Casey Lange

Is Pornography as Dangerous as Cartoons?


Artist unknown, Tijuana Bible entitled The Rubber Salesman, ca. 1935

Oscar Wilde writes in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written, or badly written. That is all.”

I disagree. The mistake that leads to this false conclusion is conceiving the effect of an artwork too narrowly: Wilde only sees the beauty that overtakes the viewer while viewing the artwork. That is one effect of art, but a work of art can have effects on the viewer’s life (how he or she thinks, feels, acts, judges) that extend beyond the moments spent viewing the work. Wilde writes in the same preface, “No artist desires to prove anything.” It may be true that art, which can after all portray particular people, things, stories, cannot prove any general truths. But there are ways of influencing people morally that don’t depend on rational persuasion.

How can art be a source of moral education–or of moral corruption? I mean “art” broadly, encompassing works of culture or entertainment in a variety of media. Humans learn by example, and artworks portray people acting in certain ways. Simply seeing certain actions can make those actions seem like legitimate options for us. If the people doing them are in some way already admirable or likable, we are more likely to see those actions as good or permissible.

Another way an artwork can promote or discourage certain actions or traits is by showing them rewarded or punished. The hero gets the princess in the end. In “Snakes on a Plane,” a couple disables the lavatory smoke detector in order to smoke a joint and have sex, but they become some of the movie’s earliest casualties when deadly snakes crawl in through the hole where the smoke detector was previously attached. Similarly we can laugh or feel satisfied in countless other horror or action movies where the character guilty of some recognized sin or vice (cowardice, greed, betraying one’s companions, fornicating, or just being overweight) is injured or killed.

But this is not quite the sort of moral influence I am thinking of. The kind of moral influence I am interested in relies on the emotional or aesthetic properties art can have, or the aesthetic/emotional states it can put us in–for example humor, fear, awe, beauty, sexual arousal. Instead of offering arguments or instructive examples in the hope of rationally persuading us to change our moral opinions, artworks can stimulate our nonrational emotional or aesthetic faculties in order to bypass reason and influence how we are disposed to act, feel, and judge.  

We can understand this process better by examining two cultural examples, one where many consumers see a possible moral threat but believe they can protect themselves from it (pornography), and one where consumers usually don’t see any moral aspect but which might be quite effective at transmitting moral dispositions (“South Park”).

Case: Pornography

Why are some people so afraid of pornography? Inversely, why are most people so unafraid of it? Closely related reasons. Here I’m talking about pornography that could pose some additional moral problem, beyond that which might be posed by the bare fact (no pun intended) of sexually explicit and sexually alluring reproductions of people in images and video. This includes, e.g., incest, abusing a position of authority to manipulate another into sex (boss/secretary, teacher/student), and violent or apparently non-consensual sex.

It is probably obvious why some people are afraid of pornography: they are afraid that when people become sexually aroused while seeing, e.g., a woman being tied up and beaten, they will come to be sexually aroused at the idea of a woman being tied up and beaten. Indeed, the prevalence of porn featuring aggression and gratuitous degradation of women suggests a demand more widespread than fetish niche markets.

First, the reason people are unafraid of it: many people when using pornography decide – how explicitly to themselves they make this decision may vary with how much they have worried about porn’s moral effects – to leave their moral sense at the door, where it can neither pass judgment nor, and this is the essential thing, be at all affected. “I know that there are some things here I wouldn’t approve of, but that doesn’t reflect on me and it cannot harm me, because the only part of me involved here is my libido.” If Vladimir Nabokov, in an autobiographical appendix to Lolita, is to be believed, the producers of pornography are quite cooperative in this isolation of sexuality from all other human faculties:

in modern times the term pornography connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient.

Case: South Park, Season 5, Episode 7: “Proper Condom Use”

The children of South Park are found masturbating dogs, having no idea what they are doing (they think they are milking them). After first scolding the children, the adults come to the startling realization: despite their ignorance about sexual matters, kids are being exposed to sex through older peers, through the media, etc. Someone needs to teach them the truth about sex, and how to be safe about it if they partake. But who? Not the parents—their concerned fervor can’t overcome their own squeamishness about talking about sex. The public schools must teach sex ed! But this doesn’t work out and the children end up more confused than before—girls thinking that all boys have AIDS, boys thinking that they need to wear condoms 24/7 in order not to get STDs, all of this ending up with the boys laying a “Mad Max”-style bloody siege upon the fortress hastily erected by the girls, each group hoping to eliminate or escape the threat once and for all. As the cafeteria chef sums up in a “moral of the story” scene at the end of the episode, we can’t have our children educated about sex by teachers who might be ignorant or have skewed values about the topic: it’s parents who have to teach kids about sex in the safe, nurturing setting of the family home.

There is a definite moral/political message here coming from the show’s conservative creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker: sex ed should not be taught in schools, and we certainly shouldn’t use our taxes to fund it. “Come on,” you may say, “it’s not political—it’s just supposed to be funny. The ‘consequences’ they present are ridiculous. No one actually expects that; it’s not going to persuade anyone to change their political positions.” But this cartoon is effective in a way that a rational–even possibly exaggerated–laying out of the arguments against or possible harmful consequences of sex ed in public schools, couldn’t be. The cartoon, by being funny, bypasses the viewers’ reason altogether, appealing to the faculty of humor (which would seem to share some similarity with whatever part of us reacts to sexual or emotional appeals), so that it can directly influence the viewer’s judgments about things. It makes the very idea of sex ed in schools laughable, ridiculous. This could have the additional effect that the viewer is not only inclined against sex ed, but it will be difficult for them to seriously consider it, to rationally engage with the arguments on both sides.


These are only two examples, and much more could be said about them. But they make clear the essential point: whether we are aware of it or not, works of art can and do have moral effects on us. They are all the more effective morally because of their ability to appeal to our nonrational faculties. People are especially aware of this in the case of pornography, perhaps because the nonrational element is so readily apparent. I think that such awareness provides a fairly effective moral defense. It is when we don’t recognize the existence of a moral message beneath the emotional force that we are most susceptible to it.

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