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Robin Turner

Related: philosophy - linguistics - semantics


Robin Turner (born 1961) is a British teacher and philosopher who runs this website and this blog. His work was brought to my attention via the 1999 essay Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors partially reprinted below. It deals with semantic and linguistic aspects of defining pornography and erotica. [Jul 2006]

Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors (1999)

Related: metonymy - pornography - erotica

Since arguing about pornography often involves arguing about sexuality, there is a fertile store of metaphors concerning sexuality waiting to be transferred - usually unconsciously - into the pornography debate. Both opponents, defenders and producers of pornography use metaphorical reasoning, and often, indeed, use the same metaphors. Moreover, the category itself is subject to much equivocation, whether deliberate or accidental. For these reasons, debates about pornography are particularly suitable for linguistic analysis.

Most texts on pornography start with a definition of the word, but unfortunately pornography is a hard thing to define. It is particularly common, as Andrea Dworkin (1981) does, to provide a limited and very specific definition of pornography, then widen the discussion to include almost any commercially produced erotic material. Worse still, many writers (again including Dworkin, and Steinem (1991:53)) argue that pornography means "writing about vile whores", from the Greek pornos, a fairly common case of confusing etymology with meaning; what "pornography" may have meant to the ancient Greeks is of little relevance today.

PORNOGRAPHY is in fact a complex and fuzzy category, involving prototype effects and implicit value judgements. Adopting the type of extended definition used by Anna Wierzbicka (1992), we might propose the following:

  1. It is words or pictures;
  2. Someone makes it to make people feel something;
  3. This something is like wanting sex;
  4. Because of this, people pay money for it;
  5. [I think this is bad].

The third element is somewhat confusing; "sexual arousal" might seem more specific, but this term, like its "folk" equivalents such as "feeling horny", is also, I believe, a cultural construct, and probabaly less specific than it appears. The final point, "I think this is bad", does not always apply, but in general, the words "pornography" and "pornographic" have negative connotations, whether these are moral or aesthetic. If a more positive term is wanted, the words "erotica" or "erotic" are usually used instead.

EROTICA can be defined in the same way as follows:

  1. It is something people make;
  2. It can make people feel something;
  3. This something is like wanting to have sex;
  4. It can also make people feel other things;
  5. [I think this is good].

The difference between the two terms, apart from the moral/aesthetic judgement, largely rests on the intention of the person doing the "making". It is assumed that the pornographer produces pornography with the sole intention of causing people to feel sexually aroused, usually for financial gain. Erotica, however, may also have aesthetic or expressive purposes; there is less sense of the producer manipulating the feelings of the consumer, and less implication of purely financial motives. There is also a difference as regards the medium; the word "pornography" is nearly always applied to written texts, film and, primarily, photographs. One may say "an erotic statue", but probably not "a pornographic statue".

Wierzbicka's method of defining concepts works well in explaining the speaker's intention in using a particular term; one can see them as answers to the question "What exactly do you mean by ....?" However, they leave unaddressed the question of what may be seen as good or poor examples of the category in question (Lehrer, 1990:368). Obviously some idea of what constitutes prototypical pornography is called for, but PORNOGRAPHY is more complex than such celebrated prototype categories as BIRD. There is substantial agreement among subjects as to what constitute good and bad examples of a bird, and the boundary is not particularly fuzzy; even very poor examples, such as an ostritch, are still definitely birds (Wierzbicka, 1990:350). However, with the category PORNOGRAPHY things are more complicated. Not only will one item be seen as more or less pornographic than another, but different people will grade items differently, or disagree as to whether an item is a category member at all, saying things like "Well, Playboy isn't really pornography."

Playboy is an interesting case, in that while it is on the fuzzy boundary of the PORNOGRAPHY category, it is a central member of the category SOFT PORNOGRAPHY; in fact we might go as far as to say this magazine has defined the category. Prototypical soft pornography is basically what one would expect to see in a Playboy centrefold: the subject is a beautiful young (but not too young) woman, in a position which is implicity (but not overly) sexually inviting, and aesthetic considerations are important, putting this type inside the EROTICA category as well - at least according to some. HARD PORNOGRAPHY, on the other hand, is more central to the PORNOGRAPHY category, involving explicit sexual activity and, usually, a blatant disregard of aesthetic standards. Hard pornography tends to violate (culture-specific) moral standards as well; often, as we shall see later, this is a large part of its appeal, which is frequently exploited by its producers. However, since not all people have identical moral standards, what offends one person may be lauded by another; hard pornography is generally seen as somehow more offensive than softcore, but sometimes the argument is reversed.

