Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors  

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"If Playboy is violence, what word do you use for rape or wife-beating? Metaphor can dramatise, but it can also trivialise."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors"[1] (1999) is a text by Robin Turner[2] on the metaphorology of pornography.

On the difference between erotica and pornography Turner notes:

"The difference between [erotica and pornography], apart from the moral/aesthetic judgement, largely rests on the intention of the person doing the "making". It is assumed that the pornographer produces pornography with the sole intention of causing people to feel sexually aroused, usually for financial gain. Erotica, however, may also have aesthetic or expressive purposes; there is less sense of the producer manipulating the feelings of the consumer, and less implication of purely financial motives. There is also a difference as regards the medium; the word "pornography" is nearly always applied to written texts, film and, primarily, photographs. One may say "an erotic statue", but probably not "a pornographic statue"."


Full text[3]

One application of cognitive linguistics that is receiving increasing attention is the use of metaphor to analyse political debate, the best-known examples being George Lakoff's (1996) Moral Politics and his (1991) essay analysing Gulf War rhetoric (which also led to an analysis of the Senate's Gulf War debate by Voss et al. (1992) and Tim Rohrer's (1995) analysis, "The Metaphorical Logic of (Political) Rape"). Similar methods have been applied to political speeches, such as those of Rush Limbaugh (Rohrer, 1996). Other writers have used metaphor to analyse law (Winter, 1989; Hibbits, 1994) and economics (Charteris-Black, 1998). There has, however, been comparitively less attention paid to the other main area of cognitive linguistics, categorisation. This is perhaps surprising, given that categorisation plays such a crucial role in political debate. Political labelling is, of course, a common ad hominem tactic; for example one may brand opponents as "Communists", "reactionaries" or whatever, while whether the mother-tongue of a particular group is categorised as a "language" or a "dialect" has important implications for nationalism. Because of the complex and fuzzy nature of many folk categories in political debate (and their uneasy relationship with the expert categories of political science), equivocation is common. Attention to both categorisation and metaphor may considerably clarify the issues at stake in any political argument.

One argument, or rather series of arguments, which is considerable need of such clarification, concerns pornography. Since arguing about pornography often involves arguing about sexuality, there is a fertile store of metaphors concerning sexuality waiting to be transferred - usually unconsciously - into the pornography debate. Both opponents, defenders and producers of pornography use metaphorical reasoning, and often, indeed, use the same metaphors. Moreover, the category itself is subject to much equivocation, whether deliberate or accidental. For these reasons, debates about pornography are particularly suitable for linguistic analysis.

1. Categorising Pornography

Most texts on pornography start with a definition of the word, but unfortunately pornography is a hard thing to define. It is particularly common, as Andrea Dworkin (1981) does, to provide a limited and very specific definition of pornography, then widen the discussion to include almost any commercially produced erotic material. Worse still, many writers (again including Dworkin, and Steinem (1991:53)) argue that pornography means "writing about vile whores", from the Greek pornos, a fairly common case of confusing etymology with meaning; what "pornography" may have meant to the ancient Greeks is of little relevance today.

PORNOGRAPHY is in fact a complex and fuzzy category, involving prototype effects and implicit value judgements. Adopting the type of extended definition used by Anna Wierzbicka (1992), we might propose the following:

  • It is words or pictures;
  • Someone makes it to make people feel something;
  • This something is like wanting sex;
  • Because of this, people pay money for it;
  • [I think this is bad].

The third element is somewhat confusing; "sexual arousal" might seem more specific, but this term, like its "folk" equivalents such as "feeling horny", is also, I believe, a cultural construct, and probably less specific than it appears. The final point, "I think this is bad", does not always apply, but in general, the words "pornography" and "pornographic" have negative connotations, whether these are moral or aesthetic. If a more positive term is wanted, the words "erotica" or "erotic" are usually used instead. EROTICA can be defined in the same way as follows:

  • It is something people make;
  • It can make people feel something;
  • This something is like wanting to have sex;
  • It can also make people feel other things;
  • [I think this is good].

