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Pornographic Experience

Abstract: Serious discussion of pornography almost always takes place either as a debate about the legitimacy of free expression defenses of pornography or as a debate about the impact of pornography on social relations, particularly on the status of women. All too often in these debates, stridency overtakes clarity. Even when claims about pornography are carefully weighed, these discussions take for granted how pornography is experienced by its audiences and what constitutes pornography in the first place. The aim of this paper is to clarify the way pornography carries meaning for its audiences, through a descriptive phenomenology of pornographic depictions.
Approaching Pornography

What is pornography? This might seem like a strange question, since the answer would appear obvious. It might also seem like an odd theme for philosophical reflection, since there wouldn’t appear to be much to reflect on. We presume we know what pornography is, based on a set of social conventions about how it is used and what it means, and proceed to make judgments about it.

At first glance, pornography also may not appear to belong to the sphere of mundane experience that this journal investigates.1 It seems obvious that for most people watching pornography is not an everyday experience, or at least isn’t an essential element of their ordinary experience.

But when we take for granted that we understand what pornography is or what it means, or the extent of its significance, we presume that pornography has a settled meaning, significant only in a specific and extraordinary aspect of life. In that case, we ignore how pornography appears and how it gains its significance, as though it weren’t produced in a social context. My goal in this paper is to clarify pornography’s meaning through a phenomenological description of the experience of watching pornography. I want to make two related arguments about the meaning of pornography. First, pornographic experience is ambiguous, which opens pornography to a range of possible interpretations. Second, for the most part, pornographic experience guided strictly by convention closes off these possible interpretations and habituates viewers to see sexuality in terms of a consumer commodity. In sum, I will show that pornographic experience is indeed mundane, in the sense of relying on presuppositions and a taken-for-granted stock of knowledge about social relations.

In the U.S., the extensive academic literature on pornography focuses mainly on two issues: whether pornography qualifies as constitutionally protected expression, and whether pornography produces harmful effects. These two issues are interconnected: if it can be demonstrated that porn causes harm – that is, if porn produces a “clear and present danger” – then it probably would not be constitutionally protected.

One basic way pornography is said to produce harmful effects is by enacting or promoting violence against women. By briefly considering the ways this claim is made, I would like to show that the usual academic discourse obscures pornography rather than clarifies it. This obscurity arises from failing to consider the experience of pornography, by presupposing a purpose and meaning of pornography. In my view, arguing that pornography has a specific effect implies that pornography has a single, specific meaning. Regardless of one’s position in the debate about pornography’s alleged effects, I think it is important to consider the more fundamental problems of what and how pornography means.

Does pornography cause violence against women? Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon worked throughout the 1980s to abolish pornography through legislative and academic efforts, arguing in part that pornography is the for-profit representation of rape or sexual abuse, and in part that pornography further damages women’s rights and interests, since pornography “defines women by how we look according to how we can be sexually used” (MacKinnon, 463). On the other hand, quantitative social science data on the correlation between pornography use and violence against women has been inconclusive. But would the empirical evidence of a correlation really answer the question? In my view, it would not, because it could not explain what pornography use itself (as opposed to other factors) contributed to the correlation. In any case, the more basic failure of this empirical claim is the presupposition that pornography can be used only one way, with only one effect. To make the causal claim intelligible (to say nothing of plausible, or verifiable), we have to assume that pornography is used in one normal way. As a result, instead of clarifying pornography, this debate ignores the experience of pornography.

Does pornography objectify women? Numerous feminist philosophers – Geraldine Finn and Susan Bordo to name two – analyze cultural depictions of women as means of extending power over women. Finn claims that pornographic images present and routinize masculine violence against women – that is, that the images themselves are a form of violent attack. She develops this position further in relation to all images of women, including a lengthy account of male film directors’ construction of female fantasy objects through their filming of actresses. The result of this view is a definition of pornography related to the masculine “gaze” rather than pornographic material; it might be added that a further implication of this view is that all men who see in a masculine way violate women whenever they see. The central point is that pornography “constructs” the meaning of women in our culture, but this social constructionist critique of pornography is vulnerable to the rather obvious counter-claim that it presumes what it intends to prove. For no matter how lengthy, detailed, and rhetorically convincing an analysis of pornography’s subordination of women one might produce, the analysis relies on an unstated and unsupported generalization that those are the meanings viewers of pornography receive, or the only meanings pornography could express.

