Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide - Vol. 1

By Joseph W. Slade | Go to book overview

2
Thinking about Pornography

One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

—Jane Austen

Much of the comment expended on the subject of pornography in America is suffused with the kind of passion lavished, say, on the issue of abortion, which may seem a social good to one group and a social crime to another. To some, pornography brings light to repressed areas of the psyche, overcomes irrational guilt, and teaches people how to give and get more physical pleasure; to others, it robs humans of their spirituality, objectifies bodies, and fosters gender discrimination. Such polarization not only constantly reshapes the arena of debate but also ensures that no single definition of pornography will satisfy everyone.

The word “pornography” derives from the Greek word pornographos, “writing about prostitutes,” or a “tale told by prostitutes” (prostitutes to the Greeks being either male or female), and has been used more or less consistently to designate material specifically intended to arouse a person sexually. (An old joke holds that something is pornographic if it gives seven out of twelve men on a jury an erection.) Although sexual arousal would appear to be a laudable goal, few Americans endorse it, and even defenders of pornography usually find such intent an insufficient justification. An exception is Lionel Trilling, who confides that he can find no reason “why literature should not have as one of its intentions the arousing of thoughts of lust.”1 Nor will most critics comment on how successfully a particular pornographic example actually arouses. Screw, the sex tabloid that has achieved a kind of permanence through longevity, made its reputation, in part, by rating movies on a “Peter Meter,” according to how sexually stimulating the reviewer found them. Even this innovation begs the

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