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Consent and Autonomy in Pornography

“In a just society, there is no room for porn.”[1]

In ‘Pornland’, Gail Dines strikes the core of what this essay will argue: that the existence of pornography in today’s society necessarily limits women’s consent and autonomy. When considering what it means to exist in today's society, this essay will explore the intersection of capitalism, technology, law, and misogyny as barriers to female autonomy. This essay will first analyse the power of the capitalist world order to coerce women into pornography due to financial pressure. Next, this essay will then examine the psychological impact of pornography on women, and how the damage caused contributes to a misogynistic, patriarchal society. Finally, this essay will evaluate recent technological advancements, including the ability for ‘deepfake’ pornography videos to be made from non-sexual photos of women via artificial intelligence (AI). This essay will critically discuss concepts of consent and autonomy regarding pornography through the lenses of capitalism, technology, law, and misogyny. It will determine that within today’s society, the existence of pornography necessarily limits women’s consent and autonomy.

The importance of defining pornography cannot be overstated when debating the impact of pornography on women’s consent and autonomy. Whilst the ongoing popular discourse around the definition of pornography is outside of the scope of this essay, simply arguing “I know it when I see it[2] is not enough. Therefore, this essay will adopt the first part of Dworkin and MacKinnon’s definition of pornography, namely “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words”[3] However, Dworkin and MacKinnon’s definition requires certain criteria to be met, such as that the content must present women as sexual objects, involve women being bruised or hurt, or present women being penetrated by objects. This places unnecessary limits upon what constitutes pornography, when content that falls outside of these categories can still infringe upon women’s consent and autonomy and would still be commonly recognised as porn. Therefore, this essay will consider the first part of the Dworkin-MacKinnon definition without the latter requirements.

Karen Ciclitira summarises that “feminists who have written and spoken about pornography […] have taken either a vehemently anti-pornography position or a strongly anti-censorship position.”[4] Whilst the reduction into two camps is a facile generalisation, this quote does highlight just how widespread the varied feminist critiques of pornography are. So-called pro-pornography ‘anti-censorship’ feminists would argue that to create pornography is a choice and that all women should be free to make this choice as consenting adults and execute their sexual agency. For example, Consuelo Concepcion argues that the anti-pornography view of feminists such as Gail and Dworkin “shows little respect for women’s differing sexual practices” and “denies women sexual agency.”[5] This argument is reductive in assuming that the so-called ‘choice’ to appear in pornography exists in a vacuum and disregards the influence of capitalism on a society where sex is for sale and pornography can be made and sold for profit.

In such a society it is at best mistaken, and at worst dangerous, to argue that no women are affected by financial coercion and that all women shown in pornography have chosen to do so freely. Dines argues that “Porn [...] needs to be understood as a business whose product evolves with a specifically capitalist logic.”[6] The fact that those featured in pornography “often come from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds and […] have few alternative options for making a living”[7] promotes a dangerous power imbalance between those arranging and directing pornography and the women depicted. In a relatively unregulated industry such as the pornography industry, such unfettered control over vulnerable women can lead to them feeling pressure or coercion to consent to a sex act they usually would refuse. This is especially true in situations where the ‘terms of the contract’, such as the sex act the woman is expected to perform, are changed last minute and payment is made contingent on completion. This drastically limits a women’s ability to provide free and considered consent and vitiates the very sexual agency that Concepcion argues that Dines, Dworkin and MacKinnon would deny women. As MacKinnon states in ‘Are Women Human?’, “If spreading your legs for a camera is a woman’s autonomous choice, wouldn’t you think that the women with the most choices rather than the fewest… would be the women doing it?”[8]

Gewecke argues that, for pornography actors, “the choice between accepting or rejecting a contract will be a hollow one […] participation in the [market for sex work] effectively requires sex workers to choose between genuinely consenting to their work and earning their living. It is best to call this pressure on sex workers financial coercion.”[9] One could argue that the same analysis can be made of any manual labour, a point which Gewecke himself makes in his article. However, he goes on to explain that “sex work can have a uniquely serious influence on the mental and emotional health of those who practice it, and that, accordingly, an inability to give informed consent to sex work should be treated as more serious than an inability to give informed consent to other types of work.”[10] Thus, due to the inherent emotional and physical health risks (through the risk of STDs and violence) of pornography, the standard of consent should be higher for pornography than in any other industry. Furthermore, this demonstrates that the capitalisation of pornography significantly limits women’s ability to consent, as an agreement under the financial duress which most pornography actors face cannot count as valid consent.

