Pornography, Sexuality and Epistemic Responsibility
by Robert Jensen
ABSTRACT: Working from the radical feminist critique of sexuality and
pornography, this paper counters the "to each his (or her) own" approach to
desire and argues we have an epistemic responsibility to explore the roots of
our desires in community. While definitive decisions aren't likely, we can work
toward collective judgments about sex and politics. The goal is not the
imposition of a single set of sexual norms or the elimination of diversity, but
understanding of the intersection of sex and power.
"What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another" (Lawrence
That statement by D.H. Lawrence has been revised and repeated often in the
contemporary debate over pornography. That view -- what might be called the "sex
liberal" view[FN 1] -- stresses the variation in individuals' interpretations of
sexual material. The implication is that society should not address pornography
legally and individuals should not morally judge it because there is nothing
that is pornographic to us all.
Working from the radical feminist critique of sexuality and pornography
(Cole, 1989; Dworkin, 1981, 1987, 1988; Jeffreys, 1990a; MacKinnon, 1987; and
Russell, 1993), this paper attempts to counter the "to each his/her own"
approach to sexuality and pornography by suggesting that we need to question our
desires, always highlighting issues of gender politics, and that such
questioning needs to take place in dialogue with others. I argue that we have an
epistemic responsibility to go beyond simply saying, "This is my desire, and
leave me alone with it." Instead, we need to explore the roots of our desires in
community. The result is not likely to be definitive decisions, but from such
work we can begin to make collective judgments about sex and politics. The goal
is not the imposition of a single set of sexual norms and the elimination of
diversity -- as the radical feminist critique is often accused of seeking -- but
an expanded conversation that creates more opportunities to understand the
intersection of sex and power.
This paper begins by taking issue with two different defenses of that liberal
position. One is essentialist, which suggests there is a natural human bent
toward the pornographic that makes any attempt to restrict pornography futile.
Another defense suggests that the complexity of sexuality -- the interplay of
biology and constructed social meanings -- makes it counterproductive or
authoritarian to make judgments. I argue that first defense is wrong in its
essentialist assumption and that the second draws the wrong conclusions from a
social construction view. Taking a social construction view, I contend
pornography and sexuality are proper topics for discussion and definition by
members of a society. The goal is not to justify legal controls on sex between
adults but rather to make a case for why, if we are to be epistemically
responsible, we must examine our sex practices, including our use of sexually
explicit images, and act to construct them differently if warranted.
Essentialism: The Animal in Us All.
One defense of the liberal position is essentialist, suggesting that power is
a natural part of sexuality and that an element of dominance and submission is
to be expected in sex. From this view, sex that involves power games need not be
problematic: What is natural or biological need not be questioned. This can be
seen in the recent work of three male scholars, from philosophy, political
science, and sociology.
F.M. Christensen, a philosopher, takes the position that traditional sexual
attitudes rooted mainly in religion have resulted in the repression of sexuality
and suggests that most of society's problems with pornography are simply the
result of a sex-negative culture. He concludes that "pornography, together with
the desires that underlie it, is natural and healthy" (Christensen 1990, 14).
Although he acknowledges that much of the difference between men and women is
the result of social training, Christensen has a tendency to rely on biology to
explain sexual differences. He sees male sexuality as strongly visually cued and
focused on the female body, compared with a woman's focus on the male interest
in her body. Men, he argues, have stronger and more frequent sexual arousal.
Christensen repeatedly suggests that these differences are natural and that it
is folly to try to modify them. In fact, he argues that anti-pornography
feminists are intolerant for denying outlets for "sexual feelings that are
natural for males" (Christensen 1990, 50).
Christensen even looks to other species for validation, suggesting that mock
violence in sexual encounters may be connected to biology, much like the
ritualized flight and capture in the mating of many species. In an attempt to
naturalize this behavior, he writes:
"Anyone who has watched a little girl tease a little boy, then run screaming in
mock terror to get him to chase and grab her, may suspect that the reasons
transcend culture" (Christensen 1990, 66).
