The Porn Diaries #3: What Is Pornography?

When I started working for a company whose business was to block pornography, I expected to encounter my fair share of haters. People love pornography, and people generally don’t like stuff that threatens what they love. What I didn’t expect, however, was the rampant disagreement, both within the industry and outside of it, of what pornography actually is.

The idea that what constitutes pornography isn’t immediately apparent was pretty astounding to me at the beginning of my career, but I’ve realized that I too have opinions that don’t match those of others. For instance, I don’t personally consider artistic nudity to be pornography, but that just opens up the floodgates of what is artistic?

The art versus pornography isn’t the only debate out there when it comes to identifying pornography. Is a topless woman pornographic? A topless man? Is it pornography if they may as well be nude? Is it pornography if there’s only one person and no sexual activity? If it’s written, is it porn? All great questions, and all, I have found, answered with varying opinions.

For some, pornography is the same thing as nudity. A clear line in the sand, if you will. That proves problematic for people who view pornography as a form of female empowerment, who see the often violent and degrading themes in pornography and need to seek a resolution between the two. In those cases, just being nude is not enough.

Almost five years into my work with anti-porn organizations, and I still don’t have the answer. In fact, I was probably surer of what pornography was before I got involved in blocking it. These days, when I think of someone who struggles with pornography, I see clearly how the answer to “what is porn?” can vary from person to person. When it comes to blocking pornography, luckily, defining it gets much easier. It’s sort of an all or nothing situation. If you’re looking to block pornography and you’re of the camp that pornography is simultaneous with nudity, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly how our software classifies it. If, however, you think there is a difference between pornography, art, and erotica, well, just remember that the eyes and brain you use to discern those differences aren’t exactly present in the software.

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