Pornography, often shortened to porn or porno, and sometimes referred to in official matters as x-rated material, is the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity used for the intents of stimulating sexual arousal.
Though mass-distributed pornography is as old as the printing press itself, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that it became a part of western mainstream culture after the introduction of Kinsey’s sexology in the late 1940s, the growing popularity of such popular pornographic magazines as Playboy (first published in 1953), and the evolution, in the 1960s, of the sexual revolution. An immense industry for the production and consumption of pornography has grown, making use of technologies from photographs, to television, to video to the internet.
Religious and spiritual groups, in addition to those favoring a higher ideal of sexuality, have long complained of pornography’s negative and rampant presence within society, its destructive effect on family relationships, and its demeaning perspective on women. According to those belonging to anti-pornography movements, the illicit material is culpable in further degrading society’s perspective of true sexuality: As a divine process, a sacred art form, and a religious act. Proponents of pornography, however, argue that pornography is enjoyable, harmless, and profitable. While society in general and lawmakers in particular may disagree over pornography and obscenity, most agree that child pornography has no merit and its production is a form of sexual abuse.
Pornography derives from the Greek pornographia, which derives from the Greek words porne (“prostitute”), grapho (“to write”), and the suffix ia (meaning “state of,” “property of,” or “place of”). It is the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity used for the intents of stimulating sexual arousal.
Pornography differs from obscenity in that obscenity is what is legally regarded as being offensive to the prevalent sexual morality of the time. Though many categories of pornography may be deemed obscene (particularly child pornography), not all pornographic materials are judged legally obscene, that is, lewd, indecent, or offensive. However, this territory remains gray as there are many whom argue that all pornography is obscene.
Pornography manifests in a multitude of forms, all geared to appeal to the diverse sexual tastes and fetishes of the market. These include, heterosexual porn, gay porn, bestiality or animal pornography, as well as appealing to numerous character themes, such as vampires, medieval characters, characters in popular movies, and so forth. What is probably considered as the most offensive kind of pornographic material, as well as most consistently policed and prosecuted, is child pornography.
“Child pornography” refers to pornographic material depicting children. The production of child pornography is widely regarded as a form of child sexual abuse and as such these images and videos are illegal in most countries. Some outlaw only production, while others also prohibit distribution and possession of child pornography. Prohibition generally covers visual representations of sexual behavior by children under a given age but may also include all images of nude children, unless an artistic or medical justification can be provided.
Enthusiasts often point to the sacred Indian tradition of Tantra and the ancient Indian text, the Kama Sutra, as justification for their enjoyment of pornography. However, it should be clarified that Tantra is a type of Hinduism that treats sexuality as a path to spiritual enlightenment, not as a casual device through which to achieve a temporary arousal and mere physical satisfaction. The Kama Sutra was regarded as a holy text and was used to aid devotees in their appreciation of sex as a sacred act of love.
Starting with the rise of Christianity in the early centuries C.E., views of sex changed dramatically—at least in parts where Christianity and its influence prevailed. Christians were educated to deny all “pleasures of flesh,” which resulted in an unbalanced outlook on sex, confusing its divine value with its fallen degradation. Traditions such as Tantricism and materials such as the Kama Sutra certainly had no place in such societies, and so the negative stigma attached to the naked form of man and woman as well as the act of their sexual intercourse increased over the course of the following centuries with the growing prevalence of Christian culture.
Society’s official stance toward pornography, as understood today, did not exist until the Victorian era in terms of its state-ordained censorship. Previous to this age, although some sex acts were regulated or stipulated in laws, looking at objects or images depicting them was not. In some cases, certain books, engravings, or image collections were outlawed, but the trend to compose laws that restricted viewing of sexually explicit materials in general was a Victorian construct.
When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the eighteenth century, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light. When, in the early nineteenth century, the royalty and nobility of Europe began to visit exhibitions they were shocked by what they considered to be pornography. The Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire did not know how to react to the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them from everyone except upper class scholars. The artifacts were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy and what could not be removed was covered and cordoned off so as to not corrupt the sensibilities of women, children, and the working class. Soon after, the world’s first law criminalizing pornography was enacted in the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.