On the other hand, I do not want to presuppose that pornography is in the eye of the beholder, nor do I want to dismiss without reflection its significance for social relations. The claims of anti-pornography activists and social constructionists should be taken seriously – which means they should be investigated and questioned seriously. What they suggest, ultimately, is that pornography makes a difference in the mundane or everyday world of sexuality, even if pornographic material is less common. In this view, there is no absolute line of demarcation between pornographic and non-pornographic material (or experience).

In other words, one of the central difficulties of critical inquiry into the meaning of pornography is delimiting and defining the subject matter. We could simply stipulate that pornography is visual, aural, or written material that graphically depicts sexual acts, and claim that questions of its meaning or value form another issue. But even in the case of this attempt at a “neutral” definition, what counts as a graphic depiction and even what counts as a sexual act are taken for granted. Moreover, it seems to me that tied up in the idea of pornography are assumptions about why and for whom the images are produced, so to clarify what pornography is and how it relates to sexuality or to everyday life, we cannot entirely leave out issues of value and significance – even if we also cannot make final determinations about its so-called “effects.”

To clarify what pornography is, I have to turn to actual experience of pornography. I believe my own experience of pornography has been unusual, because for some time it has been for me an object of study and reflection. As a result, I have seen a lot of porn over the years, much of it with my spouse and friends, and for me pornographic images rarely carry the explosive charge that is most often discussed in critique and academic literature, and considered typical. My own experience of pornography is unusually vast but also unusually analytical and reflective. If I were to draw conclusions about what porn means for normal porn viewers on this subjective basis, clearly I would be limited to speculating about other people’s experiences. In that case, I would also be guilty of presupposing the meaning of pornography.

Phenomenology of Pornographic Video

Instead, my goal is to present a phenomenology of experience of pornography. Although I will describe pornography through my own subjective experience, I will not generalize on this basis and guess how other people experience pornography. My descriptions are not meant to substitute for anyone else’s experiences, but are meant as clues or indications. I offer my interpretation of my experience as part of a dialogue to investigate further. Since this kind of investigation may not be familiar, let me begin with a brief explanation of phenomenological method.

Phenomenology is a way of engaging questions about the meaning of experiences and concepts, established by Edmund Husserl and developed in many directions by his students and subsequent generations of researchers. It is best described not as a school of thought but a method of thought, the key element being the attempt to set aside presuppositions that we take for granted in everyday life. For instance, living in the mundane world, we take things to be what they immediately seem, and to have the qualities, characteristics, values and uses that appear to belong to them. What is not apparent in this mode of living is how things take on their objective reality for us – how they become what they mean for us as we use them in daily life.

To reveal what lay behind the “natural attitude” (Ideas, 56) Husserl called for an analysis of the constitution of everyday objective reality, beginning from the subjective experience of consciousness. According to Husserl, the fundamental step in phenomenological research is the epoché – a canceling out or “parenthesizing” (59) of the presupposition that guides us in ordinary life. What remains, “within parentheses” or “under the epoché” is the “phenomenological residuum” of what appears in our experience.

Husserl describes the mental act of parenthesizing in abstract logical-scientific language, as a specific and rigorous procedure of retracting the “general positing” of the ordinary attitude (56). My long-term exposure to pornography has, I believe, achieved much the same effect. The significance of pornography has for me been reduced, in large measure simply because of repeated exposure, from a taken-for-granted and highly charged object to a more neutralized phenomenon whose meaning is unfixed. Instead of the ordinary response that takes the objective meaning of pornography for granted, when I observe pornography under this epoché, I am able to see how pornography is structured to carry meaning.

