How do we define pornography?

How do we define pornography? July 8, 2017
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How do we define pornography?

A fairly typical definition of “pornography” goes like this:

“Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.”

This leaves a lot of wiggle room… How do we define half of the terms in this definition? Who gets to decide what is an erotic vs. an emotional or aesthetic feeling? Who gets to decide if the material was intentionally erotic or not? What about when one person finds something erotic but another does not? Who gets to decide what is “explicit?” The break down of most definitions become problematic when you apply them to individuals and their perspectives.

There can be no real agreement on what pornography “is” because different people will find different things sexually arousing, people will find different things to cross the line between “artistic” and “pornographic” and there is a moral overlay on the word from its very beginnings* that makes people’s different values, understanding of morality and perspectives take very different approaches to what they define as “porn.” In the sex therapy field we prefer “sexually explicit material” which has less of a bias towards one particular persons morality. I’ve been in many trainings where many images are shown with therapists having a clicker to decide “yes” or “no” on whether we would define something as pornographic. There is never unanimous agreement. The complexities of sexual perspectives never stop fascinating me…

This is why it is so important to have in-depth discussions with our partners and our children on how we define these words and concepts… instead of assuming that the way we think about something is going to be how someone else does. And to remember that we have a right to our experiences/values/perceptions… as do others. As well as remembering that there is a difference between a sexual value and a scientific fact.

*Originally the term pornography was derived from the Greek porni (“prostitute”) and graphein (“to write”). It was a term used to define art or literature that would describe the life of prostitutes.

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at and runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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