A Critique of Catherine Mackinnon’s Arguments for Prohibiting Pornography



The proliferation of pornographic tendencies and materials in the society remains a critical challenge in various social constructions. Pornography has been criticised for perpetuating immoral tendencies and violating the dignity of the women. Moreover, pornography has been viewed as a social ill that promotes violence against the women. The conservatives have often attempted to ‘protect’ the society from the social ills of sex. On the other hand, the liberals have presented the argument that people have a right to watch or read anything as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Catharine Mackinnon makes the case against pornography by noting that it is wrong and misguided to protect pornography and its tendencies using the First Amendment. Even though pornography has critical moral implications for the well-being of the society, the people should have the freedom to read and watch anything as guaranteed by the constitution. This paper will critically evaluate Catherine Mackinnon’s arguments for prohibiting pornography.

Pornography as the epitome of Discrimination

Mackinnon (1993: 2) argues that pornography is the highest form of discrimination manifest in the society today. Moreover, Mackinnon (1993: 2) argues that women are discriminated by their fathers, brothers and even their husbands. They are forced to appear naked before the cameras or engage in sexual acts with men without their consent. The law does not defend the women because there is no law that can address what these women went through. The women are meant only to hear the pain and the echoes of the camera, but they have nothing else to do. They are tortured in order to give men please (Mackinnon, 1993: 2). Pornography of this nature can be defined as rape. When women are forced into sexual acts without their consent it violates their dignity as women and as human beings. When people use pornography to discriminate and devalue others, then it amounts to a violation of human rights. 

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Pornography sales pictures of captive smiling women. The women who engage in pornographic production are simply captives. The women engage in acts as they see others do in the films or pictures. The women are encouraged to do exactly as it is done in the pictures or the films. They are told to cooperate without questioning. They are also forced to put a smile on their face to register their pleasure. When people watch the pornographic films they think that the women who played it were very willing to do so (Mackinnon, 1993: 5). Pictures of other women recorded in films who were forced into sexual activities are always used as a reference point to discriminate and dehumanise other women. The fact that these women pretend to be enjoying should not qualify more torture and discrimination. There is no point of forcing someone to smile while doing what she knows is against her conscious. 

Pornography is a Form of Sexual Harassment

Pornography is in itself sexual harassment. The manner in which women are treated when it comes to sexual matters shows signs of sexual abuse. The majority of the women who engage in pornographic production do so because they are harassed by their male counterparts. (Mackinnon, 1987: 158) observes that women are on the receiving end when it comes to exchanging sex for benefits. Pornography offers a platform for men to drag women into sexual pleasure in exchange for either money or any other gifts. This practice portrays women who are vulnerable to harassment. Men use authoritative offers to lure women into committing sexual activities like pornography (Mackinnon, 1993: 45). This argument of Catherine about pornography as sexual harassment goes against the power of the will. Human beings have the privilege to decide what is fit for them without being forced. Therefore, there is no way women can indulge in pornography based on the gifts they receive and claim to be harassed sexually. It is necessary to realise that people are involved in pornographic activities based on their free will except for the rape cases.

Pornography is a source of sexual harassment because of the words that men use against women. Langton (2009:5) argues that there are many sexual comments that men make daily that ends up leading to sexual activities like pornography. The words that men speak to women explain the male perspectives about the women. What men want women to do for them is well expressed in sexual comments. There are men who openly refer to women by use of their sexual organs to signify eroticism. The women’s genitals have always been used in a derogative manner in many cultures (Mackinnon, 1993: 46). Mackinnon (1993: 46) further holds that pornography takes many forms and can lead to harassment when it comes to the use of unethical words against women. When men refer to women using their sexual organs in order to lure them in pornography it is sexual harassment.

Pornographic sites and materials are sometimes displayed in work locations or any other public place and this is harassment of women. The fact that pornographic materials are made public in some places is proof that it is harassment against women. According to Mackinnon, (1993: 52), there are court rulings that directed women to be able to tolerate pornographic materials or displays at the place of work. This display of pornographic material is an absurdity. The women are shown obscene images in order to lure them into sexual activities such as pornography (Mackinnon, 1993: 52). It is dehumanising to display pornographic materials to the public with the interest of attracting women. This practice is indeed sexual harassment and it should be discouraged by the society because it pictures women as sexual objects ready to be used by men. Therefore, it is explicit that pornographic material leads to sexual harassment, especially among women.

Pornography as a Sign of Gender Inequality

Many countries have outlawed the production and use of pornographic materials. Pornography has for many years been seen as a social ill in the society that seeks to erode societal morals. Some states have legislation governing or prohibiting pornographic materials. Various definitions have been put forth to define the term pornography. In some instances, pornography has been considered as films, pictures or writings that seek to arouse sexual stimulation in people. There are other people who define pornography as sexual activities that are well described in literature and films. These sexual activities seek to arouse erotic feelings in people. Essentially, pornography is closely associated or understood to mean exposure to the obscene material. All these materials are aimed at distorting or corrupting the mind of the user. Therefore, pornography is meant to satisfy people’s fantasies.

