By 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had the phrase “hard-core pornography” at his disposal, yet declined to define it as a distinct category within the legal umbrella of “obscenity” with his now famous dismissal, “I know it when I see it.”2 Reflecting the technological shift away from print and toward photography and film in the two centuries since Rousseau wrote the Confessions, Potter Stewart only shifted the authority to identify the elusive “it” from the hand of the reader to the eye of the privileged beholder.

That Obscure Object of Desire

What, for our purposes, is the elusive yet evident “it” that Potter Stewart knew and saw? A lexicon is concerned with signifiers, yet always with specifying the relationship of the signifier to the signified, and often also to a referent. The referent in the case of pornography is notoriously protean. The totality of what consumers generally think of as “Internet pornography,” in particular, is so vast and so constantly changing as to be arguably unique for each individual consumer. This could have been an argument for Potter Stewart’s anti-definition, except that he asserts an “it” that is readily recognizable in a common sense not wholly idiosyncratic to him, even as he claims a definitive sovereignty over that common “it,” the popular consumption of which he presumes to regulate.

Rousseau “read with one hand” before photography, and Potter Stewart saw “it” and knew “it” before the Internet, yet the extant remains of the printed matter and films they knew have enough in common with enough of what now circulates on the Internet as “pornography” to inform a coherent history of an identifiable, evident yet elusive “it.” In the context of the Internet, Slavoj Žižek has referred to “it” as “standard heterosexual porn,” while Paul B. Preciado has spoken more broadly of “the dominant form of pornography.”3 Both are referring to what Preciado theorizes with more nuance: “The goal of all pornographic visual material is to make represented ejaculation coincide with the spectator’s ejaculation (understood in the abstract as a cis-male, the universal visual ejaculator).4 Preciado rightly emphasizes the economic as well as political force of pornography, which circulates on the Internet for free as a marketing strategy so that it “can be transformed into capital”: “The word pornographic refers to an economic-political characterization of representation.”5 The well-known phrase “the money shot,” originating in pre-Internet pornographic film production and rightly emphasized by Linda Williams in her classic study published shortly before the Internet era, neatly connects the economics of pornography with its representational content.6 The perspective of “the money shot” equally characterizes “the dominant form of pornography” on the Internet, photographic and film pornography, and even some pre-photographic print media closely enough to speak meaningfully of “pornography” in these terms across several media and two centuries.

The Resistance to Theorizing Pornography

Those who have refused to be bound by any conceptual definition of pornography have helped keep the term—and any possible referent—subject to the libertarian pleasures of (some) individuals for the two centuries of the concept’s existence. At stake in the resistance to theorizing pornography is resistance to understanding and exposing its relationship to entrenched hierarchies of power that lend greater cultural sovereignty to certain beholders (and handlers). Walter Kendrick and Catharine A. MacKinnon agree on little apart from Justice Potter Stewart’s arrogation of a privileged sovereign viewpoint in his famous remark.7 It is unsurprising that positions of power confer greater authority on certain individuals’ perceptions and speech, even elevating them to the status of social acts. It is less obvious, yet equally clear, that insistence on vesting the identification of pornography in the eye of the individual beholder—or the hand of the individual consumer—is a libertarian gesture resisting dialogue and community.

Like Kendrick in 1987, influential feminist anthropologist Gayle S. Rubin wrote polemically in 1993 against “the definitions of pornography employed within antiporn rhetoric,” foremost among them the “feminist definition” promoted in the early 1980s by MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.8 Rubin famously dismissed them as “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” and their definition as “circular, vague, arbitrary, and inconsistent”—yet resisted proposing a better one.9 Ever since the publication of Rubin’s late print-era salvo in the so-called “Porn Wars” among feminists, precious few have dared to know or say what pornography is.

Before Rubin published “Misguided” on the brink of the Internet age, feminists of various camps had written precisely to the point of pornography as a political concept—that is, in terms of its imbrication in a gendered social-power hierarchy. Even as he attacked them, Kendrick credited MacKinnon and Dworkin with “the long-overdue recognition that what we have been arguing about the entire time is a matter of power.”10 Indeed their political project was to establish a legal definition of pornography in order to distinguish it from obscenity, contra Potter Stewart, characterizing the latter legal term as expressing “a moral idea,” while “pornography, by contrast, is a political practice, a practice of power and powerlessness.”11 Williams, like Rubin no “antiporn” feminist, and similarly unwilling to define pornography, nevertheless conceded in 1989: “Even though the definition and history of pornography are elusive . . . there is remarkable consensus concerning the need to include ‘power’ as the significant new term in their formulation.12 These print-era feminist efforts to understand pornography in terms of power are now in need of recovery and rethinking. The pervasiveness of pornography in cyberspace for the three decades since the abrupt marginalization of twentieth-century feminist critique has so pervasively mainstreamed what I will term “porn culture” (which enshrines resistance to defining or critiquing pornography) that it has become nearly impossible to talk about the concept, let alone to analyze it in terms of its relationship to power. To meet that challenge is the political project of the present essay: the goal of defining the term for the Internet era is to revive the possibility of public discussion that could create cultural change.

Fear vs. Loathing

The persistent conceptual murk surrounding the term “pornography” originates in fears of state censorship, and is perpetuated by a series of false binary oppositions. Kendrick contributes the important insight that fear as well as power are the twin cultural forces underlying all debates around pornography. His focus is on others’ “fear of corruption of morals”; yet another fear seeps through his own impassioned rhetoric, as it does through Rubin’s repetition of “dangerous”—not just “misguided” and “wrong”—on nearly every page of her essay. Both authors betray a fear of others’ “fear of the corruption of morals,” a fear that has over the past three decades prevailed over the fear of corruption of morals itself, and also over the fear that motivated MacKinnon and Dworkin: fear of the real effects of misogyny, porn culture, and rape culture on real lives. Rubin acknowledges that “Most pornography is sexist,” even referring to “undeniably loathsome porn.”13 Her fear, however, is stronger than her loathing, and that shared fear of censorship won the day in the feminist “Porn Wars” of the previous century.

Fear of censorship has proved stronger than feminists’ fear and loathing of violent misogynist culture, and stronger than conservatives’ fear of corruption of morals as well. Rubin distilled the essence of this fear:

Antiporn feminists are playing into the hands of the right wing and its reactionary agenda. . . . We can expect a wave of conservative legislation on pornography to pass . . . in the next few years. . . .
These are times of great danger.14

It is by now clear that quite the opposite has happened. Instead of the “legislative avalanche” Rubin predicted would inevitably follow the “wave of conservative legislation,” the Internet brought with it, immediately after her statement was first published in 1993, a tsunami of unregulated pornography, whose inundations now flow unchecked into every pocket and desk. The Internet has fundamentally changed the context in which the effects of both pornography and censorship operate.

