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Feminism and Women's Studies


Pornography and Damage

Byers replies to the suggestion that Madonna has some feminist value and suggests a way of thinking about her as a pornographer. He asks "what is it to consume pornography?"

In "Gender Graffiti" (Arena Magazine No. 2) Fiona Mackie alerts us to a whole range of things which Madonna may or may not be doing. She remains remarkably silent about the possibility that Madonna may also be a pornographer. I would like to suggest a way of thinking about pornography which might force the destructiveness of Madonna's assault into the open. I do not so much want to consider pornography from the side of the subject of the pornographic image; rather, I would like to pose the question as to what it is to consume pornography.

What Pornography Could Be

The consumer of pornography intends a relation to another, not to an image of another. For the consumer, the image is not a thing in isolation; it stands between, mediates, offers a way of entering upon a person. True, the image is only representation. But it represents the person being disclosed as if she or he were there for engagement. Though the image is the immediate object of pornography, without its essential relation to another real person the pornographic image would lose its main function as source of or accompaniment to (auto)erotic excitation.

What could be wrong about this? What kind of damage is done? Discussions about the evils of pornography often employ a notion of "context" to distinguish between pornographic and non-pornographic images, claiming that the pornographic image is one "taken out of context". Though the context in question is not often made clear, I would like to suggest a way of thinking about pornography and context which illuminates a deep uneasiness about certain ways of representing people.


"Context" becomes a useful notion when thought of as a context for human engagement, a context for the way in which we approach each other, and within which we continue and build relationships.

Would not the context for the right approach to a human being be a function of what it is to be a human being? Irrespective of how hard it might be to put forward a comprehensive idea of what it is to be a human being, one can point to aspects of ourselves which decisively determine the context within which we carry out our relations with each other. One of these aspects is thematized by Freud with his discoveries about the unknowability of the self, another by Levinas in his revelation of the infinity of the other.

These two intertwined themes cannot but alert us to a justified suspicion about the adequacy of our claims about ourselves and others. My depths are too deep to plumb, my history beneath and prior to my awarenss of its influential beginnings, my motives too mixed for me to investigate them alone. I am always more than, less than, and other than what I know myself to be. I do not know how it is that I have become what I am, nor do I know where or what I will finish as.

Others are for themselves, as I am for myself. In their endlessness, they exceed my capacity to comprehend them. I do not know where they have come from, nor why or how they are as they are. I cannot presume for them, nor pre-empt or foreclose their being.

This endlessness, this infinity, this hiddenness has implications for the power and limits of words, ideas, theories that I use in my attempts to render what I know of myself and others. Even without Freud and Levinas we know that no "language" - no idea or range of concepts - is ever adequate to the reality that I am and that others are. No concept, image, generalization can ever do justice to this utter particularity of the person, who always exceeds the extension of a concept or representation. This confers a blindness upon the power that we can exercise. Language draws the sin of hubris, with its invitation to comprehend and thereby to gain sovereignty over its domain, through its naming power. If we want to protect each other from domination, we can only use a language which has submitted to its own insufficiency.

Furthermore, we live through time. When we add this to the issues of opacity and infinity, the limitedness of our knowing and the excess of human being over language takes on a thoroughly moral meaning. We are temporal beings. We are unfinished, always becoming. We are not yet complete; and it is not clear what we are to become. Nor is it clear what the range of things are that influence this becoming. We do not possess a convincing "science of morality" which would give us the "mechanics of becoming", which would tell us in each of our particularities the effects upon ourselves and others of our actions, words, looks, comportments, projects. Our future wholeness is not guaranteed; just as we can grow, enlarge our creative powers and achieve resolution, so we can disintegrate, lose power, diminish; we can be damaged and we can damage others. Becoming through time but without command of that becoming, we are fragile. Knowing that our power is greater than our understanding of the effects of the exercise of that power, we are fearful. We develop strategies to protect and defend ourselves.

How should we approach fragile beings? What should be the context within which disclosure, the very heart of human relationship, occurs? The need to be known by another person, not just to be loved, but to enable one to know oneself, requires a revealing of oneself which renders oneself vulnerable. It is done with the knowledge that damage can result from careless handling; there is a risk of violation as we put down our power in the face of the other.