Catharine MacKinnon argues that pornography is a representation of the gender inequalities that exist in the society (Mackinnon, 1987: 148). The superiority of men against women is well exhibited through pornography. According to Mackinnon (1987: 148), pornography displays sexual power that men possess over women. It is not in any way a means to attain sexual fulfillment or satisfaction. Pornography is simply forced sex where men use their sexual power to molest women and violate them (Mackinnon, 1987: 148). This argument depicts pornography as a one-sided practice where it only thrives in the minds of men. The women are only on the receiving end when it comes to pornography.  However, this view of Catherine about pornography being forced sex is not a reflection of the reality that exists in the pornography industry. A collective majority of the women who engage in adult pornographic films or material do it out of consent. The only instance where forced sex may apply in this context is regarding child pornography. Therefore, adult women who engage themselves in the production of adult pornographic material are not coerced, but do it willingly.

According to Mackinnon (1987: 148), pornography portrays women as objects of cruelty. In many pornographic films and materials, women are always seen as desiring to be disposed and humiliated. The way men handle women suggests that they are ruling over them and that women are desperately in need of humiliation, torture and battering from men. Men only want to use women for their sexual satisfaction. Women are always in subjection and ready to serve men for the satisfaction of the viewer or reader of the pornographic material (Mackinnon, 1987: 148). This feminist perspective about pornography needs more scrutiny because pornography is beneficial to both men and women who practice it. Those who are in need of pleasure get it and those who want the money they get. There is a way men benefit from pornography as well as women. Therefore, the argument presented by Mackinnon (1987: 148) about women desiring cruelty in pornography is misguided. Every person engages in pornography after realising the benefits. Some of the benefits include financial incentives and the derivation of pleasure.  

Pornography deprives women of their human rights, especially in a cultural setup. According to Mackinnon (1987: 158), it is the prerogative of men to give meaning to sexuality in their respective culture. It follows that the people who control or defines sexuality qualify to be human. In this sense, women are not allowed in many cultures to define sexuality. Pornography only acknowledges the existence of women to the limit of male pleasure. The moment men are sexually satisfied, the women cease to exist. The human aspect in women exists to the level of the pleasure that they give men (Mackinnon, 1987: 158). It is imperative to point out that this view about women is not correct because during sexual intercourse is not just men who need pleasure women also need pleasure. Therefore, portraying men as people who are hungry for sexual pleasure and not women is a misconception of the whole idea of human sexuality.

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Critique of Catherine Mackinnon’s arguments

There are various responses to Catherine’s pornography arguments that can be challenged to the extent that they may not present factual understanding of the issues. Mackinnon (1987: 148) believes that freedom of speech should be protected in any society. According to Mackinnon (1987: 148), pornography proponents use derogative words to lure women into the acts. However, Arthur is of the opinion that people should be given the liberty to express themselves. If truth is to be told then freedom of speech must be protected at all cost. The only way people can contribute to the growth of knowledge is by allowing them to speak their mind without being intimidated (Hugh, 2014: 371). The ideas and theories that people hold concerning many issues in the society should be ventilated to build the body of knowledge. Therefore, victimising men based on their speech toward women should be discouraged. There is no point of scrutinising what people talk about sexuality. People should be given freedom to speak because this is the only way to know what they are thinking and how they can be helped. 

Catherine Mackinnon’s definition of pornography is “sexually explicit subordination of women in pictures or words” (Mackinnon 1987: 148). This anti-pornography ordinance was meant to lower or discourage the practice. It was meant to regulate the activities that surround pornography. However, this regulation targeted negative liberty and it was well expressed in free speech. This ordinance did make pornography expensive and difficult to obtain, but it did not violate people’s right of speech or expression. Dworkin (1995: 217) argues that every idea must be heard whether positive or negative. The implication of this fact is that even the people who support sexual harassment through speech are given a leeway to speak what is on their mind. Therefore, outlawing pornography, because it causes sexual harassment through speech can be a difficult task. 

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Catherine Mackinnon is more concerned with the offenses that are done to women in the society through pornographic activities. Waldron (2012: 106) on the other hand, finds it appropriate to protect the dignity of people. According to Waldron (2012: 106), dignity is how people are respected or treated in the society. It is critical to protect people’s dignity and not their feelings when they are offended. Any law against hate speech is geared towards protecting people’s dignity (Waldron, 2012:106). According to Mackinnon (1987: 148) arguments, pornography is an offense against women, which must be prohibited at all cost. The argument of Waldron suggests that the main concern of people should be directed towards upholding people’s dignity not defending them from offenses. If people’s dignity is protected then offenses will not be an issue in the society because everybody will be respected regardless of her or his social standing. Therefore, fighting pornography as an offense done to women should cease, but instead the dignity of women to be championed in the society.  


Although pornography has critical moral implications for the well-being of the society, the people should have the freedom to read and watch anything as guaranteed by the constitution. Pornography is a practice that erodes the value and morals of any given society. The films and literature that are produced by pornographic industries are dehumanising to both men and women. Any effort to fight this negative tendency in the society should be all-inclusive. There is no need for one gender to be considered valuable and the other gender ignored. Since the impact of pornography is felt by both men and women in the society. It is, therefore, significant for everybody to participate in fighting the social ill.  

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  1. Dworkin, R., 1995. Freedom’s law: The moral reading of the American constitution. New York, Oxford University press.
  2. Hugh, L., 2014. Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. Chichester, Wiley Blackwell.
  3. Langton, R., 2009. Sexual Solipsism. New York, Oxford university press.
  4. Mackinnon, C., 1993. Only words. Massachusetts, Harvard University press.
  5. Mackinnon, C., 1987. Feminism unmodified: Discourse on life and law. Cambridge, Harvard university press.
  6. Waldron, J., 2012. The harm in hate speech. Cumberland, Harvard University press.
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