The opposite of censorship had already begun, moreover, when Rubin’s prediction was published. Judge Frank H. Easterbrook of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, to this day a mainstay of conservative jurisprudence and stalwart of the Federalist Society, had already struck down the Indianapolis ordinance crafted by MacKinnon and Dworkin on the basis of their “feminist definition” of pornography in 1985, with his precedent-setting designation of pornography as protected “speech.”15 In a paradox characteristic of the false binary oppositions that sustain pornography and porn culture, the fear of censorship that led to the branding of print-era “antiporn” feminists as guilty by association with religious right-wing politics is itself a stance shared primarily by the libertarian right wing. Judge Easterbrook’s landmark decision was in fact the only conservative legislation that emerged from the “Porn Wars.”16 His designation of pornography as “speech” is akin to the more recent conservative designation of large political contributions by corporations and plutocrats as equally protected “speech.” Which side in the feminist “Porn Wars” was more closely aligned with “The Right”? The very question arises from a false binary that makes it impossible to answer.

Censorship vs. Freedom of Speech: A False Logical and Political Binary

The real enemy of free speech in the still marginalized debate surrounding pornography and its social effects is not censorship, but the persistent embrace of false binary oppositions. The Us versus Them social binary is passionately embedded within a series of (il)logical binaries. The first of these is the opposition between censorship and free speech itself. This is never a pure opposition in practice, and indeed there has never been true theoretical opposition on this point, even between the opponents in the “Porn Wars.”

Contrary to the denunciations by those who fear censorship more than they loathe misogyny, MacKinnon’s and Dworkin’s “feminist definition” was never designed to censor any publication, as Lori Watson has recently reminded us.17 MacKinnon declared herself against censorship back in 1982.18 It was devised to make it possible to hold material already in circulation—because not censored—liable for civil damages, and then only when a causal relationship between specific pornographic material and a specific crime already committed could be established in a court of law. That is a nearly impossibly high bar. No pornographers should ever have been quaking in their boots at that threat—unless they themselves believed, as Judge Easterbrook declared, that pornography does in fact promote violence against women.19 There is no reason why defining pornography as a political concept, instead of retreating behind its longstanding status as “a nonidea, indefinable by definition,” should lead to censorship.20

Two further insights on the false opposition between censorship and freedom of speech can begin to help clarify what pornography is. First, censorship does not merely “further eroticize pornography,” as MacKinnon wrote. Building on Kendrick’s argument, I add that censorship generates pornography. For him, pornography is whatever a society has “quarantined” but not destroyed, with the rationale of protecting women, children, and other under-educated persons from corruption of their morals.21 It no longer exists, he claims, because it already circulated uncensored when he wrote. I respectfully disagree that censorship (or restriction more generally) is alone sufficient to define pornography. Other materials are restricted without becoming pornography. I do agree that restriction stimulates both production and consumption of pornography, however defined. In practice, censorship has never curtailed pornography, rather the opposite: witness the continuing explosion of production and consumption of child pornography, the only category that is subject to state censorship in the U.S. and most industrialized nations.22

I build further on Slavoj Žižek’s argument that pornography itself functions as a form of censorship in the section on “Woman as Desiring Object.” First, I will explain in what sense the false binary between censorship and freedom of speech is imbricated in another binary—the one between speech and action.

Speech vs. Action: Another False Logical and Political Binary

Recognizing that “MacKinnon has argued that the ordinances against pornography that she has devised and supported are not censorship,” Judith Butler responded in 1997 that “to argue that certain speech acts are more properly construed as conduct rather than speech sidesteps the question of censorship.”23 Like Nadine Strossen, Butler argues for more speech instead of less: “Insurrectionary speech becomes the necessary response to injurious language, a risk taken in response to being put at risk, a repetition in language that forces change.”24 Butler correctly identifies the central issue in the ruling against the MacKinnon and Dworkin ordinances: whether pornography should be considered “conduct,” as they argued, or “speech,” as Judge Easterbrook ruled. Yet all these authors have already deconstructed that contested opposition in similar ways. Both MacKinnon and Butler discuss pornography in terms of J.L. Austin’s theory of “speech acts.” “Speech and action are meshed” in pornography, Dworkin also wrote. Remarkably, Andrew Altman, taking a position opposite to Dworkin’s by defending a “right to pornography” in his 2019 polemic, nevertheless quotes her statement in agreement.25 Not only do both sides in the feminist “Porn Wars” agree, then, that state censorship is neither desirable nor effective: both sides further agree that there is in fact no clear distinction between “speech” and “act.” Yet to the extent that debate continues at all, it continues to spin uselessly around this and other false binary oppositions.

De Facto Censorship of Critique and Debate: Why We Need a New Definition of Pornography for the Internet Age

Trapped in false binaries, the debate on pornography has stalled for decades. More than two decades into the twenty-first century, pornography is less regulated than ever in Western democracies, yet fear of censorship continues to inhibit debate over its social and cultural effects. The terms of the debate have tended to remain petrified in time, even as the context in which pornography circulates has become bewilderingly fluid.

Fear of censoring pornography simply by defining it has unfortunately led, with the advent of the Internet age, to an inability even to hold a public discussion that might lead to political change, even to debate what is at stake in changing the porn culture that has become entrenched with the pervasiveness of Internet pornography. The result, nearly four decades after the infamous 1986 Final Report of the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, is that “When I ask a radical feminist Wesleyan student about her feelings on porn, she whispers, ‘No, no, I don’t think it’s good at all.’ She puts her finger to her mouth, and says, ‘Shh. You’re not supposed to say you feel that way.’”26 Fear of state censorship has generated a further fear, that is, fear of being “canceled”: shunned, shamed, or denounced by one’s peers. The effect has been a near-total de facto censorship of feminist (or indeed any) political debate on the subject, a silencing that has endured long enough to form more than one generation of scholars and feminists.