Some would posit that the commodification of pornography actually stands to help the disadvantaged and vulnerable women that many claim it harms, arguing that pornography can become an extra income source for women who sometimes have few other options, and these women should be free to capitalise on this opportunity if they chose to do so. However, when a woman exercises her free right to create pornography, she undergoes an essential revocation of her freedom and autonomy that cannot be consented to. Per this essay’s amended Dworkin-MacKinnon definition, pornography is the sexually explicit subordination of women, and the concept of subordination necessarily entails a loss of autonomy in being controlled by one’s superior. Thus, the concept of consent does not, and should not, include the ability to consent to a loss of autonomy. As John Stuart Mill argues, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free”.[11]

Applying this theory to the essay’s adapted Dworkin-MacKinnon definition of pornography it is clear that, despite illusions of empowerment, women are submitting to a loss of autonomy under the impression of having given informed consent. Thus, the existence of pornography within today’s capitalist society strips vulnerable women of their autonomy and vitiates their consent.

It could be argued that in a perfect society, the existence of pornography would not necessarily limit anybody’s consent or autonomy. Pornography consumption would be equal between men and women with pornography being created with both sexes as the target audience. In such a society, pornography would be permissible. However, as per the Dworkin-MacKinnon definition, the resulting media could no longer be considered porn, as it would no longer involve the sexually explicit subordination of women. This is why, as Dines argues, “In a just society, there is no room for porn.”[12] Regardless of how pornography may exist in the hypothetical perfect society, in today’s society, the concept of pornography is not one of equal sexual enjoyment of both men and women. Pornography reflects the presence of misogyny in today’s society and exacerbates the violence and objectification women face through its impact on the psychology of its consumers, and the misogynistic world view it encourages. MacKinnon argues that viewing pornography makes men demand more violent pornography: “the more they enjoy it and the more aroused they get, the more abusive and violent they become, and the less harm they see in what they are seeing or doing. Men often think that they use pornography but do not do these things. The evidence shows that they are poor authorities on this subject.”[13] MacKinnon accurately highlights the detrimental impact of pornography on women, explaining its desensitisation of men to violent sex and the conditioning of men to expect the replication of pornography in real life sexual experience, yet her view appears to gloss over the role of men in this harm. She fails to hold men accountable for their own actions, choosing to blame the pornography industry for violence against women instead of also holding adult men responsible for the content they watch and for the harm this causes women.

Amy Allen disagrees, arguing that “pornography does not have the power to construct our social reality that MacKinnon and Dworkin claim it has, nor do we as individuals have the power to decide to construe pornography as necessarily subversive.”[14] However, MacKinnon’s view is reinforced by a psychological study entitled ‘Do Varying Levels of Exposure to Pornography and Violence Have an Effect on Non‑Conscious Emotion in Men?’. This established that, whilst exposure to violence and pornography had no effect on viewer’s self-assessed conscious rating of arousal and violence, frontal ERP scanning demonstrated that after repeated exposure to pornography, participants “perceived the unpleasant (and, to a lesser extent, the violent) images as more positive that they had at baseline.”[15] This demonstrates that observing violence and pornography desensitises men to violence and unpleasantness and, in fact, conditions them to enjoy it more (a positive reaction). Applying this study to the question of whether pornography affects women’s consent and autonomy, it is clear that continued exposure to pornography would condition men to seek, or at least become less sensitive to, more violent pornography and sexual experiences in the future, thus negatively impacting women’s ability to consent and access to autonomy. Furthermore, the difference between men’s self-reported reactions and the brain scans indicates that men are not aware of this change happening, reinforcing Dworkin’s view that men are poor authorities on this subject,[16] unable to tell that the pornography they view influences their preferences in real life.[17]

MacKinnon further argues that engaging with pornography blurs men’s recognition of consent in real life, making it “it impossible for them to tell when sex is forced, that women are human, and that rape is rape.”[18] One practical example of this is that pornography rarely, if ever, shows the participants seeking and giving consent both to the sexual activity and to its documentation. Regardless of whether this is because the pornography is made without consent, or consent is given before documentation begins, the viewer is conditioned to no longer associate sex (specifically rough sex, including scenes depicting stimulated or real rape), with requiring consent. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that many adolescents’ first sexual experience is with porn,[19] and that a young boy might internalise the lack of consent and violent sex depicted in pornography before having healthy consent in sexual relations modelled through his own experience or taught to him through sex education.

