Is pornography dictating social norms? Or are social norms dictating how we view pornography?

Double standards for men and women when it comes to sexuality have been around for a long time. We all know the typical picture of a man whose masculinity is enhanced by having a high number of sexual partners, whilst a woman’s virtue is negatively affected when her number of sexual partners rises. The modern movement against what we like to call ‘slut shaming’ aims to eliminate these biases and double standards and to let women employ their sexuality on an equal level to men. In other words, whatever opinion you have of the number of sexual partners of men, the same should apply for women. Whether you think positively or negatively about (casual) sexual encounters, what’s important is that it applies equally regardless of sex or gender.

However, this double standard is still embedded in our culture and generally speaking it does still exist. This is what I thought about today when we discussed the topic of pornography and its supposed degrading force on women. There has been a large movement of women, feminists and other ‘allies’ that write porn off as intrinsically biased towards gender norms and as enhancing those stereotypes.

However, I don’t feel we can say this about pornography in general. Maybe around the time and Langton wrote ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’ (1993), the overwhelming majority of pornography did depict women in a less than favorable light. It may have given women a submissive role that could have been picked up by men as ‘the way women should behave’.

Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe because of the stereotypes surrounding women and because of the double standard between men and women, women felt degraded by these images. Because what is really degrading about a woman engaging in a sexual act with a man? We do not see it as degrading to the male participant. Men are completely free to engage in casual sexual activity without anyone batting an eye.

In addition, pornography has become much more diverse. Different people fantasize about different things and for every category of fantasy there is probably an innumerable amount of visual images available that portray that particular sexual fantasy.

Of course there are types of sexualizations that are troubling. Depicting (and ‘romanticizing’) rape as something sexually arousing (to both the perpetrator and the victim) is not a positive way of putting sexuality into imagery. First and foremost there should be consent between the parties engaging in any type of physicality. Equally, putting minors at the center of sexualization is unacceptable. Sex is something to be had between consenting adults.

But if all parties are, in fact, consenting adults, who is anyone to say their depiction is wrong? We can see promiscuity as degrading, or we can see it as empowering. Or as neither of those things. But nothing is offensive unless someone is offended. Can we not choose to not be offended? If we assume that men and women are on equal footing and different people simply like different things, can we not just choose which ‘type’ of (if any) pornography we want to watch?

It’s difficult to enhance a stereotype that does not exist, or no longer applies. So if we stop seeing sex as something to be ashamed of, the visual depiction of it might stop being shameful.


4 thoughts on “Is pornography dictating social norms? Or are social norms dictating how we view pornography?

  1. evw24 says:

    Dear Naomi,

    I wish to respond to an aspect of your post relating to the double standards for men and women when it comes to sexuality, in the context of pornography. While I appreciate you recognise the fact that depicting rape as something sexually arousing (in violent porn for example) is not a positive way of putting sexuality into the imaginary. One point in particular struck me when reading this post. This was the point relating the notion that the depiction of women in pornogrpahy can be seen as empowering, particularly in the modern age. While in Paris, I was in agreement with you. However, upon reflection, I believe that this view-that depicting a woman as a sexual object can be uplifting and empowering, is an idealised notion of the modern woman. I am in accordance with Langton’s view that pornography is degrading objectification and does indeed silence women, even in this modern day age. Does the notion that women can find pornography, or that women should view pornography as something not to be offended by, not cause further harm to the condition of the woman? By this I mean, a woman is further silenced as she may be offended by a certain ‘type’ of pornography, but choose not to speak out through fear of thinking that she should find it empowering. Moreover, the view that women can see their depiction in pornography as empowering undoes the work of women who have fought against sexual oppression for many years. Surely, there is a better, more liberating way we can stand together united as a woman?

  2. ss2152 says:


    I would like to respond to your comment about the possibility to alter or change imaginaries. I agree that the mentioned stereotypes about women and what is expected from them are deeply embedded in our society. The other side of the coin are stereotypes and expectations regarding men. These may be perpetuated by the majority of pornography which depicts the always strong, potent and virile man. I believe that this is one reason for the difficulties many men experience when it comes to showing their weak or vulnerable side. Elisabetta also mentioned the traditional concept of the pater familias who is the powerful head of the family who ‘wears the trousers’, is in charge of all decisions regarding the family and bears all the responsibility which also includes the power to chastise family members when they did something wrong.

