What is pornography?

Before discussing pornography on the Internet, it is useful to discuss what is meant by the term pornography. Defining pornography is complicated mainly because the way it is used in common language or defined in dictionaries is much different than the legal definition of the term (Easton 1998, 605). Generally speaking, pornography should be differentiated from obscenity, which is associated with things that are some how repulsive to the senses and is the term most often used in laws dealing with illegal pornography (Easton 1998, 605).


Pornography is easily recognized but is often difficult to define concisely. The word pornography originates from the Greeks who defined it as writing about prostitutes (Easton 1998, 605). The Canadian Dictionary of the English Language defines pornography as "sexually explicit material that sometimes equates sex with power and violence." (1997). This definition, by specifically including the concepts of power and violence, is perhaps too restrictive. Pornography has also been defined as "sexually explicit material that subordinates women through pictures or words" (Easton 1998, 605). This definition, by strictly associating pornography with the subordination of women, may also be too narrow. The broadest way to define pornography is as a sexually explicit depiction.

A good definition using this approach is from The Encyclopedia of Ethics, and defines pornography as "the sexually explicit depiction of persons, in words or images, created with the primary, proximate aim, and reasonable hope, of eliciting significant sexual arousal on the part of the consumer of such materials." (VanDeBeer 1992, 991)

This definition is necessarily broad and covers most dictionary definitions of the term and how it is understood in general use. It is also clear from this definition that not all pornography is illegal, as is clearly demonstrated by looking at the magazine rack of many Canadian corner stores, or associated with power and violence. It may also be seen to include material defined as erotic or materials defined as erotica, although there is no agreement on whether it does or not. However, some material that falls under this definition is illegal and needs to be distinguished from the more general definition used above.

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