After three decades of viral uncensored Internet pornography functioning as de facto censorship of feminist critique, thinkers are again, at last, speaking out and even being heard. Watson refreshingly writes that “denying the testimony of women, reducing their experience to exaggerated hysteria, in the name of ‘feminism’ is a form of misogyny.”27 Even more recently, Amia Srinivasan made headlines by announcing that her students, struggling with porn culture, again find critics like MacKinnon and Dworkin helpful for understanding the connection between their experience of pornography and their experience of sex.28 This is the difference between “porn debates” and “Porn Wars.” Just as state censorship was always acknowledged by both sides to be no solution, neither is it any solution to perpetuate the long-hegemonic stance that is finally beginning to show signs of wear: the position of the “supposed libertarians” who, as Kendrick acknowledged back in 1987, “would simply have us shut up and get on with our lives.”29

A new political definition of pornography is needed to get beyond the intransigent impasses of false oppositions, including that of either putting up with state censorship or shutting up in the face of de facto censorship. We need language to facilitate discussions that recognize and resist the unequal power structures inscribed in and reinforced by “the dominant form of pornography” and its attendant misogynist porn culture, and to address the various legitimate fears arising from them. We now need a definition that can confront these cultural problems without invoking legal, political, or corporate regulation. We need to change the way we think about pornography—that is, we need to think about pornography again—and new tools are required to do so. It is time to dare to think a new definition of pornography as a political concept for the Internet era.

Toward a New Definition of Pornography: Out of the Labyrinth of False Binaries

Abandoning the impasses of false binary oppositions does not mean throwing up our hands and abandoning all distinctions, as has been the predominant gesture for the past three decades. Recognition of and resistance to the gendered power hierarchy reinforced by pornography and porn culture must begin with a refusal to conflate pornography either with all sexually explicit material or with all misogynist representation. Those twin conflations have long formed the hard core of resistance to theorizing pornography. So let us begin the search for a new definition by looking closely and historically at each of these common conflations in turn.

Pornography vs. Erotica: False Binary Opposition or Useful Nonbinary Distinction?

Let us begin by revisiting a significant and potentially useful distinction between pornography and other sexually explicit material, one which has been twisted into a useless false binary opposition. Most attempts to define pornography have distinguished it from erotica—so much so that this rhetorical opposition has settled firmly into general usage, despite little agreement on the definition of either of its terms. Thus Rubin remarks that “one of the few points upon which both Andrea Dworkin and I agree is that the distinction is not useful,” adding that “no one has ever been able to come up with a more definitive delineation.”30 Rubin and Dworkin agree on its uselessness, I suggest, because they share a concern with the legal regulation of pornography, a purpose for which the distinction probably is useless, regardless of whether one is for or against regulation. What remains at stake in this distinction, however, quite apart from any agenda of legal regulation, is the crucial element of power that MacKinnon, Williams, Gloria Steinem, and others have identified as crucial to understanding and defining pornography.

How did the distinction between pornography and erotica become useless? I suggest it has been rendered paradoxical as a result of legal efforts to regulate obscenity. Standard English dictionaries crystallize the legal history of regulating obscenity by opposing “prurient interest” and/or “offensiveness” to “literary, artistic, political or scientific value” when they define the related term pornography as material “intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings.”31 Thus the erotic has gradually become opposed to the aesthetic (and by extension to every other cultural value) in linguistic as in legal practice. This false binary chiasmatically opposes “the erotic” to “erotica,” by aligning “the erotic” with “pornography,” the opposite of “erotica,”—while “erotica” becomes aligned with “the aesthetic” against “the erotic.” The logic of pornography regularly generates and thrives upon such unstable, paradoxical, chiasmatic oppositions. Part of its seductive power lies in its stance of challenging binary oppositions by way of reinforcing and rigidifying them, forever merely playing at unsettling them. As the logic of pornography constructs it, the “erotica vs. pornography” distinction is indeed a false opposition, part of pornography’s chiasmatic game of seduction. It is not surprising, therefore, that serious thinkers have found it unhelpful. It does not follow, nonetheless, that no such distinction can be useful, especially in the transformed context of the Internet. To render it useful, the structure of chiasmatic opposition, and indeed of the binary oppositional thinking that lends itself to chiasmatic paradox, must be abandoned—without thereby abandoning any distinction at all.

How to make the “erotica vs. pornography” distinction useful enough, then, to inform a public conversation that could bring change at last to the pervasive culture of sexual exploitation? The necessity of abandoning binary thinking turns out to be related to the necessity of thinking historically in order to gain any real understanding of cultural systems and cultural change. The first clarification that a historical view can lend to the theoretical question of the distinction between pornography and erotica is the observation that before the invention of the term “pornography,” sexual representations were never divided into two opposing kinds only. Understanding the distinction requires a third category (at the least) of sexually explicit material, one that is forgotten whenever the question is posed as a binary between pornography and erotica: that of satire.

Since the most ancient historical times, explicit descriptions of sex have been used to criticize, disparage, shame, and literally “expose” political and religious authority figures.32 Pornography can and must be distinguished from satire as well as from erotica. Why? Because political satire critiques existing power structures rather than perpetuating them, and concerns itself also with a different kind of power: it constitutes a critique of individuals or groups in positions of political power (such as monarchs or clergy), beyond merely perpetuating the predominant hierarchy of social power among categories of persons. I take an acknowledgment of the value of political satire to be the significance of the addition of the phrase “political value” in Miller v. California to “artistic, literary, and scientific value” as characterizing sexually explicit material that would not be ruled “obscene” by the Court.33

There is no logical necessity to recognize even three types only of sexually explicit representations. We could meaningfully distinguish further among the sacred and the libertine, for example, parsing finer distinctions instead of lumping everything that is not pornography or satire into the ancient Greek loan-word “erotica,” which simply indicated whatever relates to desire. The sacred is clearly the most ancient form of sexually explicit representation; pornography the most recent and profane. It cannot be understood as one pole of a simple binary opposition if it is to be defined as a political concept.

Departing from previous efforts to establish a meaningful distinction betweenpornography” and “erotica,” I would not define erotica as less explicit, more aesthetically refined, or more socially or culturally valuable than pornography, but rather as an umbrella term that would include a spectrum of sexually explicit representations, from the sacred to the satiric, any of which may resist the censorship of female desire and pleasure in particular, and of mutual, connected desire and pleasure in general, which pornography performs.34

To understand how pornography censors female pleasure and mutual desire, and how it came to do so historically, let us continue our historical exploration of the political distinction signified by the theoretical concept of pornography with a brief look at the foundational work of the marquis de Sade.