The difference between the two terms, apart from the moral/aesthetic judgement, largely rests on the intention of the person doing the "making". It is assumed that the pornographer produces pornography with the sole intention of causing people to feel sexually aroused, usually for financial gain. Erotica, however, may also have aesthetic or expressive purposes; there is less sense of the producer manipulating the feelings of the consumer, and less implication of purely financial motives. There is also a difference as regards the medium; the word "pornography" is nearly always applied to written texts, film and, primarily, photographs. One may say "an erotic statue", but probably not "a pornographic statue".

Wierzbicka's method of defining concepts works well in explaining the speaker's intention in using a particular term; one can see them as answers to the question "What exactly do you mean by ....?" However, they leave unaddressed the question of what may be seen as good or poor examples of the category in question (Lehrer, 1990:368). Obviously some idea of what constitutes prototypical pornography is called for, but PORNOGRAPHY is more complex than such celebrated prototype categories as BIRD. There is substantial agreement among subjects as to what constitute good and bad examples of a bird, and the boundary is not particularly fuzzy; even very poor examples, such as an ostritch, are still definitely birds (Wierzbicka, 1990:350). However, with the category PORNOGRAPHY things are more complicated. Not only will one item be seen as more or less pornographic than another, but different people will grade items differently, or disagree as to whether an item is a category member at all, saying things like "Well, Playboy isn't really pornography."

Playboy is an interesting case, in that while it is on the fuzzy boundary of the PORNOGRAPHY category, it is a central member of the category SOFT PORNOGRAPHY; in fact we might go as far as to say this magazine has defined the category. Prototypical soft pornography is basically what one would expect to see in a Playboy centrefold: the subject is a beautiful young (but not too young) woman, in a position which is implicitly (but not overly) sexually inviting, and aesthetic considerations are important, putting this type inside the EROTICA category as well - at least according to some. HARD PORNOGRAPHY, on the other hand, is more central to the PORNOGRAPHY category, involving explicit sexual activity and, usually, a blatant disregard of aesthetic standards. Hard pornography tends to violate (culture-specific) moral standards as well; often, as we shall see later, this is a large part of its appeal, which is frequently exploited by its producers. However, since not all people have identical moral standards, what offends one person may be lauded by another; hard pornography is generally seen as somehow more offensive than softcore, but sometimes the argument is reversed.

It is not surprising then, that debates over such a complex and fuzzy category should be plagued by terminological confusion and outright equivocation, as we saw in the Dworkin example. Attitudes to pornography are also influenced by our attitudes to sexuality, and both are influenced heavily by metaphor. I shall therefore look first at some of the metaphors for describing sexuality proposed by Lakoff and Johnson (plus a few of my own), before examining the role of metaphor in structuring our experience of, and attitudes towards, pornography.

2. Attitudes to Sexuality

In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987), Lakoff examines a number of metaphors which are used in the English-speaking world to structure experience of sexuality. One such metaphor is LUST IS HUNGER; THE OBJECT OF LUST IS FOOD. This gives rise to statements like "He's sex-starved," or "She had him drooling," (Lakoff, 1987:409) and such endearments and slang terms as honey, cheesecake, beefcake, hunk and buns. These are taken from American English, but similar examples exist in other languages; for example, Turkish describes attractive women as fIstIk gibi ("nut-like"), fIndIk ("hazelnut") or balIk eti ("fish-meat" - pleasantly plump) - the diet is different but the metaphor is the same.

Related to this is A LUSTFUL PERSON IS AN ANIMAL. This is coherent with the previous metaphor, since we see animals as preoccupied with both food and sex. Examples of this metaphor are "Get away from me, you brute!", "Wanna nuzzle up close?" and "Stop pawing me!", as well as the usual range of animal terms: bitch, tigress, wolf, stud and so on (1987:410). Because lust makes us animal and animals are not rational, we imagine that lust makes us lose our reason, giving the metaphor LUST IS INSANITY ("I'm crazy about her", "I'm madly in love with him" etc. (1987:410)).

