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The Danger of Rea’s Definition of Pornography

July 2, 2012

The Danger of Rea’s Definition of Pornography

By: Mike Stayton

Philosophy 1330: Topics in Political Philosophy – Liberalism

Professor Michael Kessler

April 23, 2012


Ask anyone to give a definition of pornography and each will provide a different answer. Any of these received answers will be subjective, relying heavily on the speaker’s individual ideas, beliefs, and personal experiences. How then can we define a word that has no agreed upon characteristics? This paper will look at some of the better attempts to define the term and make an attempt to determine if pornography even objectively exists given its very high degree of subjectivity. I will begin by reviewing the current definitions and their weaknesses as tackled by Michael C. Rea in his article “What Is Pornography”. Second, I will look at Rea’s attempt to resolve these differing accounts with his own definition. Third, I will show why it too fails at pinpointing a single definition of pornography and the dangers we face if we accept it.

Understanding the problems resulting from the plethora of definitions for pornography, Michael C. Rea attempts to bring clarity to the term in his article “What Is Pornography”. His goal is to provide a “real definition”[1] for common usage in the moral debate. Rea begins by illustrating the intuitive differences between what is currently considered pornography from what is not. Though the depictions of the nude female body as those seen in Playboy or Penthouse seem to be the first idea that comes to mind when thinking of pornography, there are also examples that depict male nudes such as Playgirl. Some pornography is sexual others non-sexual. Hard core and soft core, violent and non-violent, humiliating or non-humiliating, there are examples of all. Context is also of great importance. Rea gives a particularly clear example of a photograph of Marilyn Monroe produced in the 1940’s for a sexually explicit calendar. The photo was reproduced in Life magazine in a 1996 issue where it was considered non-pornographic. This is an example of a piece that was originally considered obscene but used 50 years later in a different context. Examples of non-pornography used as pornography are also prevalent, e.g. a teenage boy’s use of nudes in National Geographic for the purpose of sexual gratification. In another instance a woman who takes a sexually explicit photo of herself for the private pleasure of her husband would not typically be said to be a producer of pornography even if the photo’s purpose was primarily for the arousal of her husband. With examples such as these, Rea successfully illustrates the complicated nature of intuitively separating pornography from non-pornography.[2] From here Rea continues with two thought experiments and six separate definitions of pornography. Each of these will have to be covered by Rea’s definition for the definition to be successful. I will begin with the two thought experiments then continue to the definitions.


The first thought experiment utilized by Rea is that of the Profit Machine, a scenario in which a wealthy computer expert designs a system to gather all applicable information regarding a population and create the perfect product for the generation of maximum profits. The computer collects information and preferences from a small pacific island and determines that pornography would be the most profitable product to sell on the island. The island natives have never heard of or seen pornography but they use the product as a means to sexual gratification. Though the computer expert has no idea what his computer is producing to bring in profits, he has now involuntarily involved himself in the production and distribution of pornographic material.


Rea’s second experiment is the Island of the Shoe-Fetishists. This example involves yet another island where visiting anthropologists discover that the natives are highly aroused by photos of ordinary shoes. They use these shoe photos for sexual arousal and gratification. Following the same parameters from the Profit Machine, we should all agree that though the shoe catalogue contains no sexually explicit material it would be considered fetish pornography for this island audience due to the catalogue’s arousing nature. Because of this, items such as the shoe catalogue must be considered in Rea’s final definition.

These two thought experiments are used to show that though we can intuitively describe pornography as sexually explicit there are counter-examples showing that the business of pornography can be entered into unknowingly and need not be overtly sexual in nature. Rea’s point is to illustrate that any definition of pornography will have to “accommodate our intuitions about the familiar examples, but also accommodate the judgments…given about the scenarios just described.” [3]

Following the additional complexity added by the thought experiments, Rea identifies and refutes six ineffective definitions of pornography including Sex-for-Profit, Bad Art, As/As-Only/Only-As, Obscenity, Oppression, and Intention/Effect. For the purposes of restraining the length of this paper I will give quick definitions of the first three and more in-depth definitions of the last three as they are the most widely held definitions.


The sex-for-profit definition takes the idea that pornography sells its sexually explicit nature for profit. Rea counters that this definition is too broad and would include the sale of sexually explicit items such as lingerie, condoms, and sex toys as pornography. Under this definition, free sexually explicit material found on the Internet would be considered non-pornographic, as its purpose is not for direct profit.


Pornography as bad art is described as sexually explicit art with little to no artistic value. Rea’s most convincing counter-example is that phone sex, though widely considered as pornographic, could not be considered art at all.


As/As-Only/Only-As definitions consider any work that uses humans as, as-only, or only-as sexual objects. Because shoes are obviously not humans no human subject would be involved in the Shoe-Fetishist example and the catalogue could not be considered pornography. In addition to this, many pornographic magazines and websites give personal information about the models being used to indicate that they are real people with real feelings and interests.


