Pornography and Speech Act Theory – An In-Depth Survey

Elpis 14 (1):9-26 (2021)
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Considering the short history of the feminist philosophy of language, Rae Langton’s article “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts” was highly influential as one of the first positive research programs in the movement. In that paper, Langton – using John L. Austin’s speech act theory – tries to interpret Catharine MacKinnon’s thesis: pornography is a speech that subordinates and silences women. Despite the importance of the subject, those unfamiliar with certain historical and contextual features of the topic would hardly understand it. My paper aims to introduce some of the major accounts in this special area in the intersection of speech act theory and feminist philosophy. Rather than just reconstructing Langton’s arguments and the most common objections against it, I will take a more holistic approach, examining its surrounding literature as well. This article has six sections. In Section 1, I contrast the conservative and liberal arguments against pornography and sketch MacKinnon’s liberal critique. In Section 2, I give alternative interpretations of MacKinnon’s thesis, “pornography is harm.” In Section 3, I try to make sense of the prima facie implausible assumption that pornography is speech. In Section 4 and 5, I will analyze the Langtonian theories about subordination and silencing. Finally, in Section 6, I will mention the most challenging problems for Langton’s approach, considering the verbal nature or pornography, the limits of the protection of free speech, and the different positions on sexual consent.


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