My approach to clarifying experience of pornography is further influenced by the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Alfred Schutz. In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty uncovers the dialogical character of perceptual experience, describing it as an encounter between the perceiving subject and the perceived object in which the object speaks to the subject about himself or herself (132). What this means, for Merleau-Ponty, is that the meaning of objects we perceive is constituted through our approaching the world with a certain attitude (concerns, plans of action, etc.) and the things in the world appearing in connection with that attitude (as relevant or irrelevant, as obstacles, goals, tools, etc.). The world of objects is, for us, a world of meanings formed in this subject-object interaction. Going still further, our dialogical perception of objects includes objects that embody a cultural significance – and in those cases, our dialogue with those objects tacitly involves us in a dialogue with other people.

Continuing this theme in a different direction, I turn to Alfred Schutz, whose work focused on the constitution of social reality, that is, on how we live in the mundane social world that establishes the meaning of objects. According to Schutz, social relations range from anonymous experiences of others as “types” to personal experiences of others as persons in the more authentic sense (Structures of the Life-World, 80). In authentic experiences of others, we engage with one another in a common task of making meaning. Opposed to this, experiences of others as “types” involves no such co-constitution of meaning, but instead relies on the repetition of social “recipes” (110) for action. For instance, we “know” in this taken-for-granted way that an acquaintance passing in the corridor at work who asks “How are you?” means the question as a greeting rather than an inquiry into details of our well-being. This “knowledge” is passed along in the forms of tradition or common knowledge or information, and a basic capacity to function socially implies a high degree of mastery of this body of information about social conventions. What these approaches allow me to explore is the dialogical relation of watching pornography and its connection to social reality. Through this I want to show how pornography appears to be constructed and how it could be experienced and interpreted in more than one way.

As an initial step in presenting a phenomenological clarification of pornography, I’ll begin with descriptions of the materials and delimit the field of investigation. For my purposes here, I am limiting discussion to pornography video tapes. It is not clear to me that a phenomenological account of other forms of pornography would lead to different results, and as I attempted to compare computer pornography to video in an earlier draft of this paper I did not find a great difference between them. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to note this limitation to my discussion. Furthermore, the videotapes I’ll describe are of a particular type. It might seem that restricting my description to one genre of pornography prevents me from drawing universal conclusions about pornography. But for two related reasons, the limitation of a given description is not a problem for phenomenological research. First of all, the descriptions are meant to provide clues about essential features of a phenomenon, and are not taken to be exhaustive or definitive accounts. Secondly, since the descriptions are meant as clues, no particular given description should stand on its own merits: the description is always to some degree a subjective reporting of experience by an individual phenomenological researcher, open to revisions, counter-descriptions, and other perspectives. The clarification of pornography is not something I can achieve in the present article once and for all; it is essentially an ongoing process, and essentially requires each reader to re-actuate description for himself or herself.

The preponderance of pornographic videotapes widely distributed in the United States, could be classified as “straight porn.” “Straight” is a bit of a misnomer, since a great deal of straight porn contains at least one scene of two women having sex together. Yet I have often heard this genre called “straight,” presumably because of what is not depicted: two men having sex together.

