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Speech and meaning in porn

By in News


BLAIR WOYNARSKI
News Writer

When you think of porn, do you think of second-wave feminist criticism and linguistic theory? If so, you may be a philosophy student, or you may have just been at Dr. Sarah Hoffman’s lecture on March 24.

Hoffman, head of the philosophy department, presented “Pornography: Speech and Meaning” as part of the Sexualities and Gender Discussion Series 2010, in association with the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Gender and Sexual Diversity. She examined issues of how obscenity laws affect the production of porn, the difference between second and third wave feminist theories relating to it and ultimately whether its production inhibits the free speech of women.

The lecture was not meant to be a condemnation or a defence of pornography, but more of a debunking of certain feminist theories that have become associated with it. It was also an effort to bring potentially harmful social messages “into the light of day.” While Hoffman declined to jump on the pro-porn bandwagon, she did say, “I’m not really an anti-pornography feminist because I don’t like the government deciding what is offensive or degrading.”

The first part of the presentation consisted of sampling criticisms from various members of what Hoffman called “second-wave feminism” (she refers to herself as a “third-wave, pro-sex, anti-censorship feminist”). The common threads in these arguments were that porn is, by its very nature, “sexualised images of violence against women,” and that in the production of porn, the free speech of men violates the free speech of women. She developed this point using lengthy rhetoric, but eloquently summed it up with the phrase, “No one will listen to a woman with a dick in her mouth.”

“No one will listen to a woman with a dick in her mouth.”
Dr. Sarah Hoffman
head of the philosophy dept.

Hoffman finds the image “difficult to take beyond metaphor.” Earlier feminists argued that pornography was, quite literally, an act of silencing the speech of women by impairing their ability to commit certain speech acts. Hoffman elucidated this point by describing the categories of linguistic impairment in detail (far beyond the capabilities of this brief article to convey).

In the end, she contended that being put in a situation where free speech is not encouraged is not the same as a strict violation of free speech.

Additionally, she discussed the legal standing of pornography. American law protects it under free speech, while Canadian law does not offer the same protection. It is still perfectly legal in both countries, but in Canada there is more of a grey area for it to be charged with obscenity.

Freedom of expression is curtailed by the Criminal Code, and something may be outlawed as obscene material if it depicts “undue exploitations of sex.” Hoffman doesn’t agree with this vague wording; she offers up the idea of “polysemy” (the state of having multiple meanings) as potentially vindicating all porn, because if it contains more than one meaning, it cannot be completely degrading.

She concluded with a final rebuttal against the second-wave feminist theory that all porn represents forced sex and gender inequality. She finds the idea that women are always being dominated in porn to be distinctly “anti-feminist.” Hoffman also answered the criticism that women are reduced to nothing but “fuck-holes” by saying that in equal measure, “Men are reduced to their penises — ridiculously large, always erect penises.”

Her final word on the presentation was that “porn is not beyond the reach of critical discourse of moral and ethical concerns.” As for her personal views, she said that she found commercial porn to be “mechanical and boring acts of oral sex, masturbation, vaginal and anal sex.”

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image: Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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