How the Marquis de Sade Invented Pornography: The Right to Sexual Use

There is a remarkable degree of agreement among historians of pornography in crediting “the divine marquis” with the title of true father of modern pornography. He is the author who brought the scattered early modern and Enlightenment trends of anticlerical satire, materialism, and freethinking to full fruition in a recognizable genre that makes us feel we know it when we see it, something we recognize as distinct from the various types of erotica. Within the scholarly agreement about Sade’s significance, however, there is a notable difference of opinion as to the crux of his invention of the political concept of pornography. I diverge from other interpreters in locating Sade’s innovation in his original adaptation of the French legal term jouissance, in order to talk his way out of a contradiction so glaring that he is forced to acknowledge and address it thus:

Let it not be said that I contradict myself here . . . having established . . . that we have no right to bind a woman to ourselves, I destroy those principles when I declare now we have the right to constrain her; I repeat, it is a question of enjoyment [jouissance] only, not of property. . . I have no real right of possession over such-and-such a woman, but I have incontestable rights to the enjoyment of her; I have the right to force her to this enjoyment, if she refuses me it (emphasis added).35

Sade’s apparently feminist manifesto liberating women from being “owned” by men in marriage is only there to serve as a subordinate point to buttress his main argument: that Nature gives males the inalienable right to take any woman sexually, at any time and in any manner—but only temporarily, whenever and for as long as a man may be pleased to make the unwanted sexual congress last. This principle applies, for Sade, to children and animals too, but since he never argues that they should be emancipated, there’s no contradiction to resolve. The gendered power hierarchy ordering all the multifarious polyvalence that Sade articulated remains, to this day, a foundational paradox of Internet pornography.36

Unlike many insightful readers who have noted the importance of use in Sade before me, I am arguing that pornography is primarily about use, just as it was for the marquis de Sade: that is, it is about enjoyment or usufruct in the legal sense, jouissance of a kind that depends upon the occultation and elision of the other’s desire and pleasure, certainly; and even of the other’s consent.37 This central idea of use necessitated pornography’s construction of the category of Woman as desiring object.

Woman as Desiring Object

Modern readers are confused by Sade’s “proto-feminist misogyny,” to borrow James Steintrager’s apt phrase, because Sade acknowledges women’s sexual desires as equally strong and selfish as men’s, yet considers them unequally “condemned by nature and the law” to be normally incapable of satisfying their desires save by submitting to becoming objects of sexual aggression. This Sadeian conception of woman as a paradoxical person-thing, a desiring object, still predominates in pornography, where women are routinely portrayed as having their desires punished instead of satisfied, and/or as desiring primarily to be used as instruments for the achievement of male orgasm. What Sade did for the first time was to articulate a philosophical justification for combining the discourse of sexual freedom with that of sexual dominance and exploitation of anybody, and yet of women particularly, whom he redefined as the quintessential desiring objects. He promoted this philosophical innovation via an extensive imaginative corpus designed to eroticize, naturalize, and popularize that philosophy. That is how Sade invented pornography.

To say that pornography eroticizes and naturalizes use, then, is not at all the same as to say that it “objectifies women.” This is a further crucial distinction between the definition of pornography in terms of use here and the emphasis on use in previous definitions.

First, the concept of woman as desiring object derived from my reading of Sade crucially complicates the idea of “objectification.” To distinguish the present definition further, it is helpful to address Žižek’s response to the old argument about pornography’s objectification of women:

I absolutely disagree with Laura Mulvey, the cinema theorist, that in heterosexual pornography, the woman is reduced to the object of the male gaze. Not at all. Do you notice how the woman being fucked is allowed to break the basic rule of fiction movies and look directly into the camera? Men, no. You don’t identify with the man fucking the woman. He is a pure instrument. If you are a hetero guy observing a hardcore movie, what you are looking for—and this is signaled to you by the woman—is some confirmation that the woman really enjoys it. The true object is the poor guy, usually some poor sailor fucking her. Which is why the woman, as a rule, has to make all those sounds all the time.38

In a lecture at Princeton University (2012), Žižek used the same pornographic example to illustrate Lacan’s basic principle that human sexual desire is not simply desire for an object, but rather desire for the other’s desire. The female porn star’s expressions purportedly prove his theoretical point that “standard heterosexual porn” is really about Lacan’s concept of jouissance: the implied male voyeur wants to see the woman’s desire in those expressions, not just to see her body as desired object. Agreed and agreed—yet this agreement to superficial points reveals two fundamental disagreements. First, yes, “the poor guy” is just as dehumanized as the woman—but in a way that reinforces the gendered power hierarchy rather than disrupting it. Dehumanization of all concerned is indeed the cultural work of pornography (and patriarchy, and all systems of oppression) in mainstream sexual culture—but the systemic power imbalance remains within the dehumanization.39 The mutual yet unequal dehumanization reinforces the imbalance of power. The scenario Žižek describes reinforces a traditionally gendered systemic power imbalance he too readily glosses over, beginning with his own basic grammar: “the woman being fucked” (passive) and “the poor guy . . . [nevertheless actively] fucking her.”

My second objection to Žižek is that yes, pornography is indeed about desiring the other’s desire, about projecting a Lacanian jouissance—but that is crucially, albeit paradoxically, combined with a Sadeian jouissance, to obscure female desire, pleasure, and even consent. Žižek’s “standard heterosexual porn” overwhelmingly imagines “the desire of the other” to which he refers primarily as women’s desire “to be fucked” (“the woman really enjoys it”). The prevailing fantasy of mainstream heterosexual pornography indeed goes significantly beyond merely displacing any representation of “female orgasmic bliss” onto visible male ejaculation or women’s grimaces and grunts. The hysterically insistent fantasy it projects is that “female orgasmic bliss” results directly and specifically from acts that aggressively deny the known physiology of female orgasm.40

The pervasiveness of mainstream pornography’s anti-clitoral fantasy reveals its fundamental project of imagining and projecting women (or anyone in the passive role Žižek describes as “getting fucked,” in non-heterosexual porn) as desiring a very specific “desire of the other,” one simultaneously projected onto that masculine other, who is at once Zizek’s represented “poor guy” and the interpellated viewer. Pornography constructs the desire of “the woman being fucked” as her desire for the other’s desire to use women’s bodies, and potentially any and all bodies, to achieve his own externally visible (and therefore by definition male masturbatory) orgasm, regardless of “female orgasmic bliss,” regardless of the pleasure, desire, or even consent of anybody so used. Thus pornography constructs Woman as the primary desiring object, the sign and stand-in for all persons whose consciousness might potentially be formed to desire the other’s desire to use them as objects.

