What is pornography?

by The Editor

FEATURE: The films and publications board has decided to classify Brett Murray’s The Spear as pornographic. The artwork has been given an age restriction of 16N, the aim of the classification is to prevent individuals under the age of sixteen from seeing the work. In order to come to grips with the board’s decision, it is vital for us understand what is meant by the term pornography.

What is pornography?

By: Mark Oppenheimer

26 March 2012

[I can’t define what pornography is.] “But I know it when I see it.” Justice Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court


The literature on the moral, legal and social issues relating to pornography is extensive, but unfortunately a disproportionately small amount of effort has been expended on coming up with a satisfactory definition of the term. The quote at the top of this page seems to exemplify the frustration that many writers feel when they try to tackle the Herculean task of defining pornography. For there to be any real progress in our understanding of how to regulate pornography, it is imperative that there is a strong consensus about what is meant by the term. I will assess a number of rival definitions. In order to assess them in an adequate manner I will start off by clarifying what a satisfactory definition of the term needs to do, in addition to this I will also provide a paradigmatic set of examples of pornography and non-pornography.

Formulating a Good Definition

A good definition of pornography should largely concur with our intuitive understanding of what pornography is. However the possibility should be left open for it to reshape our intuitions and either exclude materials that were previously considered pornographic or include new materials as a part of what is deemed pornography. The definition should not be too broad and include objects that are clearly not pornographic, nor should it be too narrow and exclude objects that are clearly pornographic.

A vast array of materials have been described as pornographic throughout history. During the Victorian age images displaying a woman’s ankles were considered pornographic while those sorts of images are not considered pornographic today. It is not only the passage of time that has affected what is deemed pornography; different cultures often disagree about what pornography is. I don’t think it is only the case that some historical or cultural groups are mistaken about what pornography is, I would argue that a good definition should make allowance for the fact that different groups make differing judgments about whether particular objects are pornographic or not. I would argue that this can be achieved by acknowledging that the context that a particular image is placed in plays a role in deciding whether it is pornographic or not. This means that a good definition must be able to take social, historical and cultural contexts into account. For example a particular image of a woman’s exposed breasts may be considered pornographic if it is displayed in Playboy but not if it is displayed in a plastic surgeon’s portfolio.

People do not have homogenous sexual tastes, so the definition needs to able to factor in the diverse range of sexual preferences that people have. Not everyone is aroused by depictions of conventional heterosexual sex. For example shoe fetishists are sexually aroused by fondling shoes or viewing images of shoes.

There is a strong perception that art and pornography are mutually exclusive terms and that a piece of pornography by definition cannot have artistic merit. I dispute this on the basis that at least some of the materials that we ordinarily think of as pornography share features that we associate with works of art. The creator of a pornographic image can employ commonly recognized artistic techniques so that the image is composed and lit in a manner that is both aesthetically pleasing and sexually arousing. This means that a definition of pornography should make allowance for the fact that some works of art are also works of pornography.

The goal of the definition is to define the term pornography, but it must be emphasized that this is only a starting point. Pornography can be further categorized through the use of general descriptions as well as descriptions that refer to content. The terms soft-core, hardcore, violent, vulgar, empowering, degrading, educational and artistic would be a few general descriptions of pornography. The content could include reference to particular sexual acts as well as the sex, race, orientation and age of the parties performing in the pornography. A full description of a particular piece of pornography could be something like artistic interracial lesbian fist fucking granny porn.

Paradigms of Pornography and Non-Pornography

Pornography is material that is communicative by nature and it can take the form of a moving or still image, a written text or even an audio recording. The images found in the pages of Penthouse, Hustler are prime examples of what is generally considered to be pornography as are books like the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom and movies like Deep Throat and Backdoor Sluts 9. However not all sexually explicit materials are pornographic. Representations of explicit sex acts can appear in documentaries, sex education booklets, medical diagrams, scientific journals and in works of visual or literary art in a non-pornographic way. It is of vital importance that a definition of pornography is able to distinguish between these two categories.

Rival Definitions of Pornography

Having established what a good definition of pornography ought to do, I will now proceed to examine a number of rivaling definitions of the term.

