What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Scott (2004) describes herself as a “prosex, proerotica, though antipornography feminist,” and believes that pornography is harmful. However, she also protects and believes in freedom of speech. She believes that it is vital to protect the right to free speech and that censorship is a dangerous practice. Nonetheless, she has no problem restricting material that is, in fact, a documentation of actual illegal sexual violence.
She suggests that psychological research cannot determine whether pornography should be considered a violation of women’s civil rights. Nevertheless, psychological research can provide information about the potentially harmful effects of pornography on women, men, and social relationships.
She proposes that the debate about the harmful effects of pornography should be answered with the input of social science researchers, and she calls on and encourages others to join her in an attempt to provide such input. She accepts the definition of pornography, as given by Dworkin and MacKinnon (p.101), basically as sexually evocative or arousing material that aims for a degrading portrayal of women in a sexual context combined with abuse, violence or humiliation. Scott differentiates pornography from erotica, which is a consciously sensitive, delicate, and consensual portrayal of sex. Pornography, in her opinion, is violent and harmful.  She distinguishes between the two in order give pornography a status that allows for an argument to remove it from the protection of the freedom-of-speech claim, as opposed to erotica, which can maintain that protection.
Pornography is the demeaning depiction of women as sexual objects with the sole intention of sexually exciting the viewers, mostly men. Dworkin & MacKinnon (1988) argue that pornography has a variety of harmful effects, such as encouragement of human trafficking, desensitization, pedophilia, dehumanization, sexual dysfunction, and inability to maintain healthy sexual relationships. Dworkin & MacKinnon focus on the exploiting of women for sexual pleasure as a violation of women’s civil rights. From the early 1980s to today, under the umbrella of freedom of speech or expression, new technology has taken pornography too far, not only with pictures, but with movies, DVDs, the internet and, more importantly, child pornography. Pornography has gotten out of hand because we haven’t stepped back from blind acceptance of freedom of speech to examine what level of legitimate restrictions should be in place given a clear understanding about what pornography really is.
Scott (2004) used Dworkin and Mackinnon to present a specific definition of pornography:
Pornography is the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following: (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation, or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, or (vi) women’s body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks—are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or  (vii) women are present as whores by nature; or (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual. (p. 101)
However, Scott pointed out that this definition does not define as pornography all sexually explicit material (p. 294). She added that Dworkin and MacKinnon only focused on material that combines sex and degradation or sex and violence, and that they are not the only scholars to emphasize this requirement of pornography, nor do they have anything against freedom of speech.
Researchers and writers highlight the natural, consensual features of erotica that portray pleasurable sexual expression between two people who have enough control to be involved in their sexual activities by their own choices, and that stands in opposition to pornography, which emphasizes violence or degradation in sexual contexts.
Scott (p.298) conducted research that found even women, when exposed to pornography, demonstrate a reduced compassion for the female victims and judged the men to be merely victims themselves of their own sexual nature. This is in contrast to erotica where the equality of the sexual participants gives no room for negatively judging anyone.  These types of findings are what strengthen Scott’s belief that pornography plays a role in the abuse of women by directly degrading the equal status of women in the minds of pornography users, thus allowing them to treat women badly (p.299). Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research done to gather the solid body of evidence necessary to make this relationship clear.  For this reason, Scott advocates that more research in this matter is needed (p.307).
Scott points out that experimental research on women and pornography doesn’t give clear answers about how pornography might directly harm women, adding that most researchers have not included dependent measures that might better capture the negative effects of pornography on women, such as measures of body image, self-esteem, and sexual self-concept. Scott uses Susan Cole’s (1987) research to support her own beliefs about how pornography harms women.  Cole (1987) interviewed women in an Ontario shelter, where 57% of those women reported that their partners used pornography, and 53% reported that sexual force was used on them in the course of their partners’ use of pornography, or they were forced to do what was portrayed in pornographic movies. Other research with battered women yields information showing how pornography may cause male violence. Scott added:
Pornography is associated with many cases of sexual violence and that from the perspective of these women, pornography suggested ways to harm the women and was, itself, part of the harm inflicted upon them (p.300).