To the extent that the Internet has turned more women and girls into consumers of pornography than ever before, a shift sometimes touted as a form of progress toward gender equality, the predominant pornographic fantasy that what women want is to consent that their bodies be used for the achievement of a visible male ejaculation is becoming increasingly a successful process of the cultural formation of desire, not just a fantasy divorced from reality. Thus, pornography not only proliferates in response to censorship, as others have observed; it actually functions as a form of censorship. It censors the cultural imagination and the freedom of individual imaginations by scripting fantasy life and even sexual experience according to a commoditized virtual reality. More specifically, it censors female desire, pleasure, and consent.41

Defining Pornography for the Internet Age

With the insight gained from clarifying the history and stakes of distinguishing pornography from erotica, and from mining key concepts from Sade and Lacan, including jouissance and desiring object, I can return to the task of defining pornography as a political concept for the Internet era: Pornography is a circulating representation that eroticizes the communal sexual use of others’ bodies whose desire, pleasure, or consent is occulted.

In representation, pornography eroticizes the use of others’ bodies specifically by conflating three different senses of the French term jouissance: the colloquial sense of physical orgasm (what pornographers call “the money shot,” what consumers presumably will pay to see); Lacanian jouissance (conceptualizing erotic desire not as desire for an object but as “desire for the desire of the other”); and Sadeian jouissance, which posits a natural right of adult males to temporary use of all others’ bodies, yet particularly women’s bodies, for the sake of their sole sovereign enjoyment, regardless of the others’ desire, pleasure, or consent.

Circulation is required to perform the cultural and physical work of eroticizing the shared use of others’ bodies whose desire is occulted. This cannot be performed in representation alone. Circulation defines pornography by situating it in a paradoxical space that both transgresses and reinforces yet another false binary opposition: public vs. private.42

First, representations must circulate publicly to be used by multiple consumers separately, in enough privacy that they can train their neurophysiological pleasure circuits through masturbation to respond most efficiently to those representations. The crucial importance of circulation is the reason why Pope Clement VII in the early sixteenth century banned the first European erotic prints, without batting a single holy eyelash at the unique drawings on which they were based, imprisoning only the printer, not the original painter. For Clement VII, circulation posed the primary threat to his flock, not representation alone.43

Secondly, private consumption of publicly circulating representations creates a paradoxical kind of community: a community whose standards are created precisely through the shared violation of publicly acknowledged community standards. The Internet has so exponentially increased this community-forming effect of public circulation for private consumption that it has produced a new regime of porn culture.

Pornography’s Distinction from Other Misogynist Representations: Pornography Explicitly Says What It Does

As Rubin and others have objected to thinkers like MacKinnon, who privilege pornography as exceptionally performing misogyny, “why single out sexually explicit media?  . . . Women’s subordination . . . is reflected in virtually all our media.”44 Pierre Bourdieu similarly explains, extrapolating from his observations on a traditional culture without mass media, that “masculine domination” is produced through “a formidable collective labour of diffuse and continuous socialization,” including every aspect of cultural thought and practice, until it becomes “embodied in habitus,” beyond and below the level of conscious thought, so that it structures conscious thought itself.45 Bourdieu nevertheless cites MacKinnon’s work on pornography multiple times and quotes a feminist expositor of Sade to show how Sade’s making explicit the sexual circulation of women as “symbolic goods” also makes explicit the violence inherent in such circulation: “We should see the circulation of women in de Sade,” he writes, “as the disenchanted or cynical limiting case of Lévi-Straussian circulation.46 According to Bourdieu, the circulation of paper money (and contemporaneously, I add, other printed materials) “disenchants” traditional patriarchal masculine domination of and traffic in women. No longer invisibly sacrosanct, “displaying overtly the violence on which, in the final analysis, the legitimate circulation of legitimate women is based” becomes both possible and necessary to perpetuate masculine domination in a disenchanted, industrialized world.47

With Bourdieu’s help, we can now recognize yet another way in which Sade invented pornography. Sade says what he is doing. In Bourdieu’s terms, he “displays overtly,” making explicit the traditionally occulted sexual violence at the foundation of patriarchal societies: the sexual violence inherent in the marriage market, in which women legitimately circulate as brides only to the extent that they are possessed by one man (father, husband, or brother)—without whose ownership they are legitimately available for use by all men. The act of making this violent truth explicit is itself the “disenchantment,” or “cynical limiting case” to which Bourdieu refers. Sade institutes pornography not by doing or representing anything new in patriarchy, but by displaying with obscene explicitness the scene of violent masculine domination that is more subtly reinforced in every aspect of most traditional societies, but less seamlessly so in “disenchanted” industrial societies and modern media.

Sade is the first philosopher-poet of explicit eroticism because he writes at the historical moment of the disenchantment that comes with “the generalization of monetary exchanges,” as Bourdieu observes—the circulation of printed money that is necessarily accompanied by the mass circulation of printed books and pictures, and the disenchantment (or demystification) of all traditional power hierarchies, from the sacred right of kings to the sacredness of masculine domination.48  In saying what it does, pornography performs the erotic, symbolic, and economic “disenchantment” of traditional patriarchal culture that Bourdieu describes. That is why pornography arises historically in industrializing societies: it was in Sade’s time, and remains to this day, the backlash of traditional patriarchal masculine domination against its Enlightenment, feminist disenchantment. In a disenchanted world, where masculine domination is no longer fully integrated into a sacred and eternal order of things, pornography restores women to infinite virtual circulation for symbolic use as whores—the more so the more they attempt in real life to control their own bodies and images. Pornography, thus, is sign, symptom, and engine of the Enlightenment’s disenchantment of traditional masculine domination.

As a cultural tool for the gender interpellation of both users and used, pornography provides the explicitness required to perpetuate masculine domination in a disenchanted world. It extends the traditional cultural work of the “somatization of the social relations of domination,” that is, the embodiment of the “symbolic violence” created through the circulation of “symbolic goods.” “Symbolic violence” is in Bourdieu’s analysis the violence necessary to create a dominated consciousness: that of the woman who cannot fail to see herself as naturally dominated, and who therefore desires domination. It produces the consciousness, in the terms of the present argument, of a desiring object: “This principle creates, organizes, expresses and directs desire—male desire as the desire for possession, eroticized domination, and female desire as the desire for masculine domination, as eroticized subordination or even, in the limiting case, as the eroticized recognition of domination.”49  Pornography, then, is not simply “sexually explicit”; it is explicit in its performative representation of this symbolic violence inherent in the circulation of women as symbolic goods in patriarchal societies.

This explicitness in saying what it does is the characteristic that enables pornography to “do what it says,” in MacKinnon’s memorable phrase—and to do it more directly and effectively than all the rest of the disenchanted patriarchal symbolic economy. By training erotic response to produce consumers’ pleasure most efficiently and powerfully in response to images that explicitly display and perform masculine domination—in ways that have been well documented in a whole library of books and are right now being treated by a whole army of psychotherapists—mainstream Internet pornography, distinctly more than any other forms of representation circulating in disenchanted patriarchal society, has the capacity to form body and mind almost as effectively as the old enchanted habitus Bourdieu describes in traditional societies.50 It is precisely in saying what it does, I argue, that pornography is primarily and meaningfully distinguished from the rest of misogynistic or violent patriarchal representations.

