To begin with the most obvious of philosophical questions, What is pornography? The problem of definition is well known and often invoked as part of the argument against the legal repression of pornographic materials. If we decide to censor, the worry goes, what will be the fate of works by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Norman Mailer? What should be done about ad campaigns like those of Victoria’s Secret, which openly draw on soft-core tropes, and American Apparel, which invokes the semiotics of amateur “teen” hard-core sites? Won’t we have to censor more things than necessary? I encounter this question from the audience every time I present my research: What do you do about the fact that pornography is so difficult to define and circumscribe? If it is impossible to point to exactly what makes something pornographic, then how is that elusive thing to be theoretically examined, much less politically acted upon?

Harriet Gilbert writes that “the recent obsession with a definition—especially with a foolproof, clear-cut, legal definition—has not only distracted from but positively harmed understanding” in the debates concerning pornography. Is it possible to understand the phenomenon of pornography without arriving at a definition of it? Arguably, definition must precede analysis, so that, at the very least, we all know what we’re talking about. Equally arguably, however, the reason pornography remains such a complex and daunting topic that it demands ever more analysis is precisely that it is so difficult to define. The p-word is loaded, to put it mildly. Gilbert advocates suspending the use of the word and discussing instead something like literatures of sex, a category in which the stuff that is easily recognizable as pornography would commingle with art and other cultural production in which explicit sexuality poses some degree of threat to personal boundaries and the social order. It is this broader phenomenon that we should be trying to understand, she argues, rather than looking for ways to define the pornographic so that we may then affect it legally, whether by posing constraints or protections. Linda Williams also argues against a stable definition, beginning from the position that what we call “pornography” is actually an irreducible plurality of pornographies, a diffuse and complex family of phenomena to be treated as such, and that the question of its political belonging (on which so much feminist intellectual energy is spent) is only one of many theoretical problems posed by the existence of pornographies.

I agree with both Gilbert and Williams to a certain degree. However, as someone for whom the question of political belonging remains pressing, I will continue to use the word pornography and to use it in the singular for strategic reasons. While I concur with Williams that “there is no monolithic pathology that can be demonized as obscene pornography” but instead there are only irreducibly plural and multivalent pornographies, within the boundaries of that claim it remains necessary to account for what one means by the word. I also take issue with Williams’s claim that the question of pornography’s political belonging, for which I will use the shorthand question “Is pornography part of the problem or part of the solution?” is merely one question among others. I contend that in the case of internet pornography, the question of political belonging must be foregrounded. The shift from previous forms of distribution to the internet forces us to consider the central role of contemporary pornography in the changing dynamics between sexual freedom and freedom of expression, as well as fantasy and social change.

All disclaimers aside, then, what is pornography? One answer concerns specifically what I mean by “internet porn” in the present study, namely materials created specifically to aid in masturbation and circulated on the internet, largely (though not exclusively) for commercial purposes. I am not interested in a clear-cut legal definition but in one which will allow me to get on with the project of thinking critically about a cultural phenomenon, or at the very least a set of materials and a set of practices. The question for me concerns not what people are actually masturbating to, but what has been created specifically for that purpose. Someone may indeed masturbate while reading Lolita, but that is an issue for a different study. The pornography subgenre “lolicon” (short for “Lolita complex”), however, a kind of cartoon imagery depicting very young girls with infantlike bodies penetrated by penises, fingers, and sometimes monster tentacles, has been created specifically and exclusively to sexually arouse to the point of orgasm. Lolicon, not Lolita, is what I mean by “pornography.” Likewise, the fact that someone somewhere may be masturbating to veterinary photographs of cow genitalia is not my concern. My concern is directed at a website like, a bestiality pornography site, which features among other things films of farm animals mating. These were originally filmed for some other purpose but are placed on this site explicitly and deliberately, packaged as pornography, edited and presented specifically for fans of bestiality sites to masturbate to. This kind of packaging and presentation of preexisting materials counts as “creating” pornography in my study.

As the example above illustrates, it is always possible to cite an image, from which it follows that it is equally possible to extract pornographic imagery like the aforementioned loli manga and present it in a different context, as artists sometimes do. This maintains the familiar controversy concerning the relationship of pornography to art (Is it pornography? Is it art? Can art be pornographic, and vice versa?). In the case of Mapplethorpe and Sade, for instance, the answer is clearly yes: artworks and pornography are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But the fact that the context of consumption is this important in determining whether the contents of the materials are properly pornographic simply underlines the point I will attempt to show: that in the phrase “internet porn” the former word is at least as significant as the latter. In other words, in the age of internet distribution, whatever question we ask about pornography’s social effects and political significance cannot be answered without taking the mode of distribution into account.

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Excerpt from Why Internet Porn Matters by Magret Grebowicz. Copyright (c) 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. Reprinted by permission from the publisher,