A rather different, but still not incompatible, way of looking at lust is LUST IS WAR: "He fled from her advances", "She surrendered to him" etc. (1987:411). This is familiar ground, since like insanity, the metaphor LOVE IS WAR is the stuff of poetry and romantic fiction, as well as everyday speech. LUST IS WAR shares the violent and irrational associations of A LUSTFUL PERSON IS AN ANIMAL and LUST IS INSANITY, but adds the element of strategy and, most importantly, a win/lose dimension (which it shares with another metaphor, LUST IS A GAME).

Possibly the most basic metaphor, however, is SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE; LUST IS THE REACTION TO THAT FORCE. Thus we talk about a person's electricity or magnetism, of attraction or being drawn to someone, and so on. On its own this is a deeply buried metaphor, but in combination with others, as we shall see, its effects can be devastating (another word used metaphorically for sexual attraction).

Having looked briefly at Lakoff's metaphors, I would like to propose a simple and obvious one which is nevertheless crucial to the discourse of the pornography debate: SEX IS DIRTY. This is so common that it is seen as a value-judgement or a psychological problem rather than a metaphor, which is what it actually is. Its probable origin lies in the proximity of the genitals to the anus and urethra, and utilises a more basic metonymy, CLOSENESS IS SIMILARITY (which is also the basis of the "guilt by association" argument). The sexual act itself can also be a pretty messy affair. Thus we talk about "dirty jokes" and "dirty old men", or say that someone has a filthy mind. This is closely related to the metaphor MORALITY IS CLEAN; IMMORALITY IS DIRTY, which gives us statements such as "Don't sweep it under the carpet" and "Can you dig up any dirt on the other candidate? No, he's squeaky-clean." Putting the two together, by metaphorical reasoning, we get the value judgement, or propositional model, Sex is immoral.

These metaphors are not culturally neutral (although they do exist across a wide range of cultures). They both reflect and shape Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards sexuality for better or worse (usually worse, as Lakoff points out). Because of this, when a new debate related to sexuality, such as the pornography debate, occurs, it will automatically draw its metaphors from the existing stock.

3. Pornographic metaphors - the traditional approach

Many metaphors regarding pornography rest on the metonymic principle OBJECT DEPICTED FOR DEPICTION (e.g. "I like Monet's water lilies" meaning "I like the paintings of water lilies by Monet"). By this principle, PORNOGRAPHY IS SEX, which enables the whole range of sexual metaphors to be transferred to pornography. SEX IS DIRTY thus gives us PORNOGRAPHY IS DIRTY, so that pornography is described as filth, smut or dirty books/pictures/magazines. This is an independent metaphor - many people who do not employ the SEX IS DIRTY metaphor will still use PORNOGRAPHY IS DIRTY. And of course, since IMMORALITY IS DIRTY, pornography is immoral. This does not mean that anyone who talks about "dirty books" automatically believes that pornography is immoral, but the burden of proof has shifted; in cultures which lack this metaphor it may well be up to those who disapprove of graphic representations of sexuality to prove it immoral, rather than vice versa. Incidentally, another common metaphor is MONEY IS DIRTY (dirty money, slush fund, filthy lucre) so critics of pornography often make reference to its being "a multi-billion dollar industry" (industry also being literally dirty a lot of the time). All this in fact shows is that a lot of people buy pornography. A lot of people also buy science fiction novels, but nobody criticises SF for being a multi-billion dollar industry. The MONEY IS DIRTY metaphor seems only to come into play when there is already an atmosphere of moral condemnation; one might conceivably talk of Hugh Hefner's "filthy lucre", but not Isaac Asimov's.