It is not surprising then, that debates over such a complex and fuzzy category should be plagued by terminological confusion and outright equivocation, as we saw in the Dworkin example. Attitudes to pornography are also influenced by our attitudes to sexuality, and both are influenced heavily by metaphor. I shall therefore look first at some of the metaphors for describing sexuality proposed by Lakoff and Johnson (plus a few of my own), before examining the role of metaphor in structuring our experience of, and attitudes towards, pornography.

Attitudes to Sexuality

In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987), Lakoff examines a number of metaphors which are used in the English-speaking world to structure experience of sexuality. One such metaphor is LUST IS HUNGER; THE OBJECT OF LUST IS FOOD. This gives rise to statements like "He's sex-starved," or "She had him drooling," (Lakoff, 1987:409) and such endearments and slang terms as honey, cheesecake, beefcake, hunk and buns. These are taken from American English, but similar examples exist in other languages; for example, Turkish describes attractive women as fIstIk gibi ("nut-like"), fIndIk ("hazelnut") or balIk eti ("fish-meat" - pleasantly plump) - the diet is different but the metaphor is the same.

Related to this is A LUSTFUL PERSON IS AN ANIMAL. This is coherent with the previous metaphor, since we see animals as preoccupied with both food and sex. Examples of this metaphor are "Get away from me, you brute!", "Wanna nuzzle up close?" and "Stop pawing me!", as well as the usual range of animal terms: bitch, tigress, wolf, stud and so on (1987:410). Because lust makes us animal and animals are not rational, we imagine that lust makes us lose our reason, giving the metaphor LUST IS INSANITY ("I'm crazy about her", "I'm madly in love with him" etc. (1987:410)).

A rather different, but still not incompatible, way of looking at lust is LUST IS WAR: "He fled from her advances", "She surrendered to him" etc. (1987:411). This is familiar ground, since like insanity, the metaphor LOVE IS WAR is the stuff of poetry and romantic fiction, as well as everyday speech. LUST IS WAR shares the violent and irrational associations of A LUSTFUL PERSON IS AN ANIMAL and LUST IS INSANITY, but adds the element of strategy and, most importantly, a win/lose dimension (which it shares with another metaphor, LUST IS A GAME).

Possibly the most basic metaphor, however, is SEXUALITY IS A PHYSICAL FORCE; LUST IS THE REACTION TO THAT FORCE. Thus we talk about a person's electricity or magnetism, of attraction or being drawn to someone, and so on. On its own this is a deeply buried metaphor, but in combination with others, as we shall see, its effects can be devastating (another word used metaphorically for sexual attraction).

Having looked briefly at Lakoff's metaphors, I would like to propose a simple and obvious one which is nevertheless crucial to the discourse of the pornography debate: SEX IS DIRTY. This is so common that it is seen as a value-judgement or a psychological problem rather than a metaphor, which is what it actually is. Its probable origin lies in the proximity of the genitals to the anus and urethra, and utilises a more basic metonymy, CLOSENESS IS SIMILARITY (which is also the basis of the "guilt by association" argument). The sexual act itself can also be a pretty messy affair. Thus we talk about "dirty jokes" and "dirty old men", or say that someone has a filthy mind. This is closely related to the metaphor MORALITY IS CLEAN; IMMORALITY IS DIRTY, which gives us statements such as "Don't sweep it under the carpet" and "Can you dig up any dirt on the other candidate? No, he's squeaky-clean." Putting the two together, by metaphorical reasoning, we get the value judgement, or propositional model, Sex is immoral.

These metaphors are not culturally neutral (although they do exist across a wide range of cultures). They both reflect and shape Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards sexuality for better or worse (usually worse, as Lakoff points out). Because of this, when a new debate related to sexuality, such as the pornography debate, occurs, it will automatically draw its metaphors from the existing stock. --Robin Turner, Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors via http://neptune.spaceports.com/~words/debating.html [May 2005]

see also: erotica - category - linguistics

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