Christian views of sex and the naked form remained highly looked down upon until a dramatic shift occurred in the late 1950s inspired by the American biologist Alfred Charles Kinsey, who is regarded by many as the father of sexology. Kinsey, passionate about human sexual behavior and the different forms of sexual practices, began attacking the “widespread ignorance of sexual structure and physiology” and rose to celebrity status with his several published works on the topic. The Kinsey Reports, which led to a storm of controversy, are regarded by many as a trigger for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
This shift in the cultural outlook on sex opened the way for magazines, such as Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, to find their place in society and for individuals to dissolve their inhibitions in enjoying them. Since this early crack in the dam and the subsequent era of free love, the porn industry has made itself quite at home in Western societies. Eastern societies, for the most part, have amply followed this trend.
Since its boom in the 1950s with the iconic presence of Playboy magazine, the pornography industry grew in even greater magnitude as it became more and more accessible through advanced forms of media. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, revenues somewhere between $40 and $60 billion have been estimated, an amount that is larger than all combined revenues of professional baseball, football, and basketball franchises, as well as the combined revenues of American television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Worldwide pornography revenues have been calculated as totaling $97.06 billion in 2006, though this includes the categories of novelty items and exotic dance clubs, which technically are not pornography. China, South Korea, Japan, the U.S., and Australia are listed as accruing the highest numbers in porn revenue respectively, with $27.40 billion accredited to China and $2 billion accredited to Australia. The U.S. figure for 2006 was $13.33 billion. For the U.S., video sales and rentals were the biggest contributor to the total figure, cashing in at $3.62 billion, followed by the internet at $2.84 billion.
A report of internet pornography statistics compiled in 2006 estimated that some twelve percent of the total number of websites online are pornographic sites. These websites, the vast majority of which come from the United States, are visited each month by 72 million people worldwide. They range in everything from “softcore” porn to “hardcore,” to heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual content, and even those dedicated to images of bestiality, necrophilia, and an interminable selection of different fetishes. There are about 100,000 websites offering illegal child pornography. Some further statistics from the 2006 report include.
- Daily pornographic search engine requests: 68 million (25 percent of total search engine requests)
- Daily pornographic emails: 2.5 billion (8 percent of total emails)
- Internet users who view porn: 42.7 percent
- Average age of first Internet exposure to pornography: 11 years old
- Largest consumer of Internet pornography: 35-49 age group
- 8-16 year olds having viewed porn online: 90 percent (most while doing homework)
- Breakdown of male/female visitors to pornography sites: 72 percent male-28 percent female
The character of the internet provides an easy means whereby consumers residing in countries where pornography is either taboo or entirely illegal can easily acquire such material from sources in another country where it is legal or remains unprosecuted. A further problem is that the internet renders these types of material very accessible to any child old enough to use a computer and perform simple online navigation. Despite the filters and settings on most internet search engines, porn sites are easily found on the internet, with adult industry webmasters being the first and most active to optimize their pages for search engine queries.
The low cost of copying and delivering digital data boosted the formation of private circles of people swapping pornography. Additionally, since the late 1990s, “porn from the masses for the masses” became another trend. Inexpensive digital cameras, increasingly powerful and user-friendly software, and easy access to pornographic source material have made it possible for individuals to produce and share home-made or home-altered porn for next to no cost.
The legal status of pornography varies widely from country to country, with the majority of nations deeming at least some forms of pornography acceptable. In some countries, softcore pornography is considered tame enough to be sold in general stores or shown on television. Hardcore pornography, on the other hand, is usually regulated everywhere. The production and sale—and to a lesser degree, the possession—of child pornography is illegal in almost every country, and most nations have restrictions on pornography involving violence or animals.
The use of 3D-rendering to create highly realistic computer-generated images creates new legal dilemmas. For a period there existed the discrepancy that it was possible to film things that were imagined but never done, as the synthetic manifestation of the imagined acts did not constitute evidence of a crime. However, child pornography laws have been amended to include computerized images or altered pictures of children and counterfeit or synthetic images generated by computer, to be treated as child pornography.
