Vadas 1987

Vadas, M. 1987. A first look at the pornography/civil rights ordinance: Could pornography be the subordination of women? Journal of Philosophy 84: 487 -511.

Vadas’ point of departure is the mid-1980s’ Dworkin/MacKinnon ordinance:

  1. Pornography is the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following: (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts–including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks–are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.
  2. The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women in (1) above is pornography for the purposes of this law (p. 488n).

The strangeness (if any) of this characterization of  pornography is that something “merely” graphic is given the causal power of subordination. (I can subordinate you; but how can a mere picture of me subordinate you?)

The “reasonable view,” as Vadas articulates it is simply: “Pornography is sexually explicit material-pictures on paper or film, or words on a page. Some people enjoy looking at this material; others do not. To forbid by law the production and dissemination of this material is an act of moralistic piety gone unconscionably governmental–or outright tyranny. If you don’t like the words, citizen, just don’t read the words. If you don’t like the pictures, friend, just don’t look at the pictures” (p. 490). The contrast is the “civil rights” view ensconced in the Dworkin/MacKinnon ordinance, a view in which pornography constitutes an injustice because it consists in the subordination of a group (women).

But can sense be made of the subordination claim? Vadas suggests, yes, and her complicated but sophisticated argument is one that I mostly find compelling. Following her, first, we should be careful in how we establish the identity of an event (that has the potential to be pornographic). Events take their identity based on their context in practice (and Vadas, drawing on MacIntyre [1981] elaborates on this point at some length). Take some footage recorded in a surveillance camera of a rape. Suppose it is shown as evidence during the trial of the person accused of the rape. And suppose, after theft, the footage is publicized in an “adult” website and seen by a user. The two events, the footage in the courthouse, and the footage viewed by that user, are different events.

Second, we should note that, under some conditions a value judgment (she talks of “predicates” but we can avoid some irrelevant metaphysics and ignore the linguistic turn) about an event, whether it is desirable or undesirable and so on, can be directly transferred to its depiction. For instance, we may call a rose beautiful and assert that a photograph of it is also beautiful. It should be clear where Vadas is heading. Her ultimate strategy will be to argue that a depiction of certain sexual acts subjugates women because the acts subjugate women. Therefore, this argument about direct transferability is crucial to her argument and deserves more scrutiny (though the problems do not appear to me to be insurmountable).

Two problems arise: (1) We may say of a rose that it is beautiful and we may also say that its photograph is beautiful, but we may be saying they are beautiful in different ways. Let’s take the claim of the rose being beautiful to be simply what it appears to be: that we find this particular flower specimen pleasantly visually appealing. But, when we say that its photograph is beautiful we may either be saying that the depicted flower specimen is pleasantly visually appealing or we may be saying that the photograph is beautiful qua photograph. In the former case we would be using “is beautiful” in the same way, as Vadas wants (and I will grant that). However, in the latter case we could be saying that we find the photograph beautiful because of its technical features, how the subject is framed, how the eye is brought to focus on some particular visual detail, and so on. We could even remain completely neutral with respect to what we think of the flower specimen. We may even think they would be visually unexceptional themselves. (Think of Weston’s vegetables.) Vadas has implicitly committed Scruton’s fallacy: conflating a photograph and the object (which, in Scruton’s case was used to deny that a photograph is a representation in his idiosyncratic sense). So, there may be a kind of ambiguity about a moral judgment about a depiction that there is not about the event itself. In pornography, an act may be a despicable act of subordination without the depiction being appreciated, or even being permitted, for that reason. Using only a slightly different example, how else could one (and I am not one of them) find any cinematic or other aesthetic merit in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). (2) So, we need conditions that show that the transference of a normative judgment occurs in the right way. We need explicit conditions for that. Vadas does not provide them; in fact she does not do much to specify what the right conditions are under which any direct transference of a value judgment is possible. There is work to be done.

Third, transference somehow transcends the individual event being depicted to a particular class to which the individual belongs. And this, too, is problematic. Let me start to explain by invoking one of Vadas’ more charming examples: how Clara was disgraced at a formal dinner. She had mistakenly slurped the water from her fingerbowl loudly and had announced “Great soup.” (Of course, she may just have been commenting on the quality of the food served at that dinner but we will let that pass.)  The host’s nephew, Elwood had secretly videotaped the event. According to Vadas, both the event and the videotape disgrace Clara. Let us concede that. But does that mean that Elwood’s videotape disgraces women? After all, Elwood could also have filmed one of the men seated adjacent to Clara making the same mistake before Clara. Before we turn to the pornographic analogy, let me note that I am not willing to assume without qualification that Elwood’s videotape does not disgrace women. We need more context.

Turn to the pornographic analogy. Let us suppose that Clara was invited to the dinner so that Elwood could induce her to engage in sexual acts that are generally regarded as offensive so that he could videotape them for sharing with others. How he does this matters to some extent: we will assume that structural power relations (including economic status and what feminists call patriarchy) play a role. Of course, “generally” here is a vague term and Clara’s own assessment matters. But let us say that it is at least unenthusiastic (which is fairly damning in the context of sexual acts). So, what is being depicted is offensive. And, for the sake of argument, we concede that the depiction (in its context, given its use) is also offensive. It is offensive to Clara. But to say it is offensive to women, the class and not the individual, requires more elaboration. And that is what Vazas does not provide.

Clara belongs to multiple classes, that of her co-workers, that of any educational cohort she is part of, that based on library or social club membership, that based on groups in social media, and so on. Even if we accept that the value judgment can be transferred from an individual to a class (and that requires argument), why do women constitute the relevant class? Presumably Vazas takes it for granted that this part of the argument can be filled in easily, by reference to what pornography historically has been. So, we need empirical support for claims of the sort: that the persons depicted in pornography are made devoid of their individuality (use the analogy of the number of artistic depictions of naked human beings all labeled Nude), that the depictions are such as to make Clara representative of all women, and so on. I don’t think this is an impossible task, but it needs to be carried out. I also suspect that this is where all the hard intellectual work will be and that the demonstration of transference will rely with what we come up here.

Two final points: (1) We should take note of what Dworkin/MacKinnon and Vadas leave outside the scope of pornography.  Their characterization does not exclude all nudity or all sex though Clause (v) is problematic insofar as it denies the possibility of diversity of attitudes on the part of women. Over all, there should be a worry that there are too many cultural prejudices in the ordinance about what constitutes as “subjugation.” Nevertheless, the salient point is that the ordinance would almost certainly not be enough for religious critics of pornography such as former Pope Benedict XVI who blames the sexual freedom innovation of the 1960s and liberals in general for the clerical abuse of children. (2) Vadas makes a profound error about baseball. If you are down two strikes, and you swing and miss, it does not matter whether the ball was within the strike zone. It does not have to be a good ball (at least in that sense).  This is probably the place to stop even though it is baseball season.


MacIntyre, A. 1981. After Virtue. Notre-Dame, University of Notre-Dame Press.

17 April 2019

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