Critics of pornography, or more generally of hate-art, are often challenged by its defenders to define exactly what it is that they don't like about it; the difficulty and subjectivity of this process is then cited as an insuperable obstacle to doing anything about it. After all, it is hard to write a statute against something you can't properly define.
I think it helps to look at pornography in its context, along with hate propaganda and advertising, as members of a broader family which I'll call the manipulative arts. Roger Ebert has said that film is much less suited to the presentation of philosophical or intellectual positions than to the creation of emotional states in its audience. He has a point, and he makes a useful distinction between the art that wants us to think about something and the art that wants to make us feel or do something.
Advertising is the ultimate refinement of the manipulative arts; political propaganda and campaign materials are just another kind of advertising. Pornography and propaganda have been intimately connected from the beginning (some of the first written pornography was intended by its author - an ancient Greek - not merely to titillate, but to cast slurs on a rival city-state). Demagoguery, hate literature, television ads, and X-rated videos have a lot in common. Their intention is absolutely not to induce thought in the consumer, but to produce an emotional state - and incidentally to get the consumer to do something useful because of this emotional state: buy more product.
We already noted the pornographic content of the first Nazi propaganda magazine, and a lot has been written about the prurient appeal of Klan-type propaganda accusing Black men of sexual crimes against white women. The people whose hatreds are inflamed by this material are getting off on it at the same time. My personal theory about this strong familial tie between porn and propaganda, from ancient Greece to the American White People's Party of our own century, is that sexual content helps to short-circuit the reader or viewer's critical or moral faculties.
Certainly it helps to short-circuit the critical faculties of traditional leftists; we have seen them consistently defend materials and opportunists who relied on exploitative sexual themes and imagery, when they have often enthusiastically trashed similar materials trading on racism or class hostilities. Advertisers have long said that sex sells, and it seems to sell disinformation, slander, and ideology just as well as it sells car tires, beer, and blue jeans.
A textual analysis of propaganda, advertising, and pornography will yield remarkable structural similarities: reliance on a limited lexicon of buzz words understood to have standardised and reliable effects on the consumer; discovery of a formula and endless repetition of that formula; appeal to fear, greed, hostility or sentiment rather than to reason; and always an implicit offer. In a sense, they are the drugs of art: they are all attempts to sell fantasy and sensation rather than fact. Factual analysis destroys their appeal immediately, taking the fun out of it.
People are encouraged to believe and act on fantastical notions primarily by the manipulation of their emotions, not their knowledge; one mistake made by many a progressive movement is to assume that people with harmful or hateful attitudes are simply misinformed , and that exposure to sufficient facts will bring them around to a kindlier point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The big isms against which progressives wearily labour are precious to those who believe them: racism, sexism, classism, all those complex fabrics of lies and distortions are emotionally precious to their owners; in short, they are fantasies . The most insistent recitation of facts and statistics will not sway anyone who is deeply attached to a prejudice, a religion, or a lover. Fact and truth are unwelcome, destructive of fantasy, strenuously resisted, much as the menstream of American society strenuously resists the realities of women's physical selves; ordinary facts like the natural growth of hair on women's bodies, or their natural fatness or skinniness or the natural graying of their hair with age, are perceived as abnormal, ugly, even unhealthy. They contradict the fantasy of what women are and should be; the hostility and even violence with which some men respond to nonconformant females can be explained only by the threat which fact poses to fantasy.
The entire sex industry is about selling fantasies; it is more about fantasy than it is about sex. After all, if the simple physical details of sex were all that counted, no more than twenty or thirty sexual scenarios would have to be described, once for all time, and could be xeroxed indefinitely for generations of satisfied readers. In fact, like propaganda and advertising, pornography sells people their personal and precious fantasies.
The borders between advertising and pornography were eroded long ago, as were the borders between sensationalist literature and pornography: there is a continuum, one generic industry of the manipulative arts dedicated to pocketing the consumer's money in return for as little originality, quality, and effort as possible. Even when the manipulative arts set out to shock (as with mass-produced slasher films) they do so within well-established rules and conventions; anything truly shocking or surprising - suppose the screaming teenage girl took the chainsaw away from the maniac and cut him up with it! - would lower sales. The manipulative arts all have to walk a narrow path, titillating and interesting the consumer without once really challenging his (mostly his ) preconceptions.
When anti-pornography activists are asked to define pornography, it is usually in contradistinction to erotica, of which we are all confidently expected to approve. It has been said that erotica is pornography that costs more, and I tend to agree. Whether we call it porn or erotica, in either case we are dealing with a manipulative literature, a literature whose purpose is the arousal of the reader, a way of buying sex, an art whose purpose is perhaps to extend the readers' fantasies, but never to damage them with unwelcome facts.