The usual joke about pornographic movies having terrible and irrelevant plotlines does not always apply. Using my own experience as an admittedly less-than-random sample (though I think it is a representative sample), the genre of straight porn movies divides roughly into thirds. One third are “features” with dramatic plots, often parodies of popular mainstream movies. The plots are clearly not the main focus of producers’ attention, with the result that the plots either aren’t coherent or don’t explain anything. In fact, the plots function (when they function at all) mainly to provide a rationale for putting various sexual partners together. Another third contain several short scenes, each with its own very briefly presented storyline. Unlike feature films, the stories presented in the short scenes are not needed to give dramatic motivation for the partnering of the actors. (NOTE: In the “adult entertainment industry,” the performers are referred to as actors or performers.) Instead, the storylines of shorts often establish crude characterizations of the performers in the scene – merely identifying the persons and their relationships (e.g., a female Russian spy and a male American spy, a movie starlet and her pool cleaner, a married couple and his male cousin, etc.). These identifications could be for the sake of fantasy, but it should be noted that in general very little time is spent on the characterizations, which are often difficult to understand because of the poor sound quality of the videotape (pornographic videotapes – which at least until recently has been the most common and lucrative aspect of the “adult entertainment industry” – are made as cheaply and quickly as possible, with very little attention paid to sound quality, video quality, or continuity), and usually no further reference is made to the characterizations after the sex scene has begun. Finally, another third involves no plotting whatsoever, and simply begins and ends with totally decontextualized sex scenes, often to a background of loud rock music. Frequently, however, the scenes in these plot-less, character-less videos have a common feature – a particular sexual practice (oral, anal, etc.) or “type” of person involved (Asian women, black men, blonde women, etc.).

Regardless of the sub-genre (feature, short, or lacking any plot), the sex scenes in straight porn vary remarkably little. With few exceptions, an apparently industry-standard schedule is followed in scenes with one female performer and one male performer. What is striking about this formula, and which I unfortunately cannot represent well enough in its tedious redundancy here, is that it appears with little or no variation in nearly every straight porn one-man, one-woman scene.

Briefly, and without example, the basic formula is as follows: To begin, the dramatic aspect, if present, takes place for a few moments just before the sexual aspect. There is sometimes, but comparatively rarely, brief kissing or petting, but often some kind of “dirty talk.” If the two performers are dressed (and usually they are at least partially or nominally), the sexual activity of the scene opens with the woman’s breasts being exposed. Very brief “foreplay” ensues with the man fondling and sucking the breasts, while the woman rubs her hand against the man’s crotch. Usually at this point the woman kneels or sits and the man’s pants are undone. Fellatio – sometimes rather extensive – then begins.

During fellatio, the woman often makes moaning or humming sounds, and less often the man also moans or speaks. The woman’s humming, moaning, or occasional speaking is almost always louder than the man’s (in fact, female performers are generally much more audible in straight porn, speaking more during the depicted sexual acts, making more audible moans, etc.).

While breast foreplay usually lasts less than a minute, fellatio may continue as long as five minutes or more, with occasional interruptions – often to remove more clothing from either performer. Camera angles change several times, but stay within a very close range, focused on the woman’s face and the man’s penis. Common shots are from the side at head/penis level, and slightly above and just to the side of the man, which shows not only the woman’s face but also her breasts; occasionally a headshot of the man is edited in, showing his reaction (leaning his head back, e.g.). Quite often the male performer will grasp the back of the female performer’s head and thrust it forward in rhythm to her fellating. It is also common for the woman to pause and spit on the man’s genitals, a gesture that I find difficult to interpret. (Since this gesture is repeated in movies produced during the 80s and 90s, I have drawn the inference that it symbolizes or fetishizes exchange of bodily fluids. Whether this is its significance for anyone else, I of course have no idea.)

Rather arbitrarily and abruptly, fellatio ends and cunnilingus begins, again with great attention and close focus on the genitals. This lasts usually less than fellatio, but is still an extended period of time, with changes of camera angle or performers’ positions. Again arbitrarily and abruptly, vaginal intercourse begins. Vaginal intercourse is usually the most extensive segment of a scene. During intercourse, there are much the same changes of camera angle, and usually at least three changes of the performers’ positions – always positions that allow for maximum genital display. Despite the varying camera angles and positions, straight porn notably involves little variation in which angles and which positions are taken up. Though anal intercourse had been a specialized genre, straight porn video scenes produced from the mid-90s on have more and more often concluded with brief anal intercourse – once again presented with the same changes of angle and position. Every scene ends with a so-called “money shot,” in which intercourse ends and the male is masturbated to ejaculation on the woman’s body or face. These shots are prominent, and occasionally given further emphasis by being repeated or depicted in slow-motion.