Later, Christensen rejects the feminist analysis of rape as the use of sex to
gain power over women, suggesting that most rape stems from "refusal to believe
that sex is a powerful need for men" (Christensen 1990, 123). Rape happens when
men are blocked from access to sex. Christensen casts men as the long-suffering
group in gender politics and suggests that men have been told they are morally
inferior and made to feel hatred for themselves "for attributes that are a basic
part of their nature as males" (Christensen 1990, 151). With those assumptions,
it is not surprising that Christensen lays much of the blame for sexual problems
between men and women on women. The real problem, he argues is women's
prudishness and aversion to nudity and sexual openness.
The basic message from Christensen, then, is that (1) men naturally want more
sex than women; (2) men are taught to be ashamed of this immutable fact; and (3)
women have been trained to deny their sexuality. From those points, it is not
surprising that Christensen's solution is to retrain women to want more sex more
often, and one way to do that is to expose them to more pornography, not less.
In an odd way, Christensen and anti-pornography feminists make the same
argument: Pornography is part of a system that helps maintain compulsory
heterosexuality. The only difference is that Christensen thinks that a system
that enforces heterosexual norms is a good thing, marred only by its lack of
In a book that deals mainly with political strategies used by the feminist
anti-pornography movement, political scientist Donald Alexander Downs suggests
there is a basic conflict in people between reason and passion, mutuality and
animalism. This tension is part of being human, according to Downs, and we
should strive for "a healthy dialectic between equal respect and
objectification" (Downs 1989, 181). As support for his viewpoint, he compares
sex to hunting, observing parallels in "the pursuit of the "game" by both sexes
and the ambivalence of the participants toward the more visceral aspects of
animal embodiment" (Downs 1989, 183).[FN 2] Some of the "progressive" (the
quotation marks are Downs') critiques of pornography fail to understand this,
according to Downs, and so "recoil from the animalistic or biological aspects of
sexuality, seeking refuge in a political meaning designed to purify sexual
relations in the name of equality" (Downs 1989, 184). Downs suggests that one
explanation could be that:
"the gender separatism espoused by some radical feminists and lesbians and the
sexual denial advocated by some conservatives are nihilistic because they
represent a puristic recoiling from the inevitable travails of the heterosexual
encounter. The absence of humor in so many of the conservative and feminist
attacks on pornography is indicative of this suffocation of life, for laughter
is the emotional bridge between human animality and reason. Laughter heals the
pain of the cardinal split in human nature and is a sign of psychic health"
(Downs 1989, 181).
From Downs' assertions, one might conclude that (1) feminist and conservative
concerns about pornography should be conflated, despite the fundamentally
different moral and political assumptions on which they are based; (2)
heterosexuality is the sexuality that counts; and (3) the appropriate response
to a picture of a woman being sexually abused is a hearty chuckle.
Richard Randall, a sociologist, makes a similar, though slightly more
sophisticated case. He distinguishes between pornography in the world, which
comes and goes in different forms, and "the `pornographic within,' an imagistic
resolution of erotic impulses or wishes to violate sexual taboos, mores,
conventions" that is always present in humans (Randall 1989, 4). He suggests
that the internally pornographic will survive the suppression of pornography and
simply attach itself to new objects. People are, according to Randall:
"psychodynamically programmed by nurturance rather than birth to be pornographic
-- to have transgressive fantasies, to represent them and respond to their
representation, and to try, sometimes desperately, to suppress or otherwise
restrict them" (Randall 1989, 261).
Randall suggests that the attractiveness of pornography is precisely that it
violates our taboos and norms; because it is transgressive, it is compelling.
"Such license is bound to portray the subordination and degradation of women and
aggression against them" (Randall 1989, 115).
Randall apparently equates transgressive images with sexist images, allowing
this rationalization: (1) The urge toward transgression of sexual norms is an
unavoidable, thereby natural, human characteristic; (2) such transgressions
inevitably will portray the degradation of women; hence (3) the degradation of
women in pornography is natural.