Pornography, as we have observed, is usually classified into "hardcore" and "softcore". This utilises a HARD-SOFT image-schema. Hardness is generally associated with activity and forcefulness, probably because muscles in action become hard, and hard objects can penetrate soft objects. In the case of "hard porn", the particularly apposite nature of this image-schema needs no comment. From this HARD IS ACTIVE, we can derive ACTIVE IS MORE (since activity produces more results than inactivity) therefore HARDER PORNOGRAPHY IS MORE PORNOGRAPHIC. This combines with MORE IS BETTER (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980:22) to give us HARDER PORNOGRAPHY IS BETTER PORNOGRAPHY (at least for those who enjoy pornography). Combine this with PORNOGRAPHY IS DIRTY and we have DIRTIER PORNOGRAPHY IS BETTER PORNOGRAPHY, and since IMMORALITY IS DIRTY, we have MORE IMMORAL PORNOGRAPHY IS BETTER PORNOGRAPHY (again from the point of view of the porn enthusiast).

This can be seen in the way pornography is marketed. While "Soft" porn is sometimes marketed as naughty, "hard" porn is nasty, immoral, illegal, sinful or even sick (though interestingly not sexist, which is the main criticism levelled at pornography these days). This is perverse in the original sense of the word; that is, doing something not in spite of its being immoral, but because it is immoral (or at least thought to be). It is well known that with both real sex and pornography, a large amount of the excitement can come from its taboo nature. Conservative opponents of pornography may point to this as evidence that pornography corrupts morals, but they should remember that it was they who created the metaphors in the first place. If you tell someone that something they enjoy is bad, it is not surprising if they then decide that something which is worse must be more enjoyable.

4. Feminist metaphors

Some feminist writing on pornography is explicitly metaphorical; Susan Griffin's (1981) Pornography and Silence is an extreme case. While I may not always agree with their interpretation of the metaphors involved, this approach is certainly sounder than feminist discourse which simply adopts the prevailing metaphors unthinkingly. As mentioned before, one of the most basic metaphors for sexuality is SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE. By metonymy, we get PORNOGRAPHY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE. This, along with other metaphors, predisposes feminists to see pornography as a threat which must be opposed.

By adopting the metaphors SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE, LUST IS HUNGER;THE OBJECT OF LUST IS FOOD and A LUSTFUL PERSON IS AN ANIMAL, we get PORNOGRAPHY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE WHICH TURNS MEN INTO PREDATORS. We should not blame feminists overmuch for adopting this metaphor, however, since its basic components are implicit in much pornography itself (e.g. women are sometimes referred to as meat or prey). A related metaphor is LUST IS WAR, which leads to PORNOGRAPHY IS A WEAPON, hence, perhaps, the slogan "Porn is violence against women." This makes perfect sense to those who have adopted the above metaphors, but is counterproductive when shouted at those who haven't. If Playboy is violence, what word do you use for rape or wife-beating? Metaphor can dramatise, but it can also trivialise.

A similar metaphor, and one which is by no means unique to feminist discourse, is A PENIS IS A WEAPON (hence the slang terms gun, pork sword etc., as well as verbs with bellicose connotations like thrust and pierce). Since rape is an act of violence (no metaphor here), we have the idea that a penis is a weapon used in rape (barely metaphorical) and thus the metaphor PORNOGRAPHY IS A WEAPON supports the idea that pornography leads to rape. This confuses the real issue of whether or not (certain kinds of) pornography actually encourage (certain kinds of) men to commit rape.

A different dimension of the debate can be examined using the ACTIVE-PASSIVE schema. We should remember that ACTIVE and PASSIVE are not objective "facts"; they are part of the way we structure our experience, reflected in everything from syntax to advertising. In Western societies ACTIVE implies STRONG and therefore GOOD; PASSIVE implies WEAK and therefore BAD. In other societies, and in some Western subcultures, this may not be the case; passivity may be preferred, or a balance of the two. If we then take the metaphor - implicit in our grammar - that SEEING IS ACTIVE; BEING SEEN IS PASSIVE (except in unusual cases such as "His gaze was drawn to her", which uses the SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE metaphor) we can infer THE OBSERVER IS STRONG; THE OBSERVED IS WEAK.