Obscenity is the violation of community standards concerning offensive sexually explicit behavior or material. Loudly cursing in a church would be offensive to many but it would not typically be considered obscene in the pornographic sense. Attempts at a definition for obscene usually fall under a normative or a descriptive definition. A normative definition is one that tells us what kind of sexually explicit behavior should offend us. If I am not offended by what I would consider an artistic photo of a nude woman, I must ask myself if this is something I should be offended by or am I one who is more accepting of indecent material. We may also suppose, as regularly happens, that the community opinions of offensive material changes over time. In twenty years, if a 1970’s pornographic film is more dull than offensive could it be said that society has been desensitized or that the film is no longer pornographic? A definition assuming what the character of the average person should be offended by at any given time is useless due to its uninformative nature. Compared to the normative definition the overly informative nature of the descriptive obscenity definition allows a prevalence of counterexamples. This definition states that pornography is what is offensive to a decent person. To find out what is offensive we would need to poll society to determine the most decent of them and ask what those individuals thought was offensive. This solution, however, would be a case of double subjectivity. The first survey of the society would likely be biased for certain favored individuals and the poll of those persons would be nothing but a survey of the opinions of socially agreed upon decent people. Even if these decent citizens were tolerant of the sexually explicit materials, Rea holds that pornography would still exist. [4]


Sexually oppressive definitions hold that pornography subordinates the subject of the photograph and causes that individual or their group general harm. This harm, according to MacKinnon[5], contributes to the inequality that women, as a group, suffer from in society and makes the struggle against those difficulties all the more tiresome. Pornography thus creates a “social reality” that sets unreal expectations for its users while subordinating women.[6] This subordination limits women’s credibility in speaking of their own experiences. As a silencing force, MacKinnon names pornography as a direct means of sexual discrimination. Let us take a photograph of a nude woman in Playboy. The woman in the photograph is in a posture of sexual display but it will only count as pornography if the photograph subordinates the subject in the eyes of its viewers. Rea counters that it is the consumer of pornography that subordinates women and not the controversial photograph. Magazines such as Playboy make no objectifying statements about women any more than does the film Shame assert that Michael Fassbender is a sex addict off-screen. Both examples are nothing more than depictions of individuals of whom we know nothing of their personal sexual nature. Nor does either material make assertions of the sexual nature of men or women in general. No material, pornography included, has the power to objectify or oppress any human being. Only humans can oppress other humans and only humans can allow themselves to be oppressed.


The last of the definitions to be discussed is the Intention/Effect definition. Rea divides this definition of pornography into three subclasses being (1) those materials whose intent is to arouse (even if they fail to arouse), (2) those that are successful at arousing (with or without intent), and (3) those whose purpose is to arouse and are successful. Examples can be given for each of the above instances. The first involves a husband who sends a nude photograph of himself to his wife. Though his intentions are sexual his wife is neither amused nor turned on. The second example could be of a more innocent nature. A woman taking off her clothes in her home does not intend to arouse anyone but does so inadvertently. She is not aware that those outside can see in her open blinds and is merely changing into something more comfortable before heading to the gym. Her changing does, however, excite a man driving past her house who happens to catch a glance. The third is simply a reversal of the first. If a wife sends her husband a nude photograph of herself, it is very likely that he will be excited by the image. The wife sent the photo with both the intention and success of arousal. According to Rea no one could want these private photos shared between loving adults in an intimate relationship to count as pornography. These couples would risk being labeled as pornographers if caught, which seems wrong. This seems intuitive but we must remember that the definition must also fit in with Rea’s definition.


From his arguments against these common definitions, Rea develops his own definition that he believes will cover the ideas where the others failed. The definition is divided into two parts Part 1 describing, “what it is for something to be used or treated as pornography and Part 2 as what it is for something to be pornography:

“Part 1: x is used (or treated) as pornography by a person S = DF (i) x is a token of some sort of communicative material (picture, paragraph, phone call, performance, etc.), (ii) S desires to be sexually aroused or gratified by the communicative content of x, (iii) if S believes that the communicative of x is intended to foster intimacy between S and the subject(s) of x, that belief is not among the reasons for attending to x’s content, and (iv) if S’s desire to be sexually aroused or gratified by the communicative content of x were no longer among S’s reasons for attending to that content, S would have at most a weak desire to attend to x’s content.

Part 2: x is pornography = DF it is reasonable to believe that x will be used (or treated) as pornography by most of the audience for which it was produced.”[7]

Part 1 describes what can be used or treated as pornography. I will briefly describe each number. The first (i) describes pornography as tokens allowing what could be considered pornography to change over time and in different contexts, reference the example of the photo of Marilyn Monroe mentioned above. The second (ii) attaches sexual feelings to the material as a reason to why one would want to use it. Three (iii) adds a “no intimacy requirement” whereby intimacy is blocked as a reason for using it. This would allow for a couple that send nude photos to each other to be safe from being labeled as pornographers. Four (iv) makes a distinction between strong desire to be aroused and other reasons for pursuing the material, effectively drawing a distinction between pornography and erotica. Part 1 is covertly Rea’s descriptive definition of obscenity which points at the audiences intended use as what is offensive.

