Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification

Mary Evans discovers how arguments about porn can extend our understanding of equality

June 4, 2009

The essays collected in this volume address the question of pornography through a discussion of the rejection of the objectification of women, a rejection to be found in a philosophical tradition that ranges from Kant to de Beauvoir. Pornography, Rae Langton argues, is a "speech act" that both silences and subordinates women and through this plays an important part in sexual inequality. Compelling arguments about the damage pornography does to women (and relations between the sexes in general) are considered in the work of Catherine MacKinnon and, perhaps more surprisingly, in certain aspects of the work of Ronald Dworkin on equality.

So far, so predictable: MacKinnon and Dworkin have long been associated with debates about pornography and with related arguments about the legitimacy of censorship. The originality, and the very considerable intellectual vitality of this collection, lies less in the cast of characters than it does in the way in which Langton explores the possibility of bringing together the apparently irreconcilable. As Langton writes: "Dworkin is not, after all, a foe to feminists, but potentially a friend. His principle of equality does not undermine MacKinnon's conclusion, but can vindicate it."

What this does is to make arguments about equality central to debates about pornography. At the same time it potentially extends philosophical understandings of equality in that the term comes to have a meaning that encompasses the existence of women and men. But this very assertion then encounters the ideas of Judith Butler, ideas in which those very binaries become intensely problematic and where the whole thesis of the power of the pornographic representation of women for men is undermined by questions about the actual authority of pornography. A familiar question then occurs: the question about the actual impact of pornography.

To counter this, and to take the argument about pornography in rather different directions, it is perhaps important to remember that pornography does not just involve women (and thus gender difference) but various other forms of animal and human life, including children. Where this takes us (quite rapidly in the case of pornography involving children) is to arguments about power and its transparent uses and abuses - arguments that are generally readily accepted in the case of children but less quickly endorsed in the case of women. Women are thus often accorded both a specious agency in terms of their involvement in pornography (or prostitution) as well as remaining objects to their users. In that objectification of women, it is sometimes argued that "nothing is left to the imagination" but in another sense everything is left to the imagination in that women (and children) are presented only in terms of their sexuality.

For philosophers, arguments about pornography involve questions about human and civil rights and in the presentation of these arguments Langton offers a rich resource. But one of the many interesting issues Langton's essays raise is the place of other disciplines in the discussion of this subject. For example, sociology and cultural studies may suggest that we cannot separate the consideration of pornography from the recognition of the sexualisation of the contemporary Western world; selling disco clothes to four-year-olds raises questions about the boundaries (and the definition) of pornography.

Anyone concerned with the operation of Western military power may raise the case of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which involved the de-personalisation (and emasculation) of male prisoners. In all these cases, from the high street to the battleground, what is apparent is the insecurity of human sexuality and our endless attempts to secure and/or attack it.

In that light, pornography becomes a form of the real and deliberate material exploitation of vulnerability, in which the exercise of power and the making of profits become motives for pornographic commerce. At the same time, although most pornography is empirically organised around male viewers/women objects (and undeniably greater material profit goes to men than to women) the underlying dynamic is perhaps not one related to sexual inequality but to the various tyrannies (be they of convention or the marketplace) through which we currently order our sexuality.

Those sexual issues that we find difficult to confront - for example, the meaning of the sexuality of children - provide a fertile context for pornography: what we cannot understand or comprehend as ambiguous we vulgarise. As fascinating as discussions such as Langton's are, there is also a place for questions about the social (and inherently anti-solipsistic) origins of pornography.

Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification

By Rae Langton

Oxford University Press

432pp, £55.00 and £22.00

ISBN 9780199247066 and 9551453

Published 8 January 2009

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