How these observers of sexuality obtained access to knowledge of natural
human instincts and drives is unclear; they do not describe the method by which
they step outside culture to divine these essential traits. Instead, we might
wonder whether their theories are in some ways a product of their culture and
that those theories reflect the misogyny of that culture.
If the construction of sexuality is based not on essential, immutable
"truths" but is greatly affected by institutionalized gender inequality that has
been sexualized, our questions and concerns about pornography and sex will be
quite different than these writers'. However, as is clear in the work of
anti-censorship and pro-pornography feminists, accepting a "social construction"
point of view on sexuality does not necessarily lead to anti-pornography
Social Construction of Sexuality.
This paper takes the view that the meaning of human enterprises is primarily
socially constructed, not derived from an essential human nature or from
biology,[FN 3] and that there is no reason to exempt sexuality and its
representations from that claim. That does not mean sexuality, for example, is
completely independent of biology, only that the specific practices engaged in
and our understanding of them are socially constructed. As Nancy Hartsock
"[S]exuality must be understood as a series of cultural and social practices and
meanings that both structure and are in turn structured by social relations more
generally" (Hartsock 1985, 156).
It is a curious aspect of the feminist sexuality debate that many people on
both sides see sexuality as socially constructed but disagree on whether that is
a valid reason for questioning certain desires. In this section I will summarize
some arguments from pro-sex, pro-pornography or anti-censorship feminists.[FN
In her influential argument for "an accurate, humane, and genuinely
liberatory body of thought about sexuality," Gayle Rubin (1984, 275) rejects sex
essentialism and agrees that sex needs to be examined in its social, historical,
and political contexts:
"[S]exuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily
conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual psychology.
Sexuality is as much a human product as are diets, methods of transportation,
systems of etiquette, forms of labor, types of entertainment, processes of
production, and modes of oppression" (Rubin 1984, 277).
From there, Rubin both highlights and ignores issues of power that are so
important to understanding how sex is socially constructed. She rightly focuses
on the ways coercive use of state power can enforce sexual norms on people with
"deviant" sexualities, such as gays and lesbians. But she avoids grappling with
how power can work in certain sexual practices, as seen most clearly in her
defense of men who are sexually involved with boys. Rubin argues that the act of
questioning whether certain sexual practices, such as sadomasochism, are healthy
is oppressive, since supporters of traditional sexual practices aren't forced to
defend themselves. I agree that the majority avoids similar questioning, and one
of my goals in public presentations about pornography is to suggest that
"normal" heterosexual men should subject their practices to such scrutiny. But
that does not mean minority groups need engage in denial. The unwillingness to
confront questions of power in sadomasochism runs counter to Rubin's willingness
to see sexuality as a social construct, but it is a common position among
A number of others focus on the difficulty in changing sexual desires. Carole
Vance and Ann Barr Snitow argue that it is wrong to think that "if sexuality is
constructed at the cultural level, then it can be easily reconstructed or
deconstructed at the social or personal level" (Vance and Snitow 1984, 127).
Because we know little about the "mutability of sexuality," they argue, it is
uncertain how much individuals can change.
Linda Williams, a film scholar, takes a similar position in arguing that a
condemnation of a woman's rape fantasies is unwise:
"The trouble is that existing power relations between the sexes are inextricably
tied both to our fantasies and to the expressions and enactments of sexual
pleasures (though not necessarily in directly reflective ways)" Williams 1989,
Again, the implication of that position is that there is no way to break the
hold that existing power relations have on the construction of our sexuality.
Amber Hollibaugh also acknowledges that fantasy life is constructed in a
variety of ways and that sexual desire is channeled. "But what the
[anti-pornography] view takes from me is my right to genuinely feel, in my body,
what I want" (English, Hollibaugh and Rubin 1981, 44). This seems to suggest
that to challenge the ways in which power constructs sexuality -- maybe even to
ask the question at all -- is a violation of a person's rights.
