In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Analytic Approaches to Pornography and Objectification

  • Introduction
  • Defining Pornography
  • Pornography and Feminism
  • Defining Objectification

Philosophy Analytic Approaches to Pornography and Objectification
Mary Kate McGowan, Bianka Takaoka
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0263


Analytic philosophers have explored whether and how pornography, or its consumption, contributes to the (sexual) objectification of women. This essay describes that literature. It does not cover, however, discussions about pornography and objectification in either continental feminism or aesthetics. Since pornography and objectification are each philosophically complex and controversial concepts, guidance on these respective literatures is presented before exploring the (analytic) literature concerning potential connections between them.

Defining Pornography

As is well known, the term “pornography” is notoriously difficult to define. Rae 2001 and West 2013 explore some of the difficulties of defining it. In its ordinary sense—and as a rough approximation—“pornography” refers to sexually explicit material, whether pictures or words, produced for (and/or used for) sexual arousal. It is important to point out, though, that analytic feminists tend to use the term “pornography” in a special technical sense. For them, “pornography” refers to sexually explicit materials that depict and endorse (by presenting as sexy or erotic) rape and other forms of brutality. Analytic feminists also tend to distinguish pornography from erotica. First defined in Steinem 1980 and Longino 1980, erotica is understood to be sexually explicit material depicting mutually consenting and mutually respectful adults engaging in sexual activity. Green 2000 criticizes this distinction between erotica and pornography. MacKinnon and Dworkin 1997 offers (p. 444) a particularly famous, controversial, and influential definition of pornography that has been criticized by Parent 1990 and Green 2000, among others. Arguably, the right way to define “pornography” or anything else depends on the purpose of the definition. One definition of “pornography” might be adequate for the purpose of identifying the materials that one does not want one’s nine-year-old son viewing but a different definition might be adequate for the purpose of identifying those materials targeted by a particular argument for its legal regulation. It is helpful to keep this in mind.

  • Green, Leslie. “Pornographies.” Journal of Political Philosophy 8.1 (2000): 27–52.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9760.00091

    Critical engagement with the MacKinnon-Dworkin definition of pornography and argument for its further regulation. Primarily concerned with how these regulations would be carried out in practice, Green argues that they would harm gay people. He also argues that objectification in gay male pornography can be good.

  • Longino, Helen. “Pornography, Oppression and Freedom: A Closer Look.” In Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Edited by Laura Lederer, 40–54. New York: Morrow, 1980.

    This article is often cited for marking the distinction between pornography and erotica.

  • MacKinnon, Catharine, and Andrea Dworkin. In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    This book contains the ordinances MacKinnon and Dworkin drafted that proposed to render some pornography civilly actionable as well as testimonial support and introductory essays by MacKinnon and Dworkin, respectively. Their infamous definition of pornography is on p. 444.

  • Parent, W. A. “A Second Look at the Pornography and the Subordination of Women.” The Journal of Philosophy 87.4 (1990): 205–211.

    DOI: 10.2307/2026681

    This is one of the first philosophical criticisms of the MacKinnon-Dworkin definition of pornography. It is a direct response to Vadas 1987 (cited under Pornography and Objectification: Vadas), which defends the MacKinnon-Dworkin definition of pornography. Parent argues that it is a category mistake to claim (as MacKinnon, Dworkin, and Vadas do) that pornography subordinates. (For a response to this, see Langton 1993, cited under Pornography and Feminism.)

  • Rae, Michael. “What Is Pornography.” Nous 35.1 (2001): 118–145.

    DOI: 10.1111/0029-4624.00290

    Rae argues against many definitions of “pornography” on the grounds that they fail to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for the proper application of the term. (Many theorists offer definitions for specific purposes.) Rae offers his definition of “pornography.”

  • Steinem, Gloria. “Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference.” In Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Edited by Laura Lederer, 35–39. New York: Morrow, 1980.

    This is an early, short, and accessible discussion of the difference between erotica (which is about sexuality) and pornography (which is about power and domination).

  • West, Caroline. “Pornography and Censorship.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.

    This entry is very helpful for understanding the philosophical issues involved in defining pornography as well as debates about its regulation.

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