Sex and Profit

On one view pornography is “Any object mass produced and distributed with the purpose of marketing it for a profit by appealing to our sexual interests”

This definition fails on the basis that it produces results that are grossly counterintuitive. Firstly, it deems non-pornographic objects like sex toys, flavored condoms and lingerie as examples of pornography. Secondly a vast number of images that are generally considered pornographic are freely available on the internet. The definition would also imply that if a particular sexually explicit image was being sold on a website it would count as pornography but the same image would not count if it were being offered for free on another site.


On a second view material is pornographic if “(a) to the average person (b) the dominant theme of the material as a whole appeals to the prurient interest in sex; (c) the material [is] patently offensive because it [offends] contemporary community standards, relating to the description or representation of such matters…”

It must be noted that obscenity definitions can be understood as either descriptive or normative. In the first case it refers to what the average person is actually offended by and in the second, what the average person ought to be offended by.

Using a descriptive account would require one to conduct a survey that could determine which sexually explicit materials were considered to be offensive by the average person. The problem with this approach is that materials that relate to sex or have sexual content but are not ordinarily considered pornographic may be found to be offensive and be deemed pornographic by the definition. An example of this may be an advert for sex toys or images of the statue of David. Furthermore in societies where people are highly tolerant, magazines like Hustler and Penthouse would not be found to be offensive and by definition could not be considered pornographic. This would mean that pornography could be eradicated from a society by increasing tolerance towards sexually explicitly materials or by removing people that are offended by such material from the society.

The problem with the normative definition is that it lacks the necessary information to determine if a sexually explicit image is in fact pornographic. For example if a person were to view a sexually explicit image and not be offended by it, it would not be clear if the image was non-pornographic or if the viewer of the image was not decent or not easily offended. On the other hand if the image does offend it may be the case that the image is non-pornographic and the viewer is a prude. Some separate set of criteria would be required to determine what one ought to be offended by, but if this could be determined then that set of criteria would tell us what pornography is, not the obscenity definition, which means that the obscenity definition is either uninformative or superfluous.


Dworkin and Mackinnon define pornography as “the sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and or words.”

The claim can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, that the image or text makes a general claim that women are inferior. Secondly, that the particular woman in the image or text is being subordinated. In the first case it is far from clear that any sort of general claim is being made by particular articles of pornography. A novel can depict a specific woman in a particular light but the characteristics ascribed to her apply to her only, not all women. For example in Hamlet Shakespeare represents the character of Ophelia as submissive and emotionally unstable, but this does not mean that all women are represented as sharing her qualities. In the second case it is also not clear that the actual woman in the image is being subordinated. I would argue that in many cases the woman is adopting the role of a sexual subordinate. For example, in the film Bitter Moon, Emmanuelle Seigner plays the role of Mimi, who is at times a sexually subordinate character. It would be absurd to conclude that Emmanuelle was actually sexually subordinate just because the character that she played was. Furthermore images of a woman actually being subordinated would often be better described as documentary images not pornography, as in the case of photographs of actual rape.

In order to further explain what is meant by their definition they provide a list of cases that they believe constitute pornography.

(i) Women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities.
(ii) Women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation.
(iii) Women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped.
(iv) Women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt.
(v) Women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display.
(vi) Women’s parts- including but not limited to vaginas, breasts or buttocks- are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts.
(vii) Women are presented as whores by nature.
(viii) Women are presented as being penetrated by objects or animals.
(ix) Women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.
The following clause was included in an earlier document: We also provide that the use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women is pornography.

Along with the types of sexually explicit magazines and videos that one would find in adult bookstores the definition adds other items to the list. Section (v) would include many of the images that we are used to seeing in adverts and magazines, of women displayed in a sexual way to sell a product or model clothing. Section (vi) would include works of art that only display a part of women’s body. Rene Magritte’s Le Viol would be a prime example since it depicts a women’s face made up of a set of breasts and a vagina. Numerous works of literature, including the Bible would be considered pornography by a few of the clauses. Section (ix) would include testimonies describing the sexual abuse of women and documentaries depicting harms caused by sexual violence.

