This post is about Pornography. But I've learned better than to put that in the post title, or it attracts all kinds of comments which then have to be deleted for the sake of decency.
My Feminist Theory course has been discussing pornography, and the reading assignment last week was a well-structured examination of the issues that Catherine MacKinnon raised in the mid-1980s. The pornosphere was so different then, though, that my students had a hard time understanding what the debate was about.
Their obtuseness didn't just seem a result of different experiences with porn than the easy access to Playboy and little else that was a feature of life before the internet. Their premises about cultural influence seemed markedly different from mine and from those of the textbook chapter we read. Most of the students weren't disagreeing with MacKinnon's point. Beyond disagreement, there seemed to be a failure of comprehension. Some of the sticking points:
1. MacKinnon and other feminists started by formulating a definition of porn that differed from the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court's definition uses criteria such as 'obscenity,' 'prurience,' and 'community standards,' the feminists don't mind materials that are sexually explicit or unusual ("kinky"). Their problem is with violence and with acts and attitudes which are dehumanizing. My students' response was that "you can't change a definition--just look it up in the dictionary." What's going on here? A failure to understand philosophical methods? A failure to see the role of law in changing culture? A failure to accept that culture can change and be changed, that it's not simply given? I don't have a sense of the reason for the strenuous opposition to MacKinnon's move of using a term ("porn") to specify a category different from the category the term usually specifies.
2. Once they understood that MacKinnon was only talking about a subset of porn, the students' response was "don't watch what you don't like." And also, "if enough people like her want more sex-positive porn, then the market will respond." Thus, all culture and all means of controlling culture were reduced to markets. And furthermore, there was the unstated belief that markets are responsive and can't (or shouldn't) be controlled.
3. Finally, the majority of the class resisted the idea at the heart of MacKinnon's critique--that the content of porn could shape how people think about sexual possibilities. That is, though they agreed that many young people look to porn as a form of sex ed, they disagreed that porn influenced how people think about what's appropriate or inappropriate behavior in sexual relationships. Further, there seemed to be general disagreement with the statement that media affect how people think. Instead, they believe that viewers exercise free choice in what they watch, and they only choose to watch things that reflect what they already think. There was strong resistance to the idea that what you watch can change your perception of the world.