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Social Sci LibreTexts

9.5: Pornography

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Explain why pornography is difficult to define.
    2. Describe evidence indicating that pornography is popular.
    3. Discuss whether pornography contributes to violence against women.

    Pornography may be defined as printed or visual materials that are sexually explicit and that are intended to arouse sexual excitement rather than artistic appreciation. This definition is fine as far as it goes, but it does raise many questions that underscore the difficulty of dealing with prostitution. For example, how “explicit” must a printed or visual material be for it to be explicit? Is a picture of a woman in a skimpy negligee explicit, or must she be fully unclothed? If a woman in a photo is wearing an evening gown that is very low-cut, is that explicit? If a young male gets aroused by seeing her cleavage, does that make the photo of her pornographic? If two people on network television are obviously beginning to have consensual sex just before a commercial begins (this is network television, after all), is that explicit and arousing enough to constitute pornography? If you answered no to this last question, what if some viewers did find this short portrayal of consensual sex to be explicit and arousing? Is their reaction enough for us to have to conclude that the scene they saw was indeed pornographic? How many people in fact have to find a printed or visual material explicit and arousing for it to be considered pornographic?

    These questions suggest that it is not very easy to define pornography after all. Back in the 1950s, young males in the United States would leaf through National Geographic magazine to peek at photos of native women who were partially nude. Those photos, of course, were not put there to excite boys across the country; instead they were there simply to depict native people in their natural habitat. Another magazine began about the same time that also contained photos of nude women. Its name was Playboy, and its photos obviously had a much different purpose: to excite teenage boys and older men alike. Other, more graphic magazines grew in its wake, and today television shows and PG-13 and R-rated movies show more nudity and sex than were ever imaginable in the days when National Geographic was a boy’s secret pleasure. Beyond these movies and television shows, a powerful pornography industry now exists on the Internet, in porn stores, and elsewhere. Although Playboy quickly became very controversial, it is considered tame compared to what else is now available.

    If things as different as National Geographic, Playboy, R-rated movies, and hard-core pornography show nudity and can be sexually arousing, what, then, should be considered pornography? Are at least some of the tamer pictures in Playboy really that different from the great paintings in art history that depict nude women? This question is not necessarily meant to defend Playboy; rather, it is meant to have you think about what exactly is and is not pornography and what, if anything, our society can and should do about it.

    However we define pornography, sexually explicit materials, along with drugs, prostitution, and abortion, have been common since ancient times (Bullough & Bullough, 1977). Archeologists have uncovered sexually explicit drawings, pottery, and other artifacts from China, Greece, Japan, Persia, Peru, and other locations; these artifacts depict sexual organs and sexual behavior. Sexually explicit material appears in much writing left from ancient Greece and ancient Rome. “Vast quantities of material dealing with sex” (Bullough & Bullough, 1977, p. 161) remain from medieval Europe. The huge amount of pornography that exists today represents a centuries-old tradition.

    Public Opinion about Pornography

    Many people oppose pornography, but two very different groups have been especially outspoken over the years, as has been true about prostitution. One of these groups consists of religious organizations and individuals who condemn pornography as a violation of religious values and as an offense to society’s moral order. The other group consists of feminists who condemn pornography for its sexual objectification of women and especially condemn the hard-core pornography that glorifies horrible sexual violence against women. Many feminists also charge that pornography promotes rape by reinforcing the cultural myths discussed earlier. As one writer put it in a famous phrase some thirty years ago, “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice” (Morgan, 1980, p. 139).

    The GSS asks, “Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws: (1) There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age; (2) There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18; or (3) There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography.” In 2010, about 31 percent of the public thought that pornography should be illegal for everyone, and 65 percent thought it should be illegal for people under 18; only 4 percent thought there should be no laws against pornography. Adding the last two percentages together, though, 69 percent thought pornography should be legal for everyone 18 and older.

    Certain aspects of our social backgrounds predict our views about pornography laws. Two of the strongest predictors are gender and religiosity. Focusing on the percentage who favor laws against pornography regardless of age, there is a strong gender difference in this view (see Figure 9.16 “Gender and Support for Laws against Pornography Regardless of Age (%)”), with women more than twice as likely than men to favor these laws. Religiosity also predicts support for pornography laws regardless of age: People who consider themselves very religious are five times more likely than those who consider themselves not religious to favor these laws (see Figure 9.17 “Self-Rated Religiosity and Support for Laws against Pornography Regardless of Age (%)”).

    Figure 9.16 Gender and Support for Laws against Pornography Regardless of Age (%)


    Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from

    Figure 9.17 Self-Rated Religiosity and Support for Laws against Pornography Regardless of Age (%)


    Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from