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PornographyReview - Pornography
A Philosophical Introduction
by Mari Mikkola
Oxford University Press, 2019
Review by Giulia Luvisotto
Sep 10th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 37)

There are two main views on what is the legitimate object of philosophical inquiry. Some hold that the endeavor of philosophy is to answer specific questions; on the nature of things, on the source of consciousness, on what is wrong to do. Others hold that philosophy should illuminate and apply to every aspect of our life. To whomever belongs to the first category, Mari Mikkola's Pornography: a philosophical introduction is highly recommended. This book provides clear evidence that philosophy can investigate topics that do not belong to the traditional corpus without losing in rigor and analyticity. Moreover, the upshot is such a clear and deepened view of the phenomenon that it offers a good reason for thinking that philosophy not only can, but also should be concerned with it.

          Pornography is an introduction in two main respects. First, it provides an informed survey of the literature since the origins of the debate up to its most recent developments. Each chapter offers a comprehensive taxonomy of the most influential positions on the topic and puts them into dialogue with each other. This creates room for a particularly fruitful confrontation since, as Mikkola herself stresses, philosophers working on these topics often "end up talking past one another" (p. 87). Second, each chapter is structured around a different question, so as to give the reader a broad and clear overview of what are the main questions about pornography. This opens up the logical space of the notion of 'pornography' and allows the reader to see it as the complex and multifaceted concept that it is.

          On the other hand, being an introduction has its darker sides. In fact, someone might find the density of Mikkola's investigation bewildering. First, her treatment provides such a huge amount of information in a fairly limited space that one might worry that it proceeds too quickly in some passages; philosophers' positions are necessarily shrunken more than deeply analyzed. Second, her own view risks to be concealed behind others' views and local assessments of specific arguments.

          I believe that these critiques, if put forth, would be misplaced. They would be unfair, for density and impartiality are forced upon whomever aims to write an introduction. More importantly, they would betray shortsightedness: her original and strong philosophical stance consists in the very fact that Mikkola does not take sides upfront. In this light, it is possible to assess Pornography in a different way: Mikkola does not carry out an excursus in order to deliver completeness. Rather, her aim is to show that in many cases feuds between allegedly rival positions stem from mutual — more or less innocent — misunderstandings; that often those disagreements are not incompatibilities but rather emphases put on different aspects of the phenomenon; that advocates of competing views are often biased by diverse theoretical and political commitments that impair an evenhanded analysis.

          By contrast, Mikkola is extremely aware of her methodological commitments. First, she explicitly maintains "an analytic feminist perspective" (p.4), which entails applying conceptual analysis and systematic argumentation to the practical feminist aim to end sex- and gender-related injustices. Second, and crucially, Mikkola starts her investigation from a morally neutral perspective; she assumes neither that pornography is wrong, and to be criminalized, nor that it is good, and to be extolled. Furthermore, she stresses that we should avoid starting our investigation from "intuitive gut-feelings" (p.85) and "trading intuitions". Also, we need to provide strong empirical foundations for our claims. Third, and relatedly, she underlines that talking of 'pornography' as a unified, consistent phenomenon is doomed to failure. Philosophers tend to overlook how diverse and varied pornography has become and do not realize that some genres might prove their points whilst others might stand for strong counterexamples (p.169). Also, in several passages she suggests that some pornography is discriminatory, but that not all of it need be. Finally, Mikkola constantly keeps an eye on the fact that pornography is an industry. Leading a purely theoretical investigation is then clearly flawed. For example, realizing the extent to which producers are interested in revenue (estimated at $97 billion) might affect — and partly disprove — the widely shared philosophical views that their primary intention is to discriminate women, harm them, tell lies about them, or sexually arouse their audience. These methodological commitments allow her to deliver a highly original and illuminating treatment of the subject.


The first part of the book closely assesses Hornsby's and Langton's influential employment of Austin's speech act theory: the view that pornography is speech that both causes and is women's subordination. Mikkola shows that the first part of the claim is not implausible; for example, pornography silences women by shaping men's conceptions of women's sexuality in ways that "result in perlocutionary frustration of refusal". For example, to the effect that women's saying 'No' is taken to mean 'Yes' (p.54). On the other hand, the constitutive formulation is very hard to sustain. One of the main problems is to prove that there is a systematic causal connection between pornography and sexist attitudes or violent behavior. Pornography is not the only media that depicts women in a certain way and the consumption of pornography is neither necessary nor sufficient for violent behavior. Nevertheless, Mikkola highlights how, commonly, a strong correlation is enough to talk about causation (e.g. the correlation between smoking and cancer) and that the objection that, in the case of pornography, that is not enough shows a double standard.

          Interestingly, some claim that if Hornsby and Langton are right, then this ill fits with "legislation outlawing rape that requires mens rea for conviction": if women's refusals cannot be understood as such, then violators are legitimated in believing that their victims were consenting and thus not responsible for their actions. This is "ill and wrong" and is taken to prove that Hornsby and Langton cannot be right. Rather, Mikkola claims, this offers a strong reason to reformulate the law such that it can no longer allow for a defense along the lines of "I honestly thought she meant yes".

          Chapter 4 digs further into the relationship between pornography and law by focusing on whether pornography can be defended by an appeal to free speech regulation that is compatible with liberalism, which in turns raises questions about the scope of the First Amendment. Mikkola shows that it is misleading to frame the debate, as usually done even by its very participants, as a feud between liberal anti-regulation and illiberal feminist pro-regulation positions. First, they share much more ground than it seems. Further, regulating does not amount to prohibiting and some regulations are permissible even within a liberal framework. Finally, criminalizing pornography is the wrong response to the problems it brings about. Rather, we should aim at the spreading of better sex education programs, nudging, and forms of pornography that do not foster inequality and discrimination.

          The following chapters discuss sexual objectification, maker's knowledge, the aesthetics of pornography, digitally generated imagery and feminist pornography. In each case, Mikkola highlights that opposite views are not really opposite, that none is free from problems and that we should not assume what sounds more intuitive. In conclusion, Mikkola's introduction is an intelligent invitation to reflect at length on the foundations of our positions; the hidden assumptions lurking behind our views; the validity of the conclusions we draw.


© 2019 Giulia Luvisotto


Giulia Luvisotto is a graduate student at the University of Warwick.


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