I have attempted to describe this common straight porn script without imposing judgment on it, either aesthetically or morally. But nevertheless there is a judgment carried out in this description as to the coherence, the chronological order, and above all the sexual significance of pornography. Following Husserl, setting aside such natural-attitude presuppositions, I am left with a collection of phenomena. What makes these various scenes part of a unified presentation? What makes the audio and video portions part of a unified scene?

I don’t mean this in a skeptical way. The unity of the video presentation is so central to the experience of watching that I almost always notice when there is a scene that somehow doesn’t fit. What’s important here is to recognize that this unity involves me in its construction. The various cuts, edits, points-of-view shots, and so forth, all require an act of perceptual unification. This is no less true of all perceptual experience, of course, though televisual experiences are much different from looking at ordinary objects because of the changes of perspective and edits. In contrast, when I’m on the beach watching waves crash into rocks on the shore I don’t suddenly see the waves from the middle of the sea or from above or below. Yet I am so habituated to seeing such shifts in perspective in televisual experience that it strikes me as perfectly normal.

As I said, this process of unifying perception takes place in all televisual experience. But pornography has a further element of sexual significance. Again it’s an obvious part of pornography and I don’t mean to call it into doubt. The phenomenological question is how I construe the sexual significance of porn – and this question has become especially acute for me personally, since my lengthy and abstract analytical experience of porn has drained much of the sexual charge from pornography. What do I do with pornography that makes it sexually meaningful for me?

Here I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception as a dialogue in which things speak to me about myself and the possibilities of my action. The depicted bodies of the performers are my dialogical partners, referring to my own plans and potentiality for movement. Finn takes up this notion in suggesting that the perspective of pornography is taken up by viewers – as the perspective of men violating women. But I notice something different. In the first place, the perspective of the viewer shifts from shot to shot, based on the changing perspective of the camera. Some of the shots – for instance, of fellatio – give full display to male genitalia, suggesting that the “masculine gaze” of viewers in this case places them in the position of the woman performing fellatio rather than the male recipient. In any case, what Finn’s argument ignores about dialogical perception of pornography is the ambiguity of what the viewer takes to be the object. Only if the woman is the object can the “masculine gaze” objectify a woman. How can we be sure that a woman is the object of pornographic vision?

Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on dialogue changes the focus of this question. The important thing is that perception is always a dialogue, rather than that it picks out certain objects rather than others. The dialogue is open-ended or indefinite, because in all cases we can’t tell how the dialogue will conclude. Certainly the viewing subject approaches the pornographic object with a set of habits and aims, but does this object affirm or deny my particular goals, interests, needs? Does this object refer me to possibilities of movement I had not recognized before? Does the “masculine gaze” remain masculine? Is straight porn really straight? Is pornography really sexual, or really objectifying?

Once more, I do not mean to deny the possibility that many (male) viewers of pornography approach the experience expecting an erotic charge from seeing a woman become the sexual plaything of a man. Nor do I mean to deny the possibility that such viewers use pornography in a self-gratifying way that further habituates an attitude toward pornography and toward women that reinforces the expectation that women are properly the sexual playthings of men. That is decidedly possible. But the dialogical character of perception shows that such habits of pornographic experience are not necessary.

If the usual experience of pornography follows this habit of perception, the development of this habit needs some explanation. I believe most people approach pornography for the first time with expectations about what it is, what it means, what will be depicted, and so on. I expect that most people are not terribly surprised by what they see. But for this to be true, there must already be a tacit understanding of pornography that guides this first time experience. In other words, pornography must already have a socially-constituted meaning.

This leads me to Schutz and his account of the stock of taken-for-granted meanings that pervade social reality. The differences between anonymous and personal social relations, especially regarding constitution of meaning, suggest the outlines of a critique of pornography and a critique of the debate about pornography, which I will consider at the end of this paper. But before turning to that discussion, I want to emphasize how pornography follows a very limited set of recipes and relies on a limited set of typifications of persons in order to present its meaning.