To engage in discussion about social practices, however, is not an act of
taking something from someone. All the writers just quoted seem implicitly to
acknowledge that the socially constructed nature of sexuality suggests that we
should be able, at least in theory, to consciously shape our sex practices. But
they seem to believe that in the world such a task is either too difficult or
demands that individuals give up too much.
There obviously is good reason to be concerned with how one goes about
changing sexual desire and to what degree such change is possible, and I have no
easy, step-by-step plan. From my own ongoing experience in trying to shed
certain aspects of a traditional male sexuality (aggressiveness aimed at
conquest, tied to objectification, wrapped up in the sexualization of power, and
learned in part through pornography of all kinds), I have no illusions about the
difficulty of this project. It is fair to ask if it makes sense to argue against
the liberal position with so little firm ground on which to make a case for
reconstructing a sexuality not rooted in patriarchal power. For me there is no
other choice; recognizing how the patriarchal construction lives in my body
makes it impossible for me not to try. Although that is a personal judgment, a
broadened discussion and sharing of narratives is crucial to this project. My
own victories, small as they may be, have come as a result of such discussions.
For now, then, I will suggest that we should reject both the determinism of
the sexual essentialist position of Christensen, Downs, and Randall that
naturalizes violence and subordination, and the liberal view that sees practices
as socially constructed but resists any attempt to problematize certain desires.
While it is important to reject attempts to establish a single correct
egalitarian sexuality in its place, a social construction view can help us work
our way through the problem.
If we are to be epistemically responsible, we must examine our sex practices,
including our use of sexually explicit images, and be willing to try to
construct them differently if necessary. Before turning to a discussion of that
responsibility, I want to suggest an analogy to clarify some of these issues.
Food and Sex.
Sex liberals sometimes use an analogy to food: Because certain people like
the taste of certain foods and others do not, trying to make all people like the
same foods would be authoritarian. To attempt to mandate such uniformity in
sexual practices, the argument goes, would be equally oppressive. Rubin contends
that, just as hunger gives no clues as to the "complexities of cuisine," the
existence of sexual desire does not explain the variety of sex practices (Rubin
1984, 276). She observes that a person "is not considered immoral, is not sent
to prison, and is not expelled from her or his family, for enjoying spicy
cuisine" (Rubin 1984, 310).
Comparing food and sex can be helpful, but the analogy can be framed
differently from Rubin's. Food is like sex in that it has both biological
functions (sustaining cells, in the case of food; reproduction, in the case of
sex) and aesthetic/pleasure functions (tasting good; feeling good). That eating
and sexuality are natural is obvious; that a specific type of food or sexual
practice is natural is contestable. But that does not mean that no collective
standards or ethical judgments can be arrived at.
First, no one would doubt that what tastes good to any individual is in part
a product of socialization. We see that cross-culturally: Americans, as a rule,
do not like dog meat, while in other parts of the world it would be a welcome
dish. A large part, if not all, of the reason for those differing judgments is
cultural. We can also see it in our personal lives: As a child I despised
vegetables and beans, while today they are the bulk of my diet. The taste
sensation has not changed drastically; more likely, how I view those foods --
how I construct their meaning and am open to their taste -- has changed. The
analogy to food, then, suggests that, instead of preferences for sexual tastes
being a mysterious facet of an individual taken in isolation, such tastes are to
a large degree socially constructed. And, as with anything that is a product of
social forces, we can ask whether the forces that produced it were good -- that
is, based on such values as compassion, honesty, integrity, respect, and
equality. While this seems to answer the sex essentialists, the analogy also can
be used to challenge the position of Rubin.
Apart from our individual decisions about taste, it is possible to make more
generalizable judgments about the healthfulness of foods. We would not hesitate
to say that a person who dines three times a day on root beer, pork hocks,
deep-fried cheese sticks, and Twinkies has an unhealthful diet, no matter how
the individual characterizes such a meal. While it may be authoritarian to
outlaw Twinkies, there is nothing oppressive about labeling them unhealthful.