With this in mind the producers and distributors of pornography would not only include the people that produce and sell copies of Hustler and other X rated material. Prominent writers, artists, filmmakers, mainstream cinemas and bookstores, art galleries and even museums would be included on the list. For these reasons the definition is unacceptably broad. However certain radical feminists might embrace the fact the definition is so broad because they aim to use the definition as basis for deciding what material ought to be censored or suppressed and they would prefer to censor a broader category of materials. If this move is made then it must be conceded that the definition of pornography that they provide is not a conventional one but rather a stipulative one.

Intention and Effect

Pornography could be defined as material that is intended to cause sexual arousal. The problem with this account is that an inept pornographer could take photos of people dressed in oversized and unflattering gym clothes with the intention of causing arousal without it actually doing so. A further objection is that people that create works of non-pornography have a vast range of intentions about their work, one of which may be a weak intention to cause the viewers of their work to become sexually aroused. The definition would have the implication of classifying a lot of what we do not ordinarily consider pornography as pornography.

Pornography could rather be understood as material that actually causes sexual arousal. Given the enormous range of sexual desires that people have this definition would make it possible for almost any form of expression to be considered pornographic. For example an ordontophiliac is aroused by the extraction of teeth and would presumably be aroused by photos of people having their teeth taken out. A capnologniac is aroused by watching someone smoke so the definition would have to include cigarette commercials as pornographic. Rea points out another shortcoming of the definition. Imagine that the latest issue of Hustler is being printed; it is then sent to the newsstands and read by someone until it causes that person to become aroused. On the definition the magazine can only be considered pornography at the moment that it causes the reader to become aroused, which seems grossly counterintuitive. Furthermore both of these definitions would consider a drug like Viagra pornography since Viagra is intended to cause arousal and it does actually result in such arousal.

While it is clear that the above definitions in this section generate counterintuitive results, I think that a modified definition can be produced that avoids their weakness. The definition takes the following form: Pornography is communicative material produced with the key intention of causing sexual arousal in the targeted audience, and it is reasonable to expect the material to succeed in causing such arousal.

This definition avoids the problems associated with the case of the inept pornographer, since it is not reasonable to expect the target audience to become aroused. It also manages to avoid deeming all forms of expression as examples of pornography, while managing to take a wide variety of sexual preferences into account when determining what counts as pornography. For example a magazine created for dental fetishists that succeeded in arousing people with that particular predilection would count as pornography. If this sounds counterintuitive imagine the cover of a magazine with an image of a woman at the dentist with the following caption: “Watch this dirty whore get her mouth drilled for your viewing pleasure.” With this in mind it is plausible to view this type of magazine as pornographic.

The definition can also explain why the context of a text or image can change it status as a piece of pornography. The image of the woman’s ankles was actually pornography in the Victorian age because it was intended to cause arousal and it succeeded in its goal. In a modern context it is not pornography because it is not reasonable to expect the image to achieve the goal of causing arousal.

The definition also manages to avoid the problem of hustler only becoming pornography once it causes someone to become aroused since the moment that it is produced there is a reasonable expectation that it will cause its target audience to become aroused.

Finally it has the benefit of providing a value neutral account of what pornography is. Unless one is inclined to think that there is something inherently good or bad about being sexually aroused, there does not appear to be anything intrinsically good or bad about pornography. For the purposes of regulation it becomes much easier to target specific types of pornography by drawing on the list of general and specific descriptions of pornography that I provided earlier. Using the descriptive categories makes it easy to avoid regulating pornography that is morally neutral or praiseworthy.

The Sanctity of Marriage Objection

Rea argues that sexually explicit images produced by married couples of each other ought not to be considered pornography because of the intimate bond between the parties and because the material is only intended for private viewing. He goes so far as to claim that in cases where materials become unintentionally available to the public, they would not count as pornography. However these types of images are intended to sexually arouse the couple that make and view the material and they do actually cause such arousal. This means that if Rea’s objection holds then the proposed definition fails on the basis that it includes non-pornography in its account of what pornography is.

I would argue that the sanctity of the marriage should not prevent the images from being considered pornography. There are two examples which substantiate this point. Firstly, some sexually explicit images that are commercially available and advertised as pornography are made by amateur couples, who are intimately involved or married to each other. These images seem like clear cases of pornography. Secondly, one of the best known examples of a pornographic film was made by Pamela Anderson and her then husband Tommy Lee on their honeymoon. The footage was intended to be for their private consumption but it was stolen and made publicly available over the internet. I would argue that placing the footage in the public sphere was not the reason for the video being considered pornography; if it had stayed in the private possession of the married couple it still would have been pornographic. Neither the sanctity of a marriage nor the small range of people that the material is intended to be viewed by should affect that object’s status as a piece of pornography.

