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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 as well 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.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • The author is correct to conclude that pornography exists in many unregistered venues right in front of us and our children, and is produced with such intent, while dirty magazines hidden on a rack away from underage viewing, are of lesser significance. However, the logical decoupling at the outset of this article with the three cases, is too esoteric, and emblematic of a newfangled but disingenuous academic rigor. To keep readers engaged, I would simplify the thesis… If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!

  • Gaius

    First of all: “A painting of the Child Jesus nursing at the Virgin’s exposed breast is sexually explicit”–No, no it is not.

    The main point of the article seems to be: insofar as an image, or indeed a work of art of any kind, succeeds in communicating some sort of eroticism or erotic excitement (from the most innocuous, e.g. the depiction of a nude in a figure drawing, to the most brutal, e.g. a video of child sex abuse) it is immoral. So the erotic has no place in art? Phaedrus should be thrown in the trash? What about Song of Songs? What about love songs you hear on the radio? Is Titian’s Danae immoral? (That thing was painted for a cardinal, you know.) Is there truly no qualitative difference between these examples and child pornography? The author has defined his categories so broadly as to condemn any hint of eroticism in art. That’s a bad thing.

    • Dylan

      If you read it more carefully, he clearly distinguishes between sexually explicit (the exposition of sexual body parts) and sexually solicitous (the expositon of sexual body parts for the purpose of sexual arousal, the latter of which only is immoral and is the defining characteristic of pronography in contradistinction to art. You completely misunderstood him, in other words.

      • Gaius

        Dylan, you’re correct that there certainly a big gap in my understanding of the topic and the author’s, but I like to think I understand him and disagree with him. I definitely disagree with the proposition that any depiction of a breast (even an image of the Blessed Virgin breastfeeding (!!!)–or any woman breastfeeding, for that matter) is “sexually explicit.” That just doesn’t fit under any definition of the term “sexually explicit” that I recognize, and to assert that the depiction of a breast, simply by its nature as a breast, is “sexually explicit” is just to beg the question.

  • Aaron Taylor

    Perhaps I haven’t understood the argument, but I think you’re unintentionally standing at the top of a slippery slope.

    If moral judgements about art, and the classification of a particular piece of work as “art” or “pornography,” depend solely on a consideration of the (subjective) intention of those who produce it, and/or the (subjective) response of the viewer for whom it is (subjectively) intended, where does this whole argument connect to the real, objective world that exists outside of our minds? More importantly, where does it connect to the concrete piece of *work* which, once created, exists independently of the creator’s mind?

    Take case (3), for example. Do we really need to know what the intention of the person who produces child pornography is in order to correctly judge that (a) it is in fact pornography, and not “art,” and (b) that it is immoral. I don’t think so. Is there not *something* about the nature of the thing in and of itself that allows us to make a moral judgment about it, regardless of whether we know who produced it, or why?

    I’m not a philosopher of art so I don’t know exactly how to quantify that “something,” but I do think it exists and its important to reject this idea that “art” (or pornography) as such has no objective dimension and doesn’t convey any (im)moral information other than being a projection of the mental state of the producer.

    • Dylan

      I look forward to what the author will say, but it seems to me his model doesn’t exclude your own. The intention can be discerned through the objective qualities of the “piece”. A work of art may be materially explicit, even in ways pornography is, without being formally solicitous, and you would know this by objective circumstances. For instance, at the end of Requiem for a Dream, there is an exploitative sex scene which you might see in hardcore porn; however, the context of the film and the attitude of the sexual subject (meaning the actress’s character) are such that it is clear the author’s intent was not to solicit arousal, but rather to honestly depict exploitation. The following may be a helpful analogy: a human body is by objective and observable indicators a human body whether dead or alive, but there are objective indicators which tell us the difference: if the human body is not breathing, we can discern that there is no subjective content (the analog of solicitous intention) and we call it a corpse, but if the body is breathing, we understand that there is subjective content, and we call it a person.

      • NDaniels

        A human corpse is a deceased person; one still remains a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, even in death.

      • Aaron Taylor

        I still think your explanation runs up against the same problem. Yes, its true that a work of art, or pornography, tells us something about the intentions of its creator. But I still think there is something other than the creator’s intention that we need to take into account. When I make the statement, “this work of art is immoral,” I’m making a statement about the *thing* itself, not about the mental state of the person who made the thing. It seems to me that such statements are perfectly rational and a cogent moral philosophy of art should be able to make sense of such a statement.