Video after video after video, almost exactly similar movements, shifts, and actions are depicted. The question this raises is how to interpret the regimentation of the scenes. Pornography presents these performers as nothing but types who follow recipes. Even if the pornographic recipe follows the script of ordinary human sexual behavior, the question is, why should pornography follow this script?2 I would like to suggest that, just as we rely on recipes for getting along in everyday life with typical others, pornography relies on taking its recipes for granted. Pornography is tedious for me in the same way that conversations consisting of nothing but exchanged greetings would be tedious for anyone. But greetings have an important function in mundane, anonymous social relations as affirmations of what we take for granted and reminders of the recipes we are to follow in order to maintain ordinary life.

I take the tedious sameness of pornography as evidence of a more general reliance on convention. The conventions of an audience watching and the conventions of production are part of the same phenomenon. The conventions governing pornographic production and interpretation routinize and objectify sexuality as a genital relation – oral/genital, genital/genital, anal/genital, and almost always in precisely that order in straight porn. They form a recipe for pornographic experience that can be relied upon by users of porn who “know” what to expect as a result. This reliance, this routine, allows pornography to function as a consumer product – a taken-for-granted, ready-made object with a specific purpose.

Consumption is an unreflective, non-working relation to a product. Consumers are “passive,” not in the sense of being unengaged or unenthused, but in the sense of not appropriating, changing, or working on the product to make it one’s own creation. Any consumer product could be compared to pornography, but it seems to me another media product is most apt: televised sports. A sports fan is a consumer. The relation between a fan and (as we tellingly say) the “fan’s” team dictates complete passivity on the fan’s part. The fan can do nothing to control the team, to change or work on the team. Similarly, to consume pornography (to view it through its own conventions) is to take up and possess a routinized, objectified sexuality, at the cost of being unable to create one’s own sexuality. Regardless of what we might argue about the supposed effects of pornography, we can see in the banal production of straight porn a consistent image and meaning of sexuality that applies to any consumer, man or woman. Sexuality as such is objectified, not simply women or men.

The objectification of sexuality is treated as a consumer product equally by conventional users and by critics who take for granted this meaning of pornography. Consider John Stoltenberg’s account of the meaning of pornography:

Pornography institutionalizes the sexuality that both embodies and enacts male supremacy. Pornography says about that sexuality, “Here’s how”: Here’s how to act out male supremacy in sex. Here’s how the action should go. Here are the acts that impose power over and against another body. And pornography says about that sexuality, “Here’s who”: Here’s who you should do it to and here’s who she is: your whore, your piece of ass, yours. Your penis is a weapon, her body is your target. And pornography says about sexuality, “Here’s why”: Because men are masters, women are slaves; men are superior, women are subordinate; men are real, women are objects; men are sex machines, women are sluts. (Stoltenberg, 69)
There are two significant problems with this approach to pornography, in my view. First, the criticism is based on a taken-for-granted presupposition of the meaning of pornographic images – in effect begging the question that these are the meanings and the only meanings pornography carries. Second, by accepting this taken-for-granted presupposition of the meaning of pornography, the criticism contributes to maintaining the very convention it attacks. Criticism of this type is ultimately self-defeating because it relies on an ungrounded positing of the fixed meaning of the images and essentially reproduces the objectifying act that establishes the conventions of pornography in the first place.

The moral judgments implied in Stoltenberg’s comment (which is intended to serve in his essay as part of a definition of pornography) are also consumer-product forms. There’s little in his comment that allows a reader to creatively take up the discourse; instead, it calls for a consumer-response, taking the judgments up as they stand, whole and entire, without alteration or reflection. It is certainly possible, and perhaps even usual, to experience pornography unreflectively and conventionally, to consume it as a depiction of sexual relations of an anonymous, routine type. This experience is habituated through repeated conventional use – that is, a use of pornography that presumes its purpose and meaning, and ignores the possibility of co-constituting meaning.