This has obvious implications for any visual representations of women. John Berger (1972) looks at the nude in Western art in these terms, while Susan Sontag does a similar thing with photography. In particular, Berger's analysis of the idea of presence is interesting: a man's presence is defined by what he can do to you or for you; a woman's is defined by how she is seen, and sees herself being seen. According to this argument, visual representations of women in general, and pornography in particular, reinforce this view of presence. Much of the feminist objection to pornography rests on this idea that pornography defines women as passive rather than active, as object rather than subject, and as "other" rather than "self": "In pornographic books, magazines and films, women are represented as passive and as slavishly dependent on men" (Longino, 1991:85).

This view of pornography is valid to the extent that it is a statement about pornographic metaphors rather than pornography per se. Metaphors such as THE OBSERVER IS STRONG; THE OBSERVED IS WEAK can structure our experience of certain types of pornography. In particular, this metaphor applies to prototypical "soft porn" of the centrefold type, which features a naked reclining woman, with whom the reader is assumed to have an imaginary sexual relationship. This is reinforced by the metaphor SEEING IS TOUCHING (Lakoff, 1995:137) so that the pornographic observer is, by looking, metaphorically touching the observee. By the metonymic rule OBJECT DEPICTED FOR DEPICTION, there is a sense that the reader is entering into a relationship with the actual woman who posed for the photograph (hence the appeal, perhaps, of "celebrity porn"; by taking an active role vis a vis a celebrity, the reader either assumes some of her status, or denies it by putting her in the passive role). By another metonymy, PART FOR WHOLE, it is then possible to assume that "Pornography degrades women", this of course resting on a culture-specific assumption that to imagine oneself in a sexual relationship with someone is to degrade them.

The irony of the ACTIVE-PASSIVE schema is that it applies far more to "soft porn" than to "hard porn". While in some soft pornography women may appear in positions that suggest activity, and even dominance, in hard porn they are often very literally active. Most hard pornography consists of pictures of couples (or groups) doing the kind of thing that millions of men and women get up to in their bedrooms every night. It is hard to see how this could force women into a passive or degrading position, unless this applies to the men involved as well, which weakens the argument somewhat. The alternative argument, which is closer to the conservative position, is that pornography of this type degrades, not men or women, but sex itself. Here we enter the area of taboo (in the original anthropological sense of the word), since in Western culture this does not seem to apply to portrayals of other highly valued acts such as religious ceremonies.

Since pornography is largely visual, and seeing in Anglo-Saxon culture is not seen as involving feeling, this idea combines with the metaphor LUST IS A FUNCTIONING MACHINE (Lakoff, 1987:411) to give us the idea that pornography is unfeeling. Critics of pornography accuse it of "ignoring emotions" and of being "cold" and "mechanical". Since in our culture cold, unfeeling and mechanical are associated with men, we also have PORNOGRAPHY IS MALE, regardless of whether the consumer is male or female. Women who consume pornography are thus "supporting male values". In this view, pornography is rated globally, irrespective of content; where there is a distinction made (as between "hard" and "soft"), feminists and conservatives alike frequently employ the "slippery slope" argument.

5. Rooting Out the Slippery Slope - the metaphors of anti-pornographic campaigning

The slippery slope argument is a classic logical fallacy and rhetorical "dirty trick" based on the metaphor X IS A SLIPPERY SLOPE WHICH WILL LEAD TO Y. Related metaphorical images are "the thin end of the wedge" and "opening the door to"; all of them rely on the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image-schema. A beautiful case of combining the slippery slope argument with the PORNOGRAPHY IS DIRTY metaphor is the title of a conservative attack on rap lyrics, "America's Slide Into the Sewer" (Will, 1991).

The metaphors underlying the use of this argument in the case of pornography are SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE and LUST IS MADNESS, giving us SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE WHICH DESTROYS REASON. Drugs also destroy reason, so PORNOGRAPHY IS A DRUG; we may talk about people getting their fix of pornography, or increasing doses. Also REASON IS CONTROL, therefore pornography is uncontrollable.