        • Dylan

          Yes, I see the dilemma, and I think you are right to point out the deficiency here. But I still think the author is on to something. I have never been satisfied with the usual explanation that it is “objectification” that is intrinsically wrong: objectification is a necessary epistemic medium, and to subjectively know someone is in the end impossible. Even to say “reductive objectification” is to return the locus of the problem to the subject, which leads us to intention, I believe. But how to find intention in the thing? I think the problem is imagining that in judging a work and discerning its intent we actually discover the author’s intention; rather, I think we discover the work’s intent. It’s rather like what is present of a father in his child: the child has the father’s genes, but the genes are nevertheless properly the child’s.

      • Jonathan Quist

        Ya it is a difficult issue but I think we are finding ourselves on a slippery slope indeed. I would be the last to identify myself as being over-scrupulous about explicit sexuality in the movies and I was a big fan of Requiem and found the scene aforementioned appropriate, however, I recently saw (or rather started watching) a film that really challenged the whole pornography/art distinction for me.

        The movie is called “In the Realm of the Senses” and it is a critically acclaimed and gorgeously shot film by Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima but the majority of the content of the film is graphic unsimulated sex. The film’s intention is clearly not to arose desire in the viewer. The camera work gives as much attention to the whole subject of the characters as to their genitals and the sexuality really does contribute to the character development. In all I would say the movie does actually offer a mature, bold, and honest examination of human sexuality but I could not watch it in good conscience and had to turn it off after the first 10 minutes.

        But, according to the logic of this article, such a film could be morally acceptable. I honestly don’t know what to think.

  • NDaniels

    That which sexually objectifies the human person, including the reordering of man according to sexual desire/orientation, is pornography. The nature and the purpose of pornography is the sexual objectification of the human person.

    Ethikapolitika is Blessed to have Michael Bradley as a member of your staff!

  • Ivana

    Only humans can make from human body nature something bad, as pornographic contents. WE ARE ALL MADE AS GOD’S FIGURE, like HIS image. Unfortinately we can create from it something bad. But there are many examples that celebrate nature of human bodies as Discobolus from Miron and etc. So, from us depends what purpose we will gave to naked human body.

  • Angela Sturm

    I believe the answer came from the 2015 Edith Stein Conference in that a pose for an art class or artist is focusing on the whole body…and porno focuses on body parts.

  • John Felix Koziol

    I look at it in this way. If someone looks at something, regardless of what it is, with the intent to get “turned on” then that which is being looked at is pornography. There are sexual intercourse videos created for the sole purpose to educate about the topic. To me, in and of itself, based on this, the video isn’t pornographic. However, if, all of a sudden, you find yourself getting “turned on” by such a video the. It becomes pornographic to that individual. Also, if the person knows that a video based on such content with the visual images to go along with it will turn the person on and that person still pursues the watching of it then that video is deemed pornographic even before it is viewed by the individual because the person knows that this type of video will have this type of effect on him or her and then it is automatically pornographic to that person even though the person hasn’t watched any of that kind of video. My parents went to see the movie, “Deep Throat” when it came out to cinemas back in 1972. Their sole intent to the seeing of the movie was to see what the big deal of it was. They went to see the movie handling the subject matter in a way that made the movie non-pornographic for them because they knew it wouldn’t bother them by getting them sexually aroused and throughout the viewing of the movie never got sexually aroused. As I found out, they thought that which was drawing the masses to see the movie was so overblown that to them it was not the big deal that they had heard it to be. As a movie, content aside, they thought it was poorly made to the point it was not worth viewing because of the poor acting and poor storyline. For some, a shapely woman wearing a bikini at the beach could be pornography to a man as a muscular guy in a “Speedo” could be to a woman. At all times a person needs to be in control of his or her sexual arousal, especially so it doesn’t have it take control over them in a way that he or she will regret, in particular when it comes to sexually related crimes like rape or anything involving children. This is my two-cents worth on this topic.

    • tim schneickert

      Sounds like you have a lot of experience in this area. Is that how you made it through the cold lonely 38 yrs . before you got married?