The alternative to conventional, typical experience of pornography is to make it the explicit object of dialogue about its meaning and the meaning it tacitly imparts to sexual relations in conventional use. But this dialogue cannot begin on the basis of an assumed meaning of pornographic images, and cannot seek to close the question of pornography’s meaning. The rush to judgment is rooted in the same presuppositions about pornography that guide its use.

Some Concluding Reflections

Is pornography intrinsically evil, immoral, or damaging to sexual relations? The aim of this paper has been to show that this is an ill-formed question. Pornography isn’t intrinsically anything, simply because it is the result of human activities of production, consumption or interpretation. The attempt to give a fixed and final significance to pornography ignores the potential for interpretation and treats pornography as something it essentially is not. I have emphasized throughout this paper a distinction between pornographic images and conventional approaches to pornographic images in order to hold open a space for interpretation, for uncoupling the convention from the phenomenon. In closing, it’s crucial to state explicitly the import and limitations of this phenomenological clarification.

First, I must note that this study did not seek a breadth of examples. While I believe the clarification of pornographic conventions would hold more or less across genres, I have not gone to the effort of showing that this is so – and for phenomenology, the descriptive discovery of phenomena has no substitute.

Secondly, the phenomenological clarification does not make empirical scientific claims null and void. A social scientific debate about the “effects” of pornography can provide useful information. Phenomenology attempts to come to an understanding of experience.

Finally and above all, I do not believe that the phenomenological clarification of pornography is sufficient for either a condemnation or a defense of pornography. Because phenomenology involves a suspension of judgment, it follows that phenomenology does not provide a judgment. However, phenomenology does provide clarification of what we might afterwards judge. In the case of pornography, in my opinion, phenomenological investigation of pornography suggests the focus of criticism is better aimed at conventionalism and commodification than the presumed effects. After all, claims about the harms of pornography always assume viewers operate according to these conventions. What is significant to understand is how pornography, taken up in its conventional sense as an object in ordinary life, can transform mundane sexuality into a consumer commodity. Phenomenological suspension of belief in its taken-for-granted sense resists this transformation by not allowing it to count as objectively real. Pornography and sexuality remain open to interpretation.


1 In the only directly phenomenological work dealing with pornography that I know of, Murray S. Davis (1983) approaches pornography as a form of erotic experience, which he considers extramundane. Though like Davis I also rely on the work of Alfred Schutz, I treat pornography as part of mundane experience, for reasons that should be clear as the paper progresses.

2 In the (now somewhat dated) classic work Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality, Gagnon and Simon develop the claim that “all human sexual behavior is social scripted behavior” (262). While that may be true, their approach to pornography is unhelpful in the context of this paper, since it relies on an outmoded form of pornography. “Stag films” were less accessible, less lucrative, and less pervasive than video porn, and typically viewed less privately. This leads Gagnon and Simon (mistakenly, in my view) to conclude that the stimulation of stag films was the result of their dealing with “illicit sex” (263).

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Davis, Murray S. Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Finn, Geraldine. “The Pornographic Eye/I.” Why Althusser Killed His Wife. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996: 34-49.

Gagnon, John H. and William Simon. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago, IL: Aldane Publishing Company, 1973.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans. by Fred Kersten. Boston: Kluwer, 1982.

MacKinnon, Catherine A. “Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech.” In Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties. Ed. Itzin, Catherine. 1992 Oxford U. Press p. 456-511.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. by Colin Smith. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1986 [1945].

Schutz, Alfred. and Luckmann, Thomas. The Structures of the Life-world, Vol. I. Trans. by Richard M. Zaner and H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. Evanston: Northwestern U. Press, 1973.

Stoltenberg, John. “Pornography and Freedom” in Diana E. H. Russell, ed., Making Violence

Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993): 65-77.

About the Author: Chris Nagel teaches philosophy at California State University, Stanislaus. After completing his dissertation (“Merleau-Ponty’s Hegelianism,” 1996) at Duquesne University, his research work has focused on phenomenology, media experience, intersubjectivity, and community. He maintains a web page ( of papers, course material and social satire. He invites visits to the page, and comments on this paper.

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