In the process of perpetuating virtually the traditional patriarchal circulation of women while projecting and interpellating masculine desire for woman as always-already whore, desirous of being circulated as an object, pornography also works to realign disenchanted masculine domination with nature: thus we are incessantly, hysterically bombarded with “scientific” myths to the effect that pornography is as old as the “cave man,” whose “genes” persist in modern men; that men are “naturally more visual” than women or “naturally” more promiscuous and that, in sum, “boys will be cave men.” Mainstream Internet pornography is now perhaps the last remaining refuge where men who feel compelled to submit to the increasingly prevailing “politically correct” discourse on gender equality—in their public conduct and in at least some of their most important private relationships—still get not only to fantasize themselves as “cave men,” but more importantly to feel entitled to act like “cave men.” This “cave man,” of course, has nothing to do with Paleolithic people; it is only the latest popular culture term for Rousseau’s mythic “man in a state of nature,” enchained by corrupt civilization.51 The incessant message that pornography consumption is the natural state of man is modern, disenchanted eroticism “protesting too much,” hysterically asserting the naturalness and inevitability of traditional masculine domination.

Guy Nation: How Pornography Promotes Misogyny and Child Abuse More through Circulation than Representation

The modern myth of the porn-consuming cave man allows actual, modern, “enlightened” men to justify the practice of training their neurophysiological pleasure responses into an eroticism of masculine domination in the privacy of their “man caves,” whether architectural or only virtual. Isolated with their personal screens, they join the “imagined community” I call, following Benedict Anderson, Guy Nation: the virtual circle jerk and gang rape formed through the consumption of mainstream Internet pornography.

One of the most forceful arguments against earlier feminist critiques of pornography consists in ridiculing the Platonic and Enlightenment idea that representations generate imitation. I argue instead that the main way representations can form attitudes and even promote action is not through some mimetic compulsion to act out representations, but rather through the establishment of communities that validate represented actions not openly condoned in enlightened, “disenchanted” society. This mechanism has recently been shown to work for a range of individual actions that “violate local community standards” far more than misogynist actions do, from child sexual abuse to terrorism to insurrection. Participation in an imagined, even if only potentially or virtually violent masculine community is another way, beyond reinstating and re-naturalizing the traditional habitus of masculine domination, in which pornography works to resuscitate traditional patriarchal masculine domination in a modern, disenchanted world.52

Guy Nation perpetuates, for the disenchanted, the traditional enchanted system of masculine honor that still provokes “honor killings” of women in many traditional societies. Bourdieu observes that “manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence,” performed, for example, in group visits to brothels or gang rapes.53 Small wonder, then, that pornography often portrays rape. Even without such direct representation, however, the virtual brothel that is the Internet sufficiently validates manliness “in its reality as . . .  potential violence” before the imagined masculine community of Internet porn consumers. That is how representation affects individual behaviors and cultural attitudes, how it alters what the justices call “community standards”—not primarily through inciting direct imitation of specific represented acts. Imitation repeats the community standard established by the circulation of representations, not necessarily the content of any specific representations.54

Pornography and “Porn Culture”

Internet pornography does not straightforwardly, like the legal concept of obscenity formulated in the era of print, “violate local community standards.” In performing a gesture of violating community standards, rather, it creates and perpetuates new standards for imagined communities that transcend locality in cyberspace (or in print, for that matter). Violating local community standards versus perpetuating them, then, is just another false binary that allows pornography to thrive. Pornography works to construct and inculcate its own community standards—and thereby to perpetuate the starkly gendered power differential it makes explicit. Pornography propagates community standards that reinforce the traditional expectations that some kinds of people, particularly women and children, “naturally” offer themselves as sexual servants and their bodies as objects for use, regardless, first and foremost, of their own sexual pleasure or pain; regardless of their risk of physical harm or psychic damage. While posing seductively as a transgression of community standards, pornography perpetuates these traditional hierarchies of power in consumers of all genders and ages, before they can ever have a chance to entertain their own erotic desires outside the traditional terms of masculine domination (of children and animals and even other men, as well as women). These ancient community standards reinforced and perpetuated by pornography constitute what many have called “porn culture.”

Conclusion: Disrupting Porn Culture and Rape Culture through Counterspeech

The crucial difference between the “feminist definition” of pornography once proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin and the one proposed here for the Internet era is that the new definition is not intended to facilitate any legal action. It is not good for prosecuting individuals or corporations for their role in perpetuating social problems, but rather for enabling a public discourse that could revitalize and change the public conversation around pornography, ultimately disrupting porn culture and its endemic social and personal harms. The conditions of possibility for renewed discussion have finally arrived. The long de facto censorship of critique and debate has recently started to weaken, as fears of government censorship have given way to calls for de facto censorship of pornography by corporations, such as social media companies. Meanwhile, the Internet has proven to be a double-edged sword: after overwhelming earlier feminist critiques of pornography with its sheer volume of circulation, it has more recently enabled a vital resurgence of feminist activism through social media networking, which exploded in late 2017 in the #MeToo and related movements. Just as I have shown that the harms of pornography are generated more through its circulation than through representations themselves, the search for a remedy for those harms must emphasize community formation and cultural change, not individual free agency, choice, speech, or sexual preference. One place for individual agency in changing porn culture is choosing not to consume or condone pornography as defined here—which does not preclude the appreciation of other erotic representations. Another is to disrupt porn culture through counterspeech.

Even before the #MeToo movement “went viral,” students had begun to raise their voices in creative resistance to porn culture and rape culture. The best evidence for the effective disruptiveness of these acts of resistance is that they shocked the public more than earlier news reports of campus chants promoting rape. Rape culture and porn culture now inform the prevailing Internet community standard to the extent that open resistance to them constitutes its greatest violation. Erotica, as defined here, violates the community standards of porn culture, disrupting it by functioning as counterspeech, a term recently introduced by legal scholars as the best way to fight the harms of hate speech, instead of trying to censor it.55

What does erotic counterspeech look like in the context of porn culture? One example is the ingenious video Defined Lines, produced and posted by law students in New Zealand to expose Robin Thicke’s hit song Blurred Lines for what it is: a significant contribution to rape culture.56 Even though there is no full nudity in Defined Lines, whereas there is plenty of female nudity in the music video for Blurred Lines, only Defined Lines was censored by YouTube. In Australia, a student magazine was censored after the women who worked on it, sick of the endless circulation, commodification, and instrumentalization of images of the female body, protested that culture of harassment by placing self-portraits (demure ones by porn standards) of their own vulvas on the cover. This was scandalously labeled “The Vagina Cover,” and immediately censored by fellow students. Although social media corporations are the most powerful and pervasive of the de facto censors, their algorithms are not the only ones ready to censor erotica as counterspeech.

