What Counts as Pornography*

In these contexts, what counts as pornography*? For example, a Jeff Koons painting of himself and his wife, former porn-star Cicciolina, is delicately titled Ice – Jeff on Top Pulling Out; as it portrays genitalia, the image would certainly be unpublishable in US newspapers. But it appeared without further ado in the perfectly serious Danish newspaper Politiken as part of an article covering an exhibition on eros at the Aarhus Art Museum. Moreover, in what some have called a post-feminist era (i.e., one in which gender equality has – allegedly – largely been achieved and hence the feminist work toward such equality is no longer necessary), prominent phenomena, such as the “#freethenipple” campaign, exploit tactics such as public exposure of women’s breasts as a form of protest against “the sexualization of the breast”: this is part of larger work against patriarchy, defined as “the source that takes away women’s power to

choose, devalues them and their ability to be themselves and to enjoy their bodies” (Rúdólfsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir 2018, 134, 142). In some instances, women protesters will perfectly replicate the tropes of pornography* (e.g., appearing to perform oral sex on dildos, as members of the FEMEN movement did in protest at a G7 meeting) – precisely in the name of women’s choice and emancipation. You will find it difficult, however, to come up with stories, much less images, of these women in newspapers of record (e.g., the Guardian, the New York Times, and so on), but neither would we expect them to publish the Jeff Koons painting.4

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A particular difficulty here is that, as compared with Europe – and especially Scandinavia – attitudes and judgments regarding bodies, sexuality, and thus pornography* in the United States are considerably more restrictive. This is primarily thanks to historical and contemporary religious attitudes and commitments. In 2015, c. 70 percent of US citizens described themselves as Christian. Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians constitute the largest groups of these (c. 45 percent) – traditions that, as shaped by Augustine and his doctrine of Original Sin, identify women and sexuality as primary ethical problems (to put it politely).5 These folk are free to believe as they choose. But the difficulty for “the rest of us” is that, as with other things internet and digital, much of the discussion regarding pornography and digital media largely arose in and was dominated by both popular and scholarly voices based in the United States. Moreover, all of the major platforms and communication venues through which our digital lives – and thereby SEMs – flow are owned and operated by the US-based corporations Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. These corporations have been slow (to put it politely) to recognize that their US-based conceptions of sexuality and what counts as pornography* are not universal. The result is “corporate censorship” of materials that are widely agreed upon not to count as “pornography” – exemplified in Facebook’s censuring the iconic picture of “the napalm girl,” 9-year- old Kim Phúc, running naked in terror and pain from the napalm bombing of her Vietnamese village. Questions of pornography* are thus deeply entangled not only with

matters of culture, but also with the ethical and political matters of freedom of expression as further complicated by national and international matters of corporate power, politics, and dominance – what Dal Yong Jin has aptly called “platform imperialism”.

This is not to say that a US-based scholar or corporate view is automatically suspect: it is to say that such views – as with views from any other cultural domain – tend strongly to be shaped by a specific set of cultural backgrounds. The first point is to be aware of these backgrounds – and how they vary from European through Scandinavian to Asian, African, indigenous, and other traditions – in order to avoid inadvertent dominance of one view and, simultaneously, to raise our awareness of the role of our own cultural backgrounds in shaping our own judgments and attitudes.

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