She believes there is not enough psychological research conducted on pornography and women in order to bring some clarity to the discussion. She suggested that getting information from different races, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations will represent women’s perspective better than group averages in experimental or correlational studies (p. 301).
She wants more research with women to help raise ethical questions. She looks forward to future research on pornography and women to illustrate that women are being exposed to pain and harm, and hopes that future research will add to the current debate about whether the production of pornography should be protected as “free speech” or whether it should in some manner be legally constrained or penalized (p. 304).
The first amendment of United States says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Many see this as guaranteeing freedom of speech, expression, and choice. However there is also a right to dignity, and as Scott (p. 304) puts it brilliantly, how can material that endorses, condones, or encourages the sexual abuse and degrading of half the human population be defended as “free speech.” One might ask, what about the rights of those abused and ruined people seen in the pornography. As for the ones who advocate that women may benefit from access to such sexually explicit material, I as a woman do not understand the point; any more than I can understand how a man could be sexually arouse by watching a human being in pain, agony and humiliation.
Dworkin & MacKinnon’s (1983) Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance is closely associated with anti-pornography radical feminists. They suggested that pornography is a violation of women's civil rights, and women who are harmed by pornography should be allowed to seek damages through a lawsuit in civil court. The approach was distinguished from traditional obscenity laws, which attempt to suppress pornography through the use of prior restraint and criminal penalties.  Those laws were blocked by city officials and struck down by courts, which found them to violate the freedom of speech protections of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Dworkin and MacKinnon (1997) have presented the oral testimony of victims of pornography, getting it on the record for the first time in history. Women spoke of the devastation pornography has caused in their lives. Social science experts and authorities on rape, battery, and prostitution support these women, however their statements have often been discounted and opposed by free speech advocates and absolutists. Their fascinating testimonies communicate the centrality of pornography to sexual abuse and inequity today.
From the first set of hearings in Minneapolis in 1983 through those before the Massachusetts state legislature in 1992, to the present day, women’s rights activists and psychologists such as Scott are trying to bring to the attention of legislators the harmful and devastating effects of pornography, even as pornography is becoming more graphic and brutal thanks to new technologies (DVDs, Internet…).
Longino (1994) also presents a definition of pornography that distinguishes it from other sexually explicit materials. It is not the sexual content that feminists object to; it is "its implicit, if not explicit, approval of and recommendation of sexual behaviour that is immoral, that physically or psychologically violates the personhood of one of the participants". Longino, in her article "Pornography, Oppression and Freedom" argues that pornography by its nature is harmful to women and should be controlled and eliminated. However, the article distinguishes between pornography and freedom of speech, and refers to the effect that pornography has on women and their place in society. Longino implies that these harms are cause enough to invoke laws and regulations that would limit freedom of expression and sexual expression. She also states that the right to freedom of speech is not an absolute one; she asserts that the law does not protect many forms of speech including the solicitation of crimes. Highlighting the problem, however, of how to restrict pornography is the acknowledgement that there is a big difference in inducing or planning out a murder and looking at a pornographic magazine in the privacy on one’s own home.
On the other hand, Strossen(1996)  takes issue with the antipornography feminists’ views that women are never on top sexually, either in the real world or in erotic materials (p. 162). She feels that pornography enhances women’s ability to attain sexual pleasure on their own, as well as with men (p.166). Yet how can a healthy-minded woman advocate that the pleasure of sex can be enhanced with the help of graphic imagery of degradation and rape, as opposed to the affirming imagery of “nonviolent, nondegrading, consensual sex” (Scott, p.296).
Strossen complains that Mackinnon decrees a fictionalized rape to be an actual rape (p. 172). But accepting fictionalized rape implies accepting actual rape, and even has a role in encouraging it when it incorporates the myth that women like to be raped. Presumably Strossen does not derive pleasure from watching another woman being raped, so where does such a complaint come from? Strossen releases such depictions from the very definition of pornography and allows for the acceptance of rape as a condoned field of free expression.