With all this in mind I would approach the definition of pornography in several ways, first (in the grand seventies feminist tradition) by examining the word: porne + graphein , writings about, or images of, whores. Note that the porne was the lowest class of whore in ancient Athens, not the educated and occasionally wealthy hetaera (courtesan) but the run-of-the-mill two-dollar whore. (Although the first porne + graphy sometimes pretended to be the writings of whores, it was invariably written by men. Women of the porne class were not literate.) Pornography is that which defines its subjects as whores and its viewers as customers: it is the art of pimps.
Secondly, there is the distinction between communication and manipulation. I would distinguish pornography from explicit sexual description which found its logical place in any work of fiction or film: the pornographic materials are the ones whose whole purpose is to manipulate me into a state of arousal, not to tell me anything, but to make me feel or do something. It is not an informative but a manipulative art.
Then thirdly there is the issue of truth: pornographic material is that which sells me my preconceptions, my prejudices, easily-digested cultural symbols and myths, my fantasies - not the complex and arduous texture of truth. The most blatant pornographic productions are simply, as one feminist slogan calls them, lies about women - big lies, too. The pornographers tell the sucker who pays them just what he wants to hear: that women are all young, beautiful, slender, and panting to have sex with him; that the purpose of women is to please him; that all women are for sale; that he can buy sexual satisfaction, happiness, virility, masculinity, romance, even love.
They tell him all kinds of other, very familiar lies, lies which in any other context we would recognise and abhor - about people of colour, about the rich and the poor, about the sexiness of children. When I find material which matches detail for detail every one of these three criteria except that the intended customer is a lesbian, I don't hesitate for a minute to recognise it as pornography.
Is nudity relevant in defining pornography? Anti-porn activists are often accused of being body haters of some kind. There is nothing intrinsic about the naked human body which should offend any of us - after all, every one of us is a naked human body. But images of female nudity marketed, images of female nudity converted into voyeurism-objects, into product, into commodity, into symbol, is what I earlier called objectification. It's the conversion of woman into thing that is offensive€not to mention the images of outright pain and damage being inflicted on the female body.
Fourthly, pornography is that which entertains its consumer by making him or her complicit in violence , which converts violence into entertainment, which encourages us to participate vicariously in the visceral satisfactions of bullying, brutality and terrorism. In this sense, the Persian Gulf War TV coverage was pornographic: state-of-the-art technology gleaming in the clear desert sun, the lovely and deadly planes in their formations, the video-game appeal of their taped bombing runs. It was a beautiful wrapper for the truths which did not appear on our TV screens: what bombs do to buildings and to bodies, what dead soldiers look like, what dead civilians look like, who pays the terrible cost of their rulers' war games.
This is the deep deception of pornography: the conversion of a truly frightening, painful, demeaning reality in the actual lives of women and children - their impression into sexual service to men - into a glossy, pretty, profitable product. Further, as with the Gulf War coverage, there is a subtext of satisfaction on the viewer's part, a secret knowledge that all this glitz and show is terribly expensive and that other people are paying for it dearly, but that I am not, a sense of aristocracy, of power.
It has been said of lesbian sadomasochism and of pornography in general that they are a way of transcending or transforming women's suffering under male rule: victimisation turned into art. Well, that has been done before - but the last time I heard about it, it was lampshades they were making. This may seem a rather shocking reference, but I cannot better express the insane arrogance of those who presume to turn other people's pain and death into an art object, or (heaven help us) an entertainment.
This is why I would say there is a pornography that contains no nudity or recognizable sex at all, the pornography of violence alone. There are films and novels in which graphic and frightening violence is described, and we feel the terror and shame of it in our guts as the artist carries us along; we understand what it is to be hunted, to be hurt, to be tortured and to die by violence. But there are other works in which the violence is the come-on, in which we are subtly or blatantly encouraged to experience it as the perpetrator does, to enjoy it and to be entertained by the imagined sufferings of our victims. The kind of literature that makes us members of the audience at the gladiatorial games is pornography: it invites us to watch human life and dignity sacrificed for our entertainment; it turns victimisation into art.
I won't speculate on why this should appeal to us, how empathy is defeated, how cruelty evolves, why some people are more subject to this temptation than others, why some lucky few of us are immune to it altogether. My point is that in a just world, which surely we desire, no one would be an expendable sacrifice to anyone's entertainment; if we desire a just world, then we should rightly be offended by those who repeatedly try to sell us the satisfactions (actual or imaginary) of an unjust and cruel one. We should, in fact, be wary of anyone who repeatedly tries to sell us anything ; what are they getting out of it, and out of us?