Other examples of erotica censored because of its threatening power as counterspeech include an art portrait of porn star Madison Young, fully though vampishly clothed while breastfeeding her baby. This was publicly denounced by her colleagues in the porn industry as “child abuse.” Another breastfeeding image, posted online by a woman using the handle “Daughter of the Sun,” in which she appears performing a yoga headstand in the nude while breastfeeding, was immediately censored by Instagram. Also denounced and censored was a nude selfie posted on Facebook by an Egyptian woman involved in the Arab Spring protests, by way of protesting the enforced veiling of women. More recently, selfies posted by a transgender and nonbinary couple with bare chests and nipples covered were censored by Instagram.57

These particular instances of corporate censorship were not successful: they were quickly reversed following public outcry (while countless others escaped notice). In response, the big social media censors revised their policies on nudity. Instagram, for example, which censored the breastfeeding yogini, now announces: “Photos in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and afterbirth moments, health related situations . . . or an act of protest are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”58 Nevertheless, in late 2021, the Vienna Tourist Board posted an ad for its museums featuring a photo of the Paleolithic figurine known as the “Venus of Willendorf” on OnlyFans, the virtual sex work app, to protest the fact that the same image had just been censored by Instagram and Facebook. “The social media platforms did not respond to requests for comment on the seeming contradiction of the rules and how they are enforced.”59 De facto censorship of erotica continues on social media despite corporate policy changes.

The desperate struggle for control of the virtual circulation and use of women’s and gender-nonconforming bodies also continues. It has not lessened since the #MeToo movement went viral in late 2017. If anything it has become more desperately intense, just as pornography itself had to emerge as backlash to the “proto-feminism” accompanying the Industrial Revolution. In the springtime of #MeToo, the New York Times documented various ways in which images posted by women of their own bodies on social media are more strictly policed and censored than men’s shared self-images.60 At the same time, professional cheerleaders teamed up to sue the N.F.L. over its corporate censorship of images that the women themselves post on social media in efforts to create and control their own “brands,” even as teams seek to profit from circulating sexualized images of them, and from their actual bodies and services, routinely ordering them to make themselves personally and physically available to harassing fans.61 Years later, All this censorship demonstrates the potent threat of circulating erotica instead of pornography on the Internet.

Some women outside the pornography industry are already harnessing the power of the Internet to disrupt porn culture by circulating nonprofit erotica. Cindy Gallop gave a TED talk entitled “Make Love Not Porn,” now also a website with the same title, where anyone can upload videos of their own sexual encounters that promote that message.

With the acceleration of the #MeToo movement we have at last reached a tipping point—despite the continuing desperate efforts to censor women’s self-images, along with woman- and queer- and relationship-friendly erotica. #MeToo is only the most viral and visible of many important efforts to organize and harness the positive means provided by the Internet to disrupt porn culture and rape culture. In addition to Gallop’s site for anti-porn erotica, a few of the most notable are The Everyday Sexism Project, The Representation Project, #NotBuyingIt, the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag, and Stop Street Harassment. To circulate erotica is a political act of resistance to a form of representation and a culture that eroticizes and naturalizes the circulation and use of others’ bodies. Erotica works as counterspeech to pornography as defined here.

Why define pornography, instead of leaving it at vaguely whatever sexually explicit material shows up on the Internet, or happens to turn anyone on?62 The definition proposed here helps identify the specificity of pornography in performing the cultural work of perpetuating masculine domination for centuries after its “disenchantment” in industrialized democracies, after the loss of that mystifying effect that once integrated it more seamlessly into the traditional order of things, as Bourdieu describes. This definition is offered in the hope of enabling a public conversation to address those cultural rather than individual harms, and to point toward some communal, extra-legal forms of resistance.


This essay evolved out of my contribution to the “Political Concepts” conference years ago. Many have helped me in the long and hard work of thinking through a concept most prefer not to think about at all. I mention just a few of them here: Akeel Bilgrami, Frank Boyle, Crocker Coulson, Rhonda Garelick, Susan Greenfield, Paul Kottman, Drusilla Lawton, Sandra Macpherson, Gregory Maertz, Elissa Marder, Toril Moi, Brian Mountford, Alexander Nehamas, Nancy Jo Sales, and Karen Van Dyck. The contributions to this work from many more not named in this brief acknowledgment have been at least as important: from lecture audiences at the “Political Concepts” conference, TEDx Jackson Hole, Fordham University, and Princeton University; from the editors of this journal; and most of all from my students.

Published on March 4, 2023


April Alliston is Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University




1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, vol. 3 (Paris: PLON, 1789), 156.

2. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).

3. Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press, 2013), 266.

4. Slavoj Žižek, “Camera Shy, Blah, Blah, Blah Blah,” The Baffler 22 (2013),, accessed November 2022; Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie, 269–270.

5. Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie, 266.

6. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). The book was first published in 1989.

7. See Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 196, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 163–164. 

8. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong: An Analysis of Antipornography Politics,” in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 261.

9. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 261ff.

10. Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 236. 

11. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, 175.

12. Linda Williams, Hard Core, 15.

13. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 259, 271, and Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 236–237, 239, 251.

14. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 274; emphasis added. See also Nadine Strossen, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1995).

15. American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut 771 (7th Cir. 1985).

16. Fears of censorship on the left, to be fair, conjure broader fears of repression, of queer sexualities in particular. Strossen has identified one piece of Canadian legislation that emerged from the “Porn Wars” debates that was actually misused in this way. In response, she reports, “the pro-censorship feminist organization that had championed the Butler decision” issued a statement in 1993 condemning its misuse by Canadian officials “to justify the discriminatory use of laws to harass and intimidate lesbians and gays.’” The Canadian feminists who backed this legislation, which incorporated the concept of gender-based “hate speech” into Canada’s obscenity laws, were in fact quick to clarify that they were just as much against repression of queer sexualities as they were against misogyny. See Nadine Strossen, HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 90–91.

17. Lori Watson, “A Defense of a Sex Equality Approach to Pornography,” in Debating Pornography, ed. Andrew Altman and Lori Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 181–182.

18. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, 140.

19. See Lori Watson, “A Defense of a Sex Equality Approach to Pornography,” 196, 258–259.

20. Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 195.

