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A Humanist Argument Against Pornography

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By Kaitlin Cottle and Gayle Tyree

Porn is problematic. It is an exhausting issue with an unending debate that deeply divides us. An obvious obstruction to dealing with the issue of pornography lies in the public’s inability to collectively identify what this ambiguous entity is. Many people confuse porn for a cheaper, less refined form of erotica, but the two are fundamentally different. While both are forms of sexual representation, pornography is defined by the abuse and degradation of the people involved.

One cannot deny pornography’s presence and influence in our mainstream culture as the media constantly bombards us with sexual images. Even if we think we are choosing to ignore our pornified media, the messages exhibited continue to grip America’s collective conscience. The way that porn equates sex with violence and debases women is both disturbing and out of line with the tenants and ideals of humanism.

When trying to understand or even define pornography, one thing is certain: it is misinforming us. Our socialized expectations for both beauty and sex are being dictated by pornography’s extremely limited perspective on what it means to be “sexy.” Ariel Levy effectively demonstrates this in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture: “Raunch Culture isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular—and commercial—shorthand for sexiness.” Porn’s homogenous, unattainable standards of sex and beauty are dangerous because it is physically harmful to men and especially women both inside and outside of the porn industry. Women are told to remove their body hair, tan their skin, bleach their teeth and rectums, look young, and maintain a body that sometimes requires surgery to achieve. Women are gladly volunteering for medical procedures that alter the aesthetics of their sex organs, such as their breasts and labias, permanently losing sensations in these areas. We see in this trend that porn physically threatens women, but it also reveals the lack of concern for female pleasure! When a rigid standard for “sexy” leads women to “correct” their breasts and vaginas, sacrificing their ability to be aroused or experience pleasure, we have successfully marginalized the female sexual experience.

These singular and physically dangerous expectations for female beauty and sexuality that are perpetuated by pornography suggest that the value of women lies in their “use.” If we can recognize that female pleasure in porn (and consequently, society) is marginalized, we can understand how our culture has reduced the identity of women to that of an object. In pornography, this process, called objectification, results in the dehumanization of men and especially women because we no longer identify them by their personality and individuality. Inevitably, this dehumanization results in the attitude that because another person is somehow less than human it is acceptable to commit violence against them.

The role violence plays in pornography trivializes rape, sexual aggression, and other forms of abuse. When we encourage males to include dehumanizing acts in sex and teach women to accept various forms of violence against them as a “natural” part of sexual activity, we are condoning violence against women.   

This has been evident in how our pornified media has dangerously dictated our attitudes and expectations of sex and sexuality. Abnormal and dangerous sex acts represented in pornography are being accepted as normative. Degrading sex acts, such as ejaculating in a woman’s face, slapping women, or use of explicitly demeaning and misogynistic language, are shown to be a basic part of pornified sexual encounters. Women are also shown enjoying debasing activities such as “gang bangs” and rape. Pornography teaches us that women have a genuine desire to fulfill these strange and limited sexual expectations that are ultimately unconcerned with their own safety and satisfaction. Because pornography depicts women who “enjoy” sexual violence, men have internalized that this behavior is normal, and have begun to emulate these degrading and dangerous practices. Most of the aforementioned arguments against pornography can be summed up in one idea: pornography violates the humanity of those involved. This can be seen in The Humanist Manifesto III, the latest declaration of humanist principles by the American Humanist Association. The manifesto describes humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms [the human] ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”. In other words, it is a worldview that is concerned with human needs and interests. Pornography, defined by the degradation and abuse of the women involved, is in direct violation of the ethical social values of humanism.

A principle difference between porn and humanism is their respective attitudes about diversity. Humanism advocates diversity: “We [should] accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be” (The Humanist Manifesto III), while the pornography industry rejects it, preferring to adhere to a rigid and unrealistic sexual standard. Pornography paints a black-and-white portrait of sexuality, beauty, and gender roles; humanism is committed to celebrating and accepting the complete spectrum of humanity.

The most glaring contrast is between the pornography industry and humanist philosophy is how each defines human value and acceptable human interaction. The core of humanism is ethical treatment of others and value of the individual. Article three of The Humanist Manifesto III proclaims, “[Humanists] are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and value.” Pornography’s objectification and dehumanization of women communicates the direct opposite: that women are naturally inferior to men, and do not deserve respect, safety, or basic human rights.

Once the layers are pulled back, it becomes obvious that pornography brings far more harm to our society than good. Its homogenous representations of beauty and sexual activities have created a narrow sexual aesthetic that women must physically harm themselves to achieve. Worse, it consistently features the degradation and abuse of women, valuing them not as people to be respected but objects to be used and creating a climate in which violence is accepted. These negative actions and attitudes against women make it clear that pornography is against the humanist idea that all people are worthy of safety and respect.

Kaitlin Cottle is a second-year student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga majoring in Women’s Studies and English Literature, and co-facilitator of UTC’s Women’s Action Council. Gayle Tyree is a first-year student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga majoring in Environmental Science and a member of UTC’s Women’s Action Council. Cottle and Tyree are also members of UTC’s Progressive Student Alliance. 

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