Along with the necessity of meeting the above requirements, this teleological interpretation identifies the final function, the intentional distribution of by the producer of a material for use or treatment as pornography, as what it is to be pornography. Rea believes this tackles the idea that pornography is not an intrinsic property of any given object and allows any item that meets all the criteria of Part 1, shoe catalogue included, to be open for consideration under Part 2 as pornography. What it is to be pornography is to be intended by the distributor to be used as or treated as pornography by the target audience. This means that though the lingerie section of the JC Penny catalogue would not be considered pornography under Rea’s definition because the catalogue producer’s target audience are consumers shopping for merchandise. This addition of distributor intent to the audience’s intent, in essence makes Rea’s definition a class of obscenity with intent.


In Part 2, the phrase “reasonable to believe that x will be used (or treated) as pornography by most of the audience for which it was produced” is an expression that requires the assumption of an evaluator with an ability to predict the intent of an audience. The flow of sexual material from traditional print to the Internet in this increasingly globalized society adds to the difficulty of pointing to a particular target audience and being able to make a prediction about the materials usage. Any international business would have to be constantly informed of international regulations regarding what another society might call obscene or pornographic. As an example, the Office of the Religious Affairs Minister in Indonesia is pushing to ban miniskirts (any skirt falling above the knee) as pornographic in an effort to prevent sexual crimes against women.[8] China has cracked down on pornographic and non-pornographic Internet sites and mobile apps calling them a “transnational flow of illegal information.”[9] As can be seen, reasonable beliefs concerning the reactions of any audience would need to be well informed regarding any current cultural and social trends where the product and its advertisements may reach.

Rea may counter that his intent is not to develop an internationally recognized definition or even a concrete philosophical definition but a flexible framework that meets American standards. Even a local standards definition becomes unworkably vague if we consider the cultural and religious diversity contained within the United States.[10] As stated at the beginning of the paper, every individual has at least a slightly different definition of pornography and any single definition will undercut the principles held by some group. A belief that one of these individuals or group knows what others will do given a certain material is to believe oneself infallible in the assumption of one’s moral authority. Rea has already made evident by the use of the Shoe-Fetishist example that different people and/or cultures may use any given item for widely different purposes Pornography will be that much harder to categorize within and beyond our borders.

Additionally, Rea states prior to his explanation of Part 1 that based on the refutations of the previous definitions (those above) he could reject the idea that “’pornography’ refers to a genuine ontological kind.”[11] But he must continue with his definition because “most people’s intuitions seem to have it, there really is such a property.”[12] An appeal to the intuitions of the majority is guilty of the fallacy of appeal to belief. This fallacy asserts that the beliefs of a majority cannot serve as evidence of a claim’s truth. When one begins to believe in the collective truth of the majority the danger arises of individuals seeing their own personal interests as the interests of the community as a whole. This sort of belief could lead to a tyranny of the majority over the liberties of minority individuals to express themselves as they see fit. This oppression of the moral paternalist, looking out for the perceived good of his fellow man, is no less detrimental than that of any other tyrant.

The intentions of moral paternalists are always well meaning, but if we accept Rea’s definition we must also accept the potential consequences. As John Stewart Mill said of the tyranny of the majority, “precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.”[13] The reason is that this power is disseminated throughout the population and is expressed not only in government institutions but in our everyday social lives. For this reason, “if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”[14] Silencing the opinion of mankind is a crime against itself and an assumption of moral infallibility. Though pornography is not typically considered an opinion, it is a form of expression. Government authority should have no interest in restricting peaceful form of expression, even if deemed morally offensive by certain groups. Those who find pornography offensive will understandably and acceptably work to protect children from its exposure, but as adults we do not elect our representatives to legislate moral paternalism of the sort Rea, and most other definitions, seem to suggest upon willing adults. If any danger exists in accepting a definition of such highly subjective issues as pornography, it would be the danger of silencing valuable opinions (even low-value) from the deliberative debate.



Apple porn apps trigger Chinese users’ anger . 03 30, 2012. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

Aritonang, Margareth S. ‘Miniskirts = porn’: Religious Affairs Minister . March 28, 2012. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

Central Intelligence Agency. United States. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

MacKinnon, Catherine A. “Francis Biddle’s Sister: Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech.” In Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, by Catherine A. MacKinnon. Harvard University Press, 1984.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 118-145.



[1] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 119.

[2] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 118-145.

[3] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 122.

[4] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 129.

[5] MacKinnon, Catherine A. “Francis Biddle’s Sister: Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech.” In Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, by Catherine A. MacKinnon. Harvard University Press, 1984, 174.

[6] Ibid., 174.


[7] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 120.

[8] Aritonang, Margareth S. ‘Miniskirts = porn’: Religious Affairs Minister . March 28, 2012. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

[9] Apple porn apps trigger Chinese users’ anger . 03 30, 2012. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

[10] Central Intelligence Agency. United States. (accessed 04 20, 2012).

[11] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 135.

[12] Rea, Michael C. “What Is Pornography.” Nous (Blackwell Publishers Inc.) 35, no. 1 (2001): 140.

[13] Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 8.

[14] Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 21.

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