21. See Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, 140, and Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 195.

22. See, for example, Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J. X. Dance, “The Internet Is Overrun with Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?,” The New York Times (September 29, 2019),, accessed November 2022; Nicholas Kristof, “The Children of Pornhub,” The New York Times (December 4, 2020),, accessed November 2022; and Melissa Eddy, “German Authorities Break Up International Child Sex Abuse Site,” The New York Times (May 3, 2021),, accessed November 2022.

23. Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge, 2021), 127.

24. Judith Butler, Excitable Speech, 163.

25. Andrew Altman, “Pornography and the Right of Sexual Autonomy,” in Debating Pornography, 77–78; see also Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 30ff.

26. Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 51.

27. Lori Watson, “A Defense of a Sex Equality Approach to Pornography,” 264.

28. Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2021), 41ff.

29. Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 217.

30. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 264. See also Gloria Steinem, “Erotica vs. Pornography,” in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1983), 247–260.

31. See New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), s.v. “Pornography.” Rubin cites a similar definition from the 1973 American Heritage Dictionary (Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 261). The updated definition from the same Dictionary retains the emphasis on an intent to arouse: “Sexually explicit writing, images, video, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal” (see The American Heritage Dictionary, [accessed November 2022]).

32. See also Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 35; Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: Norton, 1995). 

33. Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).

34. Žižek, unconcerned with female orgasm in “Camera Shy,” is referring to different generic rules, but the principle he articulates applies here as well: “It’s spontaneous social censorship. But that’s what makes it so much more mystical. There is no direct censor, and all the hardcore movies obey these rules.”

35. Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, in Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, & Other Writings, trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 319.

36. Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, 319 n. 15 [author’s note]. “Proto-feminist misogyny” is James A. Steintrager’s brilliant characterization of Sade in “What Happened to the Porn in Pornography? Rétif, Regulating Prostitution, and the History of Dirty Books,” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 60:3 (2006): 200. See also: Linda Williams, Hard Core, 11; Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 27; and Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

37. Other commentators who have observed the centrality of the idea of “use” in Sade’s work and in pornography since Sade include Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Plume, 1989), 80, 83; Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women’s Equality (Minneapolis, MN: Organizing against Pornography, 1988), 36; and Frances Ferguson, Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

38. Slavoj Žižek, “Camera Shy, Blah, Blah, Blah.”

39. Many have observed the truth that dehumanization “marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos [New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018], 44). Paul B. Preciado makes a related observation in his incisive analysis of Internet pornography: “Pornographic excitation is structured according to the boomerang: pleasure in the desubjectification-of-the-other/pleasure-in-the-desubjectification-of-the-self.” (Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie, 269–270).

40. The famous film Deep Throat (dir. Gerard Damiano, 1972) signals pornography’s simultaneous acknowledgment and denial of the centrality of the clitoris to female pleasure, by rearranging a woman’s anatomy so that she desires only the other’s desire to be orally serviced.

41. See also Drucilla Cornell, The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography, and Sexual Harassment (New York: Routledge, 1995). That some individuals may imagine ways to recuperate pornographic scripts to serve their own pleasure and integrity does not erase the scripts’ misogynist and racist impact on cultural norms and social mores. See Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (New York: New York University Press, 2014) and Jennifer C. Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

42. See also Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie, 266.

43. See “I Modi,”; accessed January 2023.

44. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 260.

45. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), 23.

46. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 43–44. 

47. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 44; see also 33–35, 42, and 43n.68, in which Bourdieu cites A.-M. Dardigna, Les Châteaux d’Eros ou les infortunes du sexe des femmes (Paris: Maspero, 1980), 88. 

48. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 43–44. 

49. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 21, 33–49. 

50. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 40. On pornography’s effect on consumers’ pleasure responses, see, for example, Paul Wright, Bryant Paul, Debby Herbenick, and Robert Tokunaga, “Pornography and Sexual Dissatisfaction: The Role of Pornographic Arousal, Upward Pornographic Comparisons, and Preference for Pornographic Masturbation,” Human Communication Research 47:2 (2021), 192–214; Marnia Robinson, “Unexpected Lessons from Porn Users: By Jove, It’s the Reward Circuitry!,” Psychology Today (2009); Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Jennifer P. Schneider, “The New ‘Elephant in the Living Room’: Effects of Compulsive Cybersex Behaviors on the Spouse,” in Sex and the Internet: A Guide Book for Clinicians, ed. Al Cooper (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002); Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2005). 
51. See Martha McCaughey, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science (New York: Routledge, 2008). 

51. See Martha McCaughey, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science (New York: Routledge, 2008). 

52. Kendrick offers a strong critique of the idea that representations promote imitative actions (see Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, 82–94). On Internet communities promoting action, see, for example, Laura Smith, “Lone Wolves Connected Online: A History of Modern White Supremacy,” The New York Times (January 26, 2021),; accessed November 2022; Jessica Valenti, “When Misogynists Become Terrorists,” The New York Times (April 26, 2018),; accessed November 2022; Benedict Carey, “Preying on Children: The Emerging Psychology of Pedophiles,” The New York Times (September 29, 2019),; accessed December 2022; Gail Dines, Pornland, 158–162; and Scott Shane, Matt Apuzzo, and Eric Schmitt, “Americans Attracted to ISIS Find an ‘Echo Chamber’ on Social Media,” The New York Times (December 8, 2015); accessed December 2022. 

53. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 52.

54. See Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography & Civil Rights, 48: “Pornography makes all women’s social worthlessness into a public standard.” Their “trafficking provision” would allow lawsuits to prove “that there is a direct connection between the pornography and harm to women as a class (Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography & Civil Rights, 45). Internet communities, by contrast, bond through the semi-private demonstration of “potential violence” more than actual, actionable violence, by publishing standards that deliberately violate public standards.

55. See, for example, Nadine Strossen, HATE (2018).


57. Maya King, “Instagram and Facebook Should Update Nude Photo Rules, Meta Board Says,” The New York Times, January 20, 2023.

58. Instagram Community Guidelines (

59. Valeriya Safronova, “Where Some See Art, A.I. Sees Pornography,” The New York Times (October 28, 2021), 5.

60. Sapna Maheshwari and Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Lets Ads Bare a Man’s Chest. A Woman’s Back Is Another Matter.” The New York Times (March 1, 2018), (accessed January 2023).

61. Talia Minsberg and Fahima Haque, “How N.F.L. Teams Use Social Media to Promote, and Control, Cheerleaders,” The New York Times, (April 11, 2018), (accessed January 2023).

62. Gayle S. Rubin, “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong,” 262–263, 272.