Is pornography degrading?

Last week I attended a presentation on pornography at New College Florida. During the discussion, a student voiced her opinion that pornography is degrading to sexuality and the people taking part. I disagree. Does filming a couple kissing degrade the act of kissing? Does filming someone bicycling degrade bicyclists? It seems irrational to think that putting something to video automatically objectifies, degrades, exploits, or trivializes the act or the actors.

Pornography typically depicts frivolous sex acts outside of conventional standards such as monogamy, privacy, and romance. It is that casual and unconstrained attitude that most people tend to object to. But regardless of one’s specific reasons for protest, disagreeing with how sexuality is portrayed does not constitute an absolute moral judgment. Such judgments are merely personal.

One might argue that pornography cheapens and objectifies physical intimacy. But I’d respond that it only has that effect if the observer unrealistically generalizes what he or she is watching. It is the viewer in this case, not pornography, that is objectifying sexuality. Sex is not a solitary phenomenon. It is a collective name for a large variety of similar behaviors and instances existing exclusively from one another. The manner in which others have sex is separate from one’s personal sexual affairs. Every consenting adult is afforded the right to define and engage in sex as they see fit for their own purposes. No more. No less.

In that vein, opponents of same sex marriage claim that marrying gays violates the sanctity of marriage. The sanctity of whose marriage?, I ask. If a homosexual couple gets married, how does that affect the marriages of heterosexual couples? Will husbands and wives turn to each other and say, “Our marriage doesn’t mean as much now that gays are doing it?” Again, the reasoning seems irrational. Likewise, pornography may depict sexual relations that deviate from critics’ personal ideals, but it needn’t have any effect on their own sex lives.

It appears that opponents of pornography, like those against gay marriage, are disapproving in order to prop themselves up on high moral ground. Anything can appear offensive or depraved from such a self-serving viewpoint. Having a particular idea of what sex (or marriage, for that matter) should or shouldn’t be doesn’t mean everyone else must abide by one’s personal preference. What gives someone the authority to be a moral dictator? I think contempt towards others for having different opinions or lifestyles is degrading.

Pornography is said to “lack the moral standards and values of our Judeo-Christian heritage” in the 1965 anti-pornography propaganda film posted below. The vacuous notion that sex and nudity are almost inherently immoral and “dirty” continues to impose on our culture today. That oppressive idea is sadly self-validating. Current laws force people to hide their breasts, buttocks, and genitals, thereby turning those body parts into objects of indecency. A two-piece bathing suit not only hides a woman’s unmentionables, it also draws attention to those distinct parts of her anatomy by the very act of covering them up!

Sexual behavior is obscured by the same irony. Aren’t our laws and standards explicit evidence that society itself is objectifying and degrading sexuality while helping to create an atmosphere of suppressed sexual curiosity and impulsion? Perhaps pornography’s extremes might be explained as a retaliation against—and even a reflection of—society’s stubborn disgust and condemnation of one of life’s most fundamental and natural activities.