The disclosure of another sought by the consumer of pornography is of a particularly intimate kind. It is nakedness, both actual and symbolic. The removal of clothes signifies the removal of barriers; it implies an awareness of defence and becoming defenceless. In the mind of the consumer of pornography, the one disclosed and unclothed is rendered vulnerable not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically, just as happens in actual love-making.

The right context for relations takes disclosure and the vulnerability of the disclosed seriously: in light of the potential for damage, one approaches the other (and ourselves) with reverence. One does not know what to do with what is revealed or given in the disclosure. Lacking the control and power afforded by knowledge, we adopt an attitude of care.

Pornography is the possibility of relation without this attitude. Irrespective of whether we wish to limit "pornography" to the domain of textual or visual images, or are prepared to see something pornographic in many other relationships around us (the one-night stand would be a pornographic event, and promiscuity would be aligned essentially with pornography), pornography is disclosure without care in the one present at the disclosure for the one disclosed.


Many people have shown how pornography can damage the one being disclosed. But it damages the consumer also.

As with discussions of "context", it is not new to speak of damage to the consumer, in terms of which the consumer in turn damages others. "Desensitization" is a phenomenon often referred to, but again , it is not often clearly spelt out as to what this means.

"Desensitization" is a diminution in the capacity to empathize, to care. But how can this be understood? In the absence of a complete moral psychology, I think we can make suggestions by recognizing that there are degrees of disclosure, that disclosure as the building of relationship, takes time and has a peculiar order. For hand in hand with the degrees of disclosure and increasing vulnerability goes a commensurate degree of care for that person. As the individual becomes more open, more exposed in the establishment of intimacy, so a vigilance for their usually hidden fragilities must grow. At each ever-deepening stage of exposure must go a constant and deepening recognition of the growing power for damage.

Just as disclosure takes time, so does the growth of care. For this is not care in the abstract; it is care always for a person, utterly particular. As such, care must express itself in ways that are as particular as the person toward whom it is directed. Each individual in disclosing him or herself makes utterly unique demands and each context of care is new and not like any other.

The capacity for care is not itself fixed. Rather, it can grow or diminish. The damage inflicted on the consumer of pornography lies in the fact that the consumer fails to respond to the demand for care that accompanies the other's disclosure. The other's disclosure challenges us to respond. Disclosure does not happen all at once; with trepidation it happens bit by bit, asking whether or not the other actually cares, whether they still care, whether they will go on caring irrespective of what is disclosed.

The consumer of pornography seeks disclosure without care. This kind of relation is intolerable for most people when disclosing themselves, and they turn away when care fails. Knowing this, the consumer of pornography establishes the relation to the other not in the immediacy of the one to one, but mediated via the image. Controlled by the image, denied the ability to speak to show more than is confined by the limit of the image, the one being disclosed is denied her humanity, her infinity. The consumer of pornography seeks intimate relation but rejects the opportunity this offers or demands. His or her capacity to care is diminished.


If accepted, this means that the distinction between a (good) non-violent, and a (bad) violent pornography is false, because "violence" is not the decisive issue. Or rather, relation without context is inherently violent. It also means that it is unhelpful in the debate about pornography to seek evidence of its causing people to do things. If it causes anything it is a diminution of the capacity to care. This would be shown in many diverse ways, only very few of which would appear in "crime files".

It also means that the violence of pornography is much closer to many of us than we have usually believed. Intimate relation without commensurate care is not limited to dealing with the other through the mediation of intimate depiction but is something which threatens every relationship we have. Madonna's pornography is just a very obvious, crass, lifeless and thoroughly traditional manipulation of people's propensity to turn inward, to deny the other's abundance and vulnerability, and to shy away from the need for constant change that relations with others demand of us.

Damian Byers is completing a PhD on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl at the University of Melbourne.

Arena Magazine No.3 February-March 1993

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Contributors : Damien Byers
Last modified 2005-02-12 12:00 AM

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