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Beyond SpeechReview - Beyond Speech
Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy
by Mari Mikkola (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Dec 19th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 51)

The feminist anti-pornography movement perhaps reached its peak in the 1980s when an anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, written by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon, became law in a few cities across the United States. This anti pornography approach differed from previous lines of attack, and particularly those made by conservatives and the religious right, by focusing on civil rights and not on obscenity and the criminal law. This new approach would allow women harmed by pornography to sue pornographers through civil courts. Although the ordinances were eventually struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement upon the U.S. First Amendment right of freedom of speech, the approach to treat pornography as speech that harms women has continued to be a strong voice within the feminist anti-pornography position. Rae Langton has been one of the strongest proponents of this position by framing the anti-pornography argument in terms of J.L. Austin's speech act theory. According to Langton, pornography doesn't just say things about women, it actually does things to them: it subordinates, objectifies, and silences them. Hence pornography does not merely cause harm to women, pornography itself constitutes harm.  

Langton in fact begins the discussion in Beyond Speech by examining an issue that some of her critics have made regarding the way in which she has alleged that pornography subordinates women. According to many radical feminists it does so in the same way that the law does. But, critics have said, how is this possible given that pornography has no formal structure? Nor does it have any institutional standing and thus seems radically different than the law. Here Langton responds by claiming that the analogy between the law and pornography holds in the relevant way because both exert authority. "This explains how," she says, "it can have verdictive force ("degrading and sexist toward women"), exercitive force (setting "that standard"), and directive force ("how to do stuff") (35).

The rest of the chapters in Part I take up Langton's position in one way or another. In Chapter 3, McGowan focuses on the way(s) in which pornography silences women. For example, a common pornographic trope is to have a woman's initial refusal of sexual advances turn into the opposite. By doing so, pornography makes the woman's "No!" meaningless (and hence silences women). In contrast to the positions advanced by Langton and McGowan, Antony argues in Ch. 4 that analyzing pornography in terms of speech act theory is problematic in a variety of ways, and argues that feminists opposed to pornography would be much better served by employing a social constructionist account of pornography and the effects it has on woman. Antony concludes: "Perhaps part of the problem of pornography, then, is the consonance between what men and women are both taught about the structure of female desire. Perhaps if woman were empowered to seek sexual pleasure for its own sake, this consonance could be disrupted. Maybe the development of good 'pornography for women' can be an important part of the struggle to end gender injustice" (87).

Part II begins the process of moving "beyond speech" – and speech act theory -- to consider other avenues to explore regarding analytic feminism and pornography. In Ch. 5, Jenkins draws upon John Searle's account of social ontology and argues that the subordination of women and the false ways in which women are portrayed in pornography "can profitably be understood in terms of the collective intentional imposition of a status function that defines 'females' as subpersons for male use" (109).

Also employing a social ontology framework, Mikkola moves the discussion of pornography from a concern with "what pornography is about" to consider instead "what makes something a pornographic artifact" (114). She uses a "maker's intention" model of pornography to answer her question. She hopes that this approach will allow her to provide a description of pornography that avoids accounts, such as the speech act theory of pornography, where discussions get "bogged down by worries about whether pornography is or is not speech in the sense relevant for speech act theory" which in turn leads to interlocutors about pornography talking past each other (115). My concern here, however, is that figuring out a producer's intentions, even within a broad social setting, can be very slippery, and even if one doesn't think that the "intentional fallacy," as described by Wimsatt and Beardsley, is actually a fallacy, one should still be leery of moving directly from intentions to meaning.

Part III considers objectification as the harm of pornography. Papadacki begins by considering the oft made feminist anti-pornography claim that "there exists a causal connection between personifying pornography and objectifying women" (138). While she rejects this claim, she goes on to maintain that it "is possible … that there indeed exists a causal connection between the knowledge generated by pornography about women's inferior and object-like status and women's objectification" (138). In Ch. 8, Bettcher provides what she calls a "preliminary trans feminist analysis of pornography" (157) by first noting the ways in which racist, sexist, and transphobic oppressions converge in pornography and then suggesting, with respect to trans people in particular, that pornography presents them in a "sex-representational system by 'misaligning' public gender presentation with the gendered form of intimate appearance and are punished accordingly" (175). In the concluding chapter of Part III, Zheng looks specifically at race and pornography and focuses on what she calls the "dilemma of (un)desirability" (177) where people of color are presented both as sexy and desirable but does so in such a way as to risk reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

The last part of Beyond Speech considers whether a true feminist pornography can exist, which Rae Langton and those following her speech act analysis of pornography maintain is impossible. The three papers in Part IV, however, consider pornography in aesthetic rather than speech act theory terms. The three authors then suggest that if feminist pornography is possible, it must be egalitarian (Maes), queer (van Brabant), and/or transformative with respect to our erotic tastes (Eaton).

At its best, analytic philosophy is clear and precise. At its worst, however, analytic philosophy can be jargon filled, and get so lost in abstract, often hypothetical discussions that one finds it hard to see what the point of the discussion is. I think both sides of analytic philosophy are on display in Beyond Speech. Potential readers ought to be aware of this and also aware that this book is aimed at an academic audience with considerable knowledge of the extant discussions in analytic feminist philosophy on the subject of pornography.


© 2017 Robert Scott Stewart



Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University (Canada). His most recent work has mostly been in the area of the philosophy of sex including two books: R.S. Stewart, ed., Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (CBU Press, 2013) and Laurie Shrage & R.S. Stewart, Philosophizing About Sex (Broadview Press, 2015).



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