Strossen continues, asserting that pornography may serve another, intensely
Political, end for women who read or see it: they go against the grain, thus allowing viewers to express rebellion and individuality (p.174). Again, she talks in a way that she knows all women and that she is sure that a powerful key to women’s individuality is watching and learning from demeaning sex, and then going out and sharing it with the whole world.
It was saddening to read through Strossen’s paper knowing she is a woman herself, and justifying violent acts against women and their portrayal in pornographic media. Then I read through Russell’s (1993) papers and the pictures she chose to explain her arguments. She dislikes and is frustrated talking about the effects of pornography with people who have not seen it for themselves, or whose exposure to it has been so minimal that they associate it with pictures of nude people in sexual encounters. I myself know very little about the true nature of pornography. I thought it was just nudity and never was interested to see it or investigate it. Russell’s (1993) graphic and sickening pictures of pornography are disturbing. I believe they represent violence against women, and that they may mislead some people to develop harmful ideas about sexual relationships. I will make a goal of finding a way to fight it.
In her book Russell discusses the anti-pornography-equals-censorship debate, and uses images of women being tortured and harmed, saying that it is an effective way to educate people about the disturbing subject. Most anti-pornography feminists consider it vitally important to distinguish between pornography and erotica. Russell characterizes pornography as “material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behaviour” (p. 3). Erotica, on the other hand, refers to sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed. (P. 4)
Malamuth and Ceniti (1986), in experimental research, examined the relationship between the viewing of pornography and aggression toward women.  They exposed a group of young men to violent pornography such as rape, and another group to nonviolent pornography. They measured “likelihood to rape” (LR) by processing the group through a rape and post treatment self-report. They found that the data showed some relationship between aggressive behaviours and watching violent pornography. These data provide additional support for arguing that the consumption of material depicting aggression against women may under some circumstances be reflected in overt behaviours. This study found that LR was positively correlated to anger and the desire to hurt females. These data provide further support for the assertion that various acts of aggression against women may share some similar underlying causes with respect to exposure to pornography.
It seems within the various disciplines such as sociology, social psychology and psychology, experts have failed to prove a definite causal relationship between exposure to pornographic content and the onset of aggression against women, even though many results of researches strongly suggest such a link. From Mackinnon and Dworkin in 1983, to Scott in 2004, to the present day, many researchers have presented quite a number of analyses and in depth definitions of pornography and have characterized the violence portrayed in pornography as degrading to women, and a likely cause of aggression being visited upon them. Yet the results and arguments referenced by analysts have frequently failed to deal with this issue. While researchers and feminist scholars are still debating and trying to distinguish between freedom of speech and pornography, many women and young girls are being ruined as a result of pornography remaining protected as a freedom of speech or expression.

Nasreen Pejvack, 2006


Scott, B. (2004). Women and pornography: What we don’t know can hurt us. As cited in
Chrisler, J., Golden, C., & Rozee, P., (Eds), Lectures on the Psychology of women (pp. 292-309). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Cole, S. G. (1987). Pornography and harm. Toronto: Metro Action Committee on Public
violence against women and children.
Dworkin, A., & MacKinnon, C. A. (1988). Pornography and Civil rights: A new day for
women’s quality. Minneapolis, MN: Organizing against pornography.
Susan, C. (1987). Pornography and harm. Toronto: Metro Action Committee on public
violence against women and children.
MacKinnon, C., & Dworkin, A., (1997). As cited In Harm’s way: The pornography civil right hearing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universit Press.
Longino, H. (1994). Pornography, oppression, and freedom: A closer look, as is cited in
Jagger (Ed.), Living with contradictions: Controversies in feminist social ethics
(pp. 436—441). Boulder, CO: West view press.
Strossen, N. (1996). Defending pornography: Free speech, sex, and the fights for
women’s rights. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Books. (pp. 162-174)
Russell, D. E. (1993). Against pornography: The evidence of harm. Berkeley, CA.
Russell. (p. 3-4)
Malamuth, N., Ceniti, J. (1986). Repeated exposure to violent and nonviolent
pornography: Likelihood of raping ratings and laboratory aggression against women.