    In Germany, there have recently been initiatives to change the imaginary concerning domestic violence. In addition to numerous existing shelters for battered women, the first shelters for battered men have opened (with extensive media coverage). There, men who have experienced domestic violence can find refuge, live there together with their children and get support from social workers and therapists. Hopefully, this can question the one-sided narrative of domestic violence in which the man is the offender and the woman is the victim – this may statistically be the most common case, but due to stereotypes, people often do not seem able to imagine that it can also happen the other way round. Despite the ‘longue duree of the imaginary’, this initiative can be a step towards a change. I hope that, gradually, male vulnerability will be more recognized (by themselves and by others) and that it can encourage men to seek help by reducing stigma.

  3. ncjn2 says:


    I fully agree with your statement that our social imaginary is still embedded with paternalistic and misogynistic views that have been around since ancient times. I turn again to James’ mention of the longue duree of of the imaginary, as this is a concept I have found particularly compelling. Some ideas are so embedded in our society and in our mind that they simply cannot and will not disappear overnight. However, we have also talked extensively about the possibility to alter or completely change imaginaries. Taylor explained how this happens by a theory that comes into the social domain, that is then widely accepted. Naturally, changing something so ingrained in our society is far from an easy task, and it is unrealistic to think this will be completely eradicated in our lifetime or maybe even our children’s or grandchildren’s. Nonetheless, I do believe there is an evolution. It is true that today’s ‘ideal’ woman has to live up to particularly unrealistic standards: we must be both ideal housewife and successful career woman, both dedicate our lives to our partners and children and have an opinion of our own. And it’s impossible. None of us can live up to all the standards society has put forward for us. But we actually do not have to. It almost seems we are in a transition period, in which both is expected of us but choosing either over the other symbolizes a shortcoming. Let’s hope this is just the hurdle we have to overcome to actually having a society in which women can be one or the other, or some hybrid form of the two. In my personal view, I think everyone should have the right to choose. Male or female or anything in between (or outside). Still I believe that we need to keep voicing our opinions about female sexuality, expressing that it is not something we need to be ashamed of. If we let ourselves be silenced by the fear that nothing will change, certainly nothing will change.

  4. eb274 says:

    Dear Naomi,

    I find your post very compelling and inspiring. In particular, I would like to draw the attention to this ‘double standard’ approach towards men and women that I have mentioned in your text. It has been a key point of reflection for me. Despite fully agreeing with you in regard to a less gender bias perspective on pornography, I still believe that there are social stigmas/taboos that make it difficult for women to obtain ‘equality’ (if we can use this term). Our social imaginary is embedded in paternalistic and misogynist views of the women that are still hard to eradicate: in Christian and Roman traditions the woman was the property of the pater familias, therefore, she did not have any rights. It is true that times have changed and that the view of women as property is obsolete within Western culture. Nevertheless, I believe that women are still compelled to produce an image of them that mirrors what society requires of them. It reminds me of the film ‘ Mona Lisa Smile’ with Julia Roberts, set in the 1950’s conservative America, where young upper-class women were trained to become the perfect housewives. A questionnaire was released at that time, in which husbands were required to assess their wives ‘house’ skill such as cooking, taking care of the house and the children, ironing etc. In the most prestigious colleges of the country, women studied how to become the ideal social imaginary.
    I do not think that nowadays it is radically different from 60 years ago. On the contrary, the ‘perfect woman questionnaire’ has become more pretentious and more difficult. To become a respectable member of the society, women have to be highly educated; pursue a successful and respectful career while dedicating their life to their children and spouses. We cannot choose one of the paths because it will be equally wrong. If we only choose the career, we are portrait as selfish, ‘men-eater’ that may be respected but surely feared. If we chose to settle down and a have a family at a young age, sacrificing the career, then we are portrait as ‘weak’/submitted/foolish because we think we are still living in the 1950’s. According to society, this is not what ‘self-realisation’ means. In other words, whichever stock-story we choose, it seems almost impossible to succeed. There will always be new boxes to thick and more complex expectations.
    As Luce Irigaray suggests, society should acknowledge the multifaceted nature of women and not label them uniquely as daughters, mothers, and wives (as an example). Women shall advocate for a much stronger identity that detaches from the current social imaginary and stands on its own.

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