Indeed, it would be irresponsible to pretend that nutritionally vacant snack
cakes could be the centerpiece of a healthful diet simply because someone who
craves their taste would like that to be true. It is, of course, easier to be
secure of a consensus about the nutritional value of a Twinkie than about which
sex practices are healthful; the ingredients of a Twinkie are easy to describe,
and there is wide agreement on the effects of ingesting excessive quantities of
those ingredients. We don't know the absolute "truth" about Twinkies, nor can we
say exactly what effects they will have on any specific individual, but we have
come to some collective judgments about them. Likewise, there is no reason to
reject the possibility that an expanded conversation about sexuality could lead
us to some common conclusions. If so, then we may indeed come to see certain
"spicy" sex practices as dangerous or unhealthful.
Finally, decisions about the food we eat involve a variety of ethical and
political considerations. An obvious example is meat-eating. I like the taste of
bacon, yet I do not eat it because of certain judgments that led me to be a
vegetarian. My rejection of the domination, violence, and cruelty that is
involved in humans' use of animals for food affects my decision to refrain from
acting on my sense of taste. That does not mean I stop desiring the taste of
bacon; walking by a restaurant grill at breakfast time still provokes a desire
for bacon.[FN 5] Similarly, certain sexual practices strike erotic chords in me,
but I reject them because of the dominance and submission involved. That does
not mean I no longer see the erotic potential in them, any more than to reject
bacon means I no longer smell the taste-satisfaction potential in it. It does
mean I place more value on an ethical and political decision.
So far, it could be suggested this is simply an argument that individuals
need to make individual decisions about these issues: Just as we all decide to
eat or not eat meat, we all can decide which sexual practice to engage in and
whether or not to use sexually explicit material. But, again, the analogy to
food is instructive. Not so long ago vegetarianism was a marginal practice, one
so far out on the fringe that it was not taken seriously by most people. While
still a minority view, it has become less unusual in recent years. Our society
is beginning to see it as a subject worthy of discussion and moral
consideration. We are also paying more attention to other moral issues involving
food production and consumption. For example, many meat-eaters are expressing
moral concern about the conditions under which animals are raised for slaughter.
As we become more aware of our fractured relationship to the earth, we consider
questions about chemical farming and its effect on our food. Discussion of our
relationship to the physical world increasingly takes on moral and political
Wendell Berry points out that there is a "politics of food" that touches
everyone who eats and that is related to our freedom; to eat responsibly is to
live free, he suggests. He goes on to say that:
"if there is a food politics, there are also a food esthetics and a food ethics,
neither of which is dissociated from politics. Like industrial sex, industrial
eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing" (Berry 1990, 147).
Berry explicitly makes the connection I am striving for: How we construct and
engage in sex, just as how we grow and consume food, says something about our
relationships -- to each other in the case of sex, and to each other, animals,
and the earth in the case of food. Those relationships cannot be isolated from
politics and ethical thinking, any more than any other practice.
We need not view sexual desire as mysterious, elusive, untouchable,
unknowable, and totally individual, even though at times it appears to be all of
those things. The fact that at this point in history we seem to have a hazy
understanding of how we come to possess a certain sexuality does not mean that
is the best understanding we can hope for. And if such a position on human
sexuality deserves further discussion, then further discussion of the
representations of that sexuality also are important. If there is no reason to
think we cannot come to better understand our sexual practices in light of their
social construction, there should be no reason we cannot use that understanding
to make judgments about pornography. In fact, that kind of investigation is not
only possible but required if we are to be epistemically responsible.
In her discussion of "epistemic responsibility," Lorraine Code asserts that
"knowing well" is of considerable moral significance (Code 1987). On matters of
sexuality, knowing well requires attention not just to what our desires are but
to where those desires come from. To simply know, "This is what arouses me,"
without attempting to understand why it does is epistemically irresponsible.