Writing about an online Reddit forum where pornographic photos are shared alongside a ‘verification post’ which verifies that the woman depicted has given consent, van der Nagel argues that such verification “calls attention to consent as a key part of sexual encounters, in person or on a social media platform.”[20] Specifically, she praises the page’s the publicization of consent, that the verification posts appear on the page rather than being privately submitted to the page moderator, as it “reminds the viewer that even when they are faceless and pseudonymous, these are real women insisting upon agency for their own image.”[21] Van der Nagel advocates for the importance of a consent or verification system which “deliberately communicates: ‘I took this to be shared in this context’.”[22]

Acknowledging the context in which an image was taken has become all the more important, but also far more difficult, in recent history due to the technological advancements of today’s society, specifically the use of deepfake AI technology. Deepfake pornography, where sexual images and videos can be artificially created from non-sexual images and shared without the knowledge or consent of the person depicted, is the most popular use of deepfake technology, with 96% of deepfake videos being non-consensual porn.[23] This is a new step in a long history of women’s images and sexuality being used to harass, humiliate, and harm them. Van der Nagel explains that “[b]y treating Women’s faces as a digital resource to be edited onto sexual bodies by artificial intelligence, [deepfake pornography] reinforces the idea that women exist as sexual objects.”[24] What makes deepfake pornography even more unconscionable than the already inhumane treatment of women via revenge pornography and other sexual image abuse, is the fact that deepfake pornography can be created without the subject ever having taken any kind of sexual image. Whilst that is not to say that those who do take sexual images are any more deserving of sexual image abuse, this does highlight that any woman can become a target of non-consensual pornography, further demonstrating the threat to all women’s autonomy that pornography poses, especially when enabled by the technology of the twenty-first century.

Pornography further limits the consent and autonomy of women by conditioning them to participate in their own subjugation. MacKinnon argues that “Through its consumption, pornography further institutionalizes a subhuman, victimized status for women by conditioning men’s orgasm to sex inequality.”[25] West agrees, and highlights the importance of women reversing their conditioned internalised misogyny and acknowledging the harm suffered in order to regain their autonomy, arguing that “Before we can convince others of the seriousness of the injuries we sustain, we must first convince ourselves, and so long as others are unconvinced, to some extent, we will be as well...”[26] Thus, societies engagement with pornography limits the consent and autonomy of women as a whole, in the sense that it blurs men’s recognition of consent in real life situations, conditioning men to disregard the importance of concepts of consent and autonomy, and women to accept a subjugated status.

At its core, pornography in today’s society necessarily limits women’s consent and autonomy. Through exploring the intersection of capitalism, technology, law, and misogyny, this essay has proven that the concepts of consent and autonomy are drastically limited in regard to pornography. An effective law to rectify this and secure the status of consent and autonomy for women would be one that recognises the specific harm that pornography causes all women and the limitations it places on all women’s consent and autonomy. Furthermore, the law must have regard for the technological advancements of both the present and the future. To accommodate for the fact that pornography can be altered, edited, and fabricated; the law must require consent to be given/required for the full use of an image. Finally, the law must acknowledge the systematic misogyny that women experience on a day-to-day basis, and how this reflects onto pornography.

[1] Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (1 edn, Spinifex Press 2010)

[2]Jacobellis v Ohio 378 US 184 (1964)

[3]Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography and civil rights : a new day for women's equality (Organizing Against Pornography Minneapolis, Minn. (734 E. Lake St., Minneapolis 55407) 1988)

[4] Karen Ciclitira, 'Pornography, Women and Feminism: Between Pleasure and Politics' (2004) 7 Sexualities 281

[5] Consuelo Concepcion, 'On Pornography, Representation and Sexual Agency' (1999) 14 Hypatia 97

[6] Dines (n 1)

[7] Caroline West, 'Pornography and Censorship' (2022) Winter 2022 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[8] Catharine MacKinnon, Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues (Harvard University Press 2007) 115

[9] Andrew Gewecke, 'Consent and Commodification: Objections to the Market for Sex Work' The Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Review

[10] Ibid

[11] John Stuart Mill, On liberty (Cambridge library collection Philosophy, Cambridge University Press 2012)

[12] Dines (n 1)

[13] MacKinnon  (n 8)  117

[14] Amy Allen, 'Pornography and Power' (2001) 32 Journal of social philosophy 512

[15] Sajeev Kunaharan and others, 'Do Varying Levels of Exposure to Pornography and Violence Have an Effect on Non-Conscious Emotion in Men?' (2020) 49 Archives of sexual behavior 1215

[16] MacKinnon  (n 8)  117

[17] Ibid  (n 8)  117

[18]  ibid

[19] Himani Adarsh and Swapnajeet Sahoo, 'Pornography and Its Impact on Adolescent/Teenage Sexuality' (2023) 5 Journal of Psychosexual Health 35

[20] Emily van der Nagel, 'Verifying images: deepfakes, control, and consent' (2020) ahead-of-print Porn studies (Abingdon, UK) 1

[21] Ibid 427-8

[22]  ibid 428

[23] Giorgio Patrini, 'Mapping the Deepfake Landscape' (Deepfake Labs, 2019) <>

[24] van der Nagel (n 19) 426

[25]  MacKinnon (n 8) 117

[26] Robin West, 'The difference in women's hedonic lives: a phenomenological critique of feminist legal theory' (2000) 15 Wisconsin women's law journal 149

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