June 3, 2013, by Jonathan

Education and Pornography

Should teachers discuss pornography as part of a child’s sex education? (

Those in the ‘yes’ camp argue that pornography perpetuates unrealistic norms and children need to know this. Those in the ‘no’ camp think that such inappropriate material has no place in schools. The philosopher is in a unique position to strengthen the ‘yes’ camp’s argument.

Imagine a play which involves an actor warning the audience that there is a fire. Now suppose that as she is giving her lines she sees a real fire. In this circumstance, despite the actor’s shouts and screams, despite her jumping up and down, she simply cannot warn the audience there is a fire. They hear the shouting, of course, but they hear it as a part of the play.

What on earth has that got to do with pornography and sex education? Well, what this shows is the act of ‘warning’ can only be performed if there are certain conditions in place; in this case that the people hearing the words don’t take the words to be part of a performance.

Philosophers think this idea can be generalized. For certain speechacts – e.g. warning, marrying, sentencing – to be possible, certain conditions have to be in place. Now given this and echoing many writers on pornography – most notably Catherine McKinnon – I think the case for including lessons about pornography can be strengthened.

If refusal is a speech-act then, for someone to be able to refuse, certain conditions must be in place. Most importantly, the ‘audience’ must recognise ‘no’ as refusal. Otherwise, saying ‘no’ would be analogous to the actor shouting ‘fire’.

But often in pornography – e.g. ‘rape porn’ – ‘no’ is not taken as refusal. So if, as the evidence seems to suggest, people are learning about sex from pornography then this will have direct real life implications. Specifically it may lead to cases where (for instance) a person says ‘no’ to a sexual advance, but the act of communicating refusal is impossible. ‘No’ is not being seen as an act of refusal, but as a part of sex itself. Alarmingly, in such cases consent would be withheld, but the speech act of refusal is not recognised, and cannot be successfully performed. How likely is this? Well, the idea that ‘no means yes’ is certainly a live one.

What’s the antidote? Introduce discussions about pornography into sex education. This would allow people to have genuine understanding of words like ‘no’ in sexual contexts and as such allow the act of refusal to be performed. Further, it would give them an understanding of how pornography could have a role in shaping those conditions. This, in turn, would help young people better identify and understand the social pressures they may be subject to, and that may affect the possibilities for communicating about sex and consent.

Andrew Fisher

Useful follow-up.

Saul, Jennifer (2003)  Feminism: Issues and Argument (OUP). Especially chapter 3.

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