Because sexuality is important to us, it is easy to understand why people
might reject attempts to examine in detail the source of sexual pleasure. That
is true not only of those who have what society might label an "outlaw"
sexuality such as sadomasochism, but also of people whose "normal" sexuality is
rooted in patriarchy's concept of eroticized power. We tend to want to hold on
to what we know will work for us, and digging too deeply can threaten the ways
in which we know how to feel pleasure. Code reminds us that it can be easier "to
believe that a favorite theory is true and to suppress nagging doubts than to
pursue the implications of those doubts and risk having to modify the theory"
(Code 1987, 59).[FN 6] But being epistemically responsible requires that we
investigate those nagging doubts.
That effort is not just an individual task; we have a responsibility to
create collectively the tools for this investigation. As Code suggests:
"Thinking individuals have a responsibility to monitor and watch over shifts in,
changes in, and efforts to preserve good intellectual practice. ... In
principle, everyone is responsible, to the extent of his or her ability, for the
quality of cognitive practice in a community" (Code 1987, 245).
Code suggests that when epistemology is construed as a quest for
understanding, the appropriate question becomes not "What can I know?" but "What
sort(s) of discourse does the situation really call for?" (Code 1987, 165). It
is in conversation and the sharing of richly detailed narratives that answers,
even though they are likely to be tentative, can be found. Discourse about sex
and pornography that stops with simple descriptions of what arouses a person is
not enough. For me to say, "this is my sex and I have a right to it" is to stop
before I get to the more important questions about why it is my sex and how it
connects to the rest of my life and to the world. It is often suggested that
radical feminist anti-pornography activists want to police the sexual
imagination and censor sexual fantasies. But I think the radical approach simply
asks that we interrogate those fantasies and ask questions about their source.
When we do not do that, we are at risk of being controlled by fantasies rooted
in the eroticization of domination and subordination, or those rooted in
specific histories of abuse.
For example, a man who had been sexually abused as a child by his father told
me that as a young adult he would go to pornographic bookstores and look for
pornography that reproduced that abuse. He would scan the magazine covers,
looking for the one that would "click" with his memories. He told me that after
extensive therapy and self-reflection he no longer used pornography. But for the
period that he was a consumer of those images, was pornography healthy sexual
expression for him? Does the fact that those images produced arousal in him mean
that he should not have questioned the urges that drove him to those images? Or,
was his use of pornography at the very least problematic. The underlying
question here can be taken from Jean Grimshaw, who asks if there might not be
"desires (or intentions) which are not 'autonomous,' which do not originate from
'within' the self, which are not authentic, not really 'one's own'"? (Grimshaw
No one grows up in American culture free from sexism. Because that sexism is
so often made real in sexual terms, part of our sexuality is likely to be
connected to it. This suggests that we should examine our sex practices,
fantasies, and pornography for ways in which sexism and misogyny may be
implicated in them. That is not to suggest that there exists in each person a
true, unified self waiting to be tapped, or a pure, natural sexuality waiting to
be expressed. The sexuality that the man mentioned above settled into after
rejecting his pornographic one also was a construction, influenced by a variety
of social factors. But instead of accepting his desires without question simply
because they are his desires, he asked questions and discussed them with others.
There is no guarantee that he, nor anyone, will find simple and neat answers; as
Grimshaw says, the self can be too complicated for that:
"The self is always a more or less precarious and conflictual construction out
of, and compromise between, conflicting and not always conscious desires and
experiences, which are born out of the ambivalences and contradictions in human
experience and relationships with others" (Grimshaw 1988, 103-104).
The difficulty in sorting through and understanding those ambivalences and
contradictions, however, is not a reason to abandon the task. There may be no
way of ultimately resolving disputes over sexuality and pornography to
everyone's satisfaction. But, as Code suggests, this does not require us to
declare there are no better or worse ways:
"Actions can be judged laudable, or less than perfect, in a number of specific
respects even without spelling out the characteristics of perfection in
definitive detail; such judgment can be just as valid for cognitive actions as
for moral actions, for skills, or for other more purely practical forms of
activity that admit of qualitative degree" (Code 1987, 246-247).