Unless, of course, we take action to stop it. The language of opposition to pornography is not so metaphorically interesting, since it tends to use the same metaphors as other campaigning language, e.g. medical (sick, disease, cancer, virus etc.) and horticultural (root out, nip in the bud). A classic example is Charles Keating: "the spread of pornography has reached epidemic proportions ... the desperate need is for enlightened and intelligent control of the poisons which threated us" (1991:34, my italics). However, one metaphor which is crucial to the debate is THE MIND IS A CONTAINER. This is used as a basis for both pro- and anti-pornography arguments. The anti- camp use the "Pandora's box" idea that what is in must come out, to imply that consumers of pornography will eventually act out their fantasies (in the case of "harmless" fantasies which could be, and are, regularly "acted out", a "slippery slope" argument is again applied). To what extent this happens in practice is a matter for psychologists to decide (and they still do not appear to have reached a consensus), but it is obvious that the majority of thoughts, desires and fantasies do not result in action, whether we are talking about pornography or science fiction. Alternatively the pro-pornography (or at least anti-censorship) camp uses the metaphor THE MIND IS A MACHINE (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980:27), talking about pornography as an outlet or a safety-valve for our drives. The evidence to support this catharsis position is, if anything, even less substantial.

6. Conclusions

All metaphors are real in that they structure real experience and result in real behaviour (linguistic and physical) which changes the world in real ways. As Wittgenstein said, "words are deeds". However, a certain amount of unreality is also inherent in metaphor by definition. "He has a heart of ice" is a real metaphor (of course) and expresses an observation about someone that the speaker takes to be true, but naturally it does not mean that the organ which pumps his blood is really made of frozen water. Metaphors both depend on and influence the ways a person or culture experiences the world. They may result in behaviour which is appropriate (in terms of fulfilling our personal and social goals) or inappropriate, rational or irrational, consistent or contradictory.

An example of contradictory metaphors or schemata is the HARD-SOFT versus ACTIVE-PASSIVE example mentioned earlier. Since we are not usually aware that we are speaking metaphorically, there is a real danger that what will result is not merely an amusing "mixed metaphor" but a real inconsistency in thinking. If, as we have said, a feminist critic of pornography claims that the main problem is that pornography is its portrayal of women as passive (looking at "soft porn") then goes on (using a different metaphor) to claim the "hard porn" is worse, she or he can be justly criticised for inconsistency. It would, of course, be possible to construct two completely different arguments against soft and hard pornography, but this would be much less impressive, and one may well end up with having to construct a different argument against each of the many sub-genres of pornography, since the HARD-SOFT distinction is itself metaphorical.

An alternative approach might be to accept that whether we like it or not, people are always going to produce images or texts which are designed to be sexually stimulating, but to attempt to create new metaphors with which to deal with these. After all, this is what we do a lot of the time with such images which are not generally classed as "pornography", such as the nude in Western art (which much of the time is "soft porn" in oil paint) or the erotic art of China and Japan (which could be seen as "hard porn" in woodcut prints). For example, Lakoff and Johnson (1980:139-143) propose LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART as an alternative to the metaphors LOVE IS WAR, LOVE IS A JOURNEY etc. One could conceivably rewrite some of the "pornographic" metaphors in a similarly creative way. This would not be an easy task, however, and at present we are probably better off scrutinising the metaphors that are already in use. It is possible, though, that metaphors may change anyway because of a simple fact: pornography, which used to be an almost exclusively male genre, is now being consumed and produced by increasing numbers of women (even though they often prefer the less pejorative term "erotica" to describe this). As has been repeatedly pointed out (most eloquently by Deborah Tannen) women's language differs from men's in a number of respects, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that metaphor would be one of these. Unfortunately there is as yet little data about how men's and women's metaphors vary.

It should be clear by now that a straightforward pro- or anti-pornography stance is not only simplistic, it may leave us at the mercy of metaphors which imply attitudes we may well not hold ourselves. Outside constructed languages such as formal logics, there is no escape from metaphor, but a careful scrutiny of metaphor may well enable us to clarify our thinking on controversial issues.

Robin Turner, 1999


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See also

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