The internet has also caused problems with the enforcement of age limits regarding the models or actors appearing in the images. In most countries, males and females under the age of 18 are not allowed to appear in porn films, but in several European countries the age limit is 16, and in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) and in Denmark it is legal for women as young as 16 to appear topless in mainstream newspapers and magazines. This material often ends up on the Internet and can be viewed by people in countries where it constitutes as child pornography, creating challenges for lawmakers wishing to restrict access to such materials.
Most countries attempt to restrict minors’ access to hardcore materials, limiting availability to adult bookstores, mail-order, via pay-per-view television channels, among other means. There is usually an age minimum for entrance to pornographic stores, or the materials are displayed partly covered or not displayed at all. More generally, disseminating pornography to a minor is often illegal. However, many of these efforts have been rendered irrelevant by widely available and easily accessible internet pornography.
Child pornography as child abuse
Where child pornography involves depictions of children engaging in sexual conduct, the production of this material is itself legally prohibited as sexual abuse in most countries. Children are generally seen as below the age where they are effectively able to consent to images of them being used for sexual purposes. Children’s charity NCH have claimed that demand for child pornography on the internet has led to an increase in sexual abuse cases.
Effect on sex crimes
One of the arguments for the criminalization of pornography is that exposure to such materials, particularly for young people, corrupts their moral sensibilities and makes them more likely to commit sexual crimes. However, some reports suggest that the availability of pornography on the internet reduces rather than increases the incidence of rape.
Opposition to pornography comes generally, though not exclusively, from religious groups and feminists. Some of these critics have expressed belief in the existence of “pornography addiction.”
In the religious view, passion, greed, covetousness, hatred, and lust are emotions dominate that the soul, causing blindness to the truth and leading to destruction. Every major religion recognizes that suffering and evil are caused by excessive desires or desires directed toward a selfish purpose. Buddhism sums up the idea of craving in the second of the Four Noble Truths: “Craving is a fetter: Poisoning the heart, deluding the mind, and binding people to evil courses of action.”
Many religious groups discourage their members from viewing or reading pornography, and support legislation restricting its publication. These positions derive from broader religious views about human sexuality. In some religious traditions, for example, sexual intercourse is limited to the function of procreation. Thus, sexual pleasure or sex-oriented entertainment, as well as lack of modesty, are considered immoral. Other religions do not find sexual pleasure immoral, but see sex as a sacred, godly, highly-pleasurable activity that is only to be enjoyed with one’s spouse. These traditions do not condemn sexual pleasure in and of itself, but they impose limitations on the circumstances under which sexual pleasure may be properly experienced. Pornography in this view is seen as the secularization of something sacred, and a violation of a couple’s intimate relationship with each other.
In addition to expressing concerns about violating sexual morality, some religions take an anti-pornography stance claiming that viewing pornography is addictive, leading to self-destructive behavior. Proponents of this view compare pornography addiction to alcoholism, both in asserting the seriousness of the problem and in developing treatment methods.
Feminist critics, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, generally consider pornography demeaning to women. They believe that most pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment, and contributes to the male-centered objectification of women. Some feminists distinguish between pornography and erotica, which they say does not have the same negative effects as pornography.
However, some feminists disagree with this position opposing pornography. They suggest instead that appearing in or using pornography can be explained as each individual woman’s choice, not caused by socialization in a male-dominated culture. Thus, it is the right of each woman to choose whether or not to participate.
MacKinnon and Dworkin have noted that in addition to dehumanizing women pornography is likely to encourage violence against them. While it has been found that “high pornography use is not necessarily indicative of high risk for sexual aggression,” nevertheless “if a person has relatively aggressive sexual inclinations resulting from various personal and/or cultural factors, some pornography exposure may activate and reinforce associated coercive tendencies and behaviors.”
According to Diana Russell, “When addressing the question of whether or not pornography causes rape, as well as other forms of sexual assault and violence, many people fail to acknowledge that the actual making of pornography sometimes involves, or even requires, violence and sexual assault.”
In 1979, Andrea Dworkin published Pornography: Men Possessing Women, which analyzes (and extensively cites examples drawn from) contemporary and historical pornography as an industry of woman-hating dehumanization. Dworkin argues that it is implicated in violence against women, both in its production (through the abuse of the women used to star in it), and in the social consequences of its consumption (by encouraging men to eroticize the domination, humiliation, and abuse of women).