In the sex and pornography debate, we need to accept that our discussions
will not spell out the perfect position. What is crucial, then, is that we not
cut off the discussion with a definitional dodge which suggests that since there
is no universal agreement, there can be no judgment.
As troubling and divisive as these investigations can be in communities
committed to feminism and liberatory politics, they can be dangerous in
mainstream and reactionary political circles, where people may want to ignore or
undermine a feminist analysis. My goal, and the goal of the feminists whose work
informs my analysis, is the exploration and celebration of diversity, but the
goal of those to the right is often the suppression of diversity. It is
disingenuous and diversionary to dismiss the radical feminist critique solely on
the basis that it "is in bed with the right," but those political realities are
important to consider. The kind of open discussion that is crucial to expanding
our understanding may be safe in some contexts but not in others.
My investigations into sexuality and pornography within my circles of friends
and colleagues -- some of whom agree with me and some of whom do not -- have led
me to endorse a radical feminist approach to sexuality and to take an
anti-pornography position. I do not expect that everyone else will reach the
same conclusions, although I believe that people who take questions of gender
politics seriously will at least be able to understand the path that led me to
1. A note about definitions: The terms "sex liberal" and "sex libertarian" are
used interchangeably at times by some, although finer distinctions can be made.
Sheila Jeffreys, for example, offers these definitions: "Sexual liberals are
those who subscribe to the 1960s agenda of sexual tolerance, to the idea that
sex is necessarily good and positive, and that censorship is a bad thing. Sexual
libertarians have a more modern agenda and actively advocate the 'outer fringes'
of sexuality, such as sadomasochism, with the belief that 'sexual minorities'
are in the forefront of creating the sexual revolution" (Jeffreys 1990b, 15). I
will use the term "sex liberal" to include both of Jeffreys' categories: those
who endorse and engage in sexual practices such as sadomasochism and those who
may not be practitioners but believe others should not judge such activities as
politically problematical. The common political and moral position both hold
that is of concern to me is opposition to most regulation of sexually explicit
2. In a culture in which men do literally hunt down women and rape them, I find
it mind-boggling that a scholar could use such a metaphor with a wink and a
3. The standard footnote here begins with Berger and Luckmann (1966) and takes
different paths depending on the discipline, often moving into postmodern
terrain. This paper is influenced by certain kinds of work in cultural studies,
typified by Hall (1982).
4. The choice of labels reveals much about one's opinion on this question. This
discussion will only briefly touch on the specifics of the often divisive
disagreements within feminism, such as the split over lesbian sadomasochism.
This is partly because, as a man, I lack standing to be putting forth opinions
about those practices. Also, I am more interested in this paper in the
underlying ethical and epistemological assumptions than in debates over specific
5. I realize that my experience is not universal, and maybe not typical, for
vegetarians, many of whom find the sight and smell of meat repulsive. For many,
the moral choice can condition new physical responses.
6. This is not to say that every individual in every situation need engage in
discussions about these matters. People whose sexuality is under attack by the
established social structure -- lesbians, gay men and, in some sense, many
heterosexual women -- might feel that social conditions make it unsafe to engage
in such open discussion. For example, a lesbian high school teacher in a small
town likely cannot openly be part of a discussion about sexual practices in that
community. I also do not dismiss casually the reluctance of sexual minorities to
support possibly restrictive laws, such as an anti-pornography ordinance. Fears
that such a law may turn repressive for, say, lesbians are well-founded. Still,
the idea of epistemic responsibility does suggest we should make whatever
efforts are possible to pursue knowledge about sexuality and its social
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Berry, Wendell. (1990). What are people for? San Francisco: North Point Press.
Christensen, F.M. (1990). Pornography: the other side. New York: Praeger.
Code, Lorraine. (1987). Epistemic responsibility. Hanover, NH: University Press
of New England.
Cole, Susan. (1989). Pornography and the sex crisis. Toronto: Amanita.
Downs, Donald Alexander. (1989). The new politics of pornography. Chicago:
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