The Profit Machine Objection

Rea mounts a further attack against the definition through the use of a thought experiment. He asks us to imagine that a computer programmer has developed a program that will produce products that are guaranteed to be profitable. In order for the program to operate it requires a detailed list of information about the group of people that the product is intended to be sold to. The programmer enlists a team of anthropologists to gather data. The team is deployed on an island in the Pacific Ocean and they set to work observing the islanders and gathering all of the necessary data. The data is then fed into the computer program. The program processes the data and produces a product that is very similar to Hustler magazine. All of the images in the magazine are generated by the computer but they are indistinguishable from actual photographs. The magazine is sold on the island for a profit and it is treated in the same way that we treat pornography. The computer programmer never finds out what product is being sold and he is satisfied with taking his share of the profits. Rea argues that none of the parties involved intend to produce materials that will cause the consumers of those materials to become sexually aroused. The computer programmer only intends to make a profit, the anthropologists only intend to gather information and the computer has no intention at all since it does not have the capacity to have an intention. Rea argues that the magazine being sold on the island is an article of pornography and the fact the definition can not take this into account shows that it is an unsatisfactory definition.

In order to dispute his claim I offer an extended version of his thought experiment. In this version in addition to the computer generating a magazine that resembles Hustler, it also creates set of objects that resemble sculptures of people dancing and another set of objects that resemble sculptures of people engaged in sexual activity. After all of the products are sold on the island, a volcanic eruption occurs. No one is harmed but by an amazing coincidence the lava from the eruption sets and forms a set of objects that resemble sculptures of people dancing and having sex. The village sculptor on the island is dismayed since he has just finished creating a set of sculptures of people dancing and having sex, he is worried that all of the objects that have recently been introduced to the island will affect his business. All of the objects that look like people dancing are treated by the islanders as works of art and all of the objects that look like people having sex are treated as works of pornography. The objects created by the volcano were not created with any intention; they are natural phenomena that resemble works of art and works of pornography. I would argue that these objects ought not to be considered actual works of art or actual works of pornography despite the fact they are treated in that manner by the islanders. First of all, nature is full of objects that resemble works of art but it would be strange to consider them actual works of art, this principle also extends to works of pornography. Second of all, treating an object in a particular way does not mean that the objects loses its identity and becomes the object that it is being treated like. For example if one were to treat a dog like a pony by equipping it with a saddle, feeding it carrots and riding it around a race track, it would remain a dog and not be a pony.

To my mind the natural process that the objects produced by the volcano go through is directly analogous to the process that the objects churned out by the computer go through. In both cases there is no intention to produce either works of art or works of pornography. In both cases the objects that are produced resemble works of art and works of pornography. On the basis that the two processes are analogous, and the fact that it would be counter intuitive to consider the objects produced by the volcano as works of art or pornography, I think the objects produced by the computer should not be considered art or pornography. However the sculptures produced by the island sculptor would qualify as both works of art and pornography. This means that the definition that I have offered can be rescued from Rea’s objection.


I have provided an account of what a good definition of pornography should be, as well as providing examples of pornography and non-pornography. I have used this to assess all of the rival definitions of the term that have been discussed. I have argued that the definition: “Pornography is communicative material produced with the key intention of causing sexual arousal in the targeted audience, and it is reasonable to expect the material to succeed in causing such arousal” meets the requirements of a good definition and it manages to survive the objections made by Rea. I have also demonstrated the merits of using a value neutral definition and explained how specific forms of pornography can be targeted for regulation through the use of general and content specific descriptions.

The article ‘What is pornography’ first appeared on the blog Liberty Addiction in July 2008.

Advocate Mark Oppenheimer is a member of the Johannesburg Bar and the Bridge Group of Advocates. He has represented newspapers that are threatened by defamation suits, individuals that were wrongfully arrested by the police and employees that have been unfairly dismissed.

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