A Review of The Essay – The Pleasures of Looking – The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography Versus Visual Images

The essay, ‘The Pleasures of looking’ – The Attorney Generals Commission on Pornography Versus Visual Images read from the book titled, “Essays On Contemporary Photography” – The Critical Image, Edited By Carol Squiers. It was written by Carole S. Vance.

After reading this essay, I have definitely gathered a greater understanding surrounding some of the history that pornography and photography are situated within. I find it interesting how the times have changed through the years, as to how pornography in particularly was viewed to be a disgrace, shameful, and generalised as taboo. People who were involved in pornography via watching it, looking at pictures of it, or partaking in acts of a pornographic nature  were seen to be,’victims of pornography’.

Here are a selection of direct quotes from the essay that really grabbed my attention :-

  • “The chief targets of it’s campaign were sexually explicit images, dangerous, according to the logic of the commission, because they might encourage sexual desires or acts”.
  • “Although the term representation was not in its vocabulary, the panel of commissioners tenaciously clung to and aggressively advanced implicit theories of visual representation”.
  • “Women were virgins , sex was dirty, shame and secrecy were rampant”.
  • “Moral conservatives want to control: sex outside the regulated boundaries of marriage and procreation”.
  • “Sexually explicit images are dangerous, conservatives believe, because they have the power to spark fantasy, incite lust, and provoke action, as well as convey undesirable information”.
  • “Pornography, to them, is a stand-in for destructive sexual impulses that, left uncontrolled, threaten to destroy the stability of the family, the authority of men over women, and the power of parents over children.
  • “Sexuality is an actively contested terrain, where diverse constituencies struggle over definitions, law, and policy”.
  • ” Amid this flux, regulation of visual images gives the illusion of control: visual images can still be regulated, although the actual sexual behaviour they depict usually cannot be”.
  • “So the preeminent harm that pornography was said to cause was not sin and immorality, but violence and degradation”.
  • “Anecdotal testimony that pornography was responsible for divorce, extramarital sex, child abuse, homosexuality, and excessive masturpation was entered as ‘evidence’ and appears as supporting documentation in the final report’s footnotes”.
  • “Censoring sexually explicit images in terms other than the practical, maintaining that visual images have a special power to influence behaviour”.
  • “In addition they argue that pornography has become increasingly visual and influential, due to the swelling numbers of hard-core magazines, new technologies like home-video and cable television, and more audacious content”.
  • “Pornography served to influence norms, suggesting that hedonism, sex for pleasure, and promiscuity were acceptable”.
  • “Woman’s Day editor Ellen Levine, occasionally raised questions about the relationship between the images found in the photography of Bruce Weber, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Helmut Newton and the pornographic images under discussion, asking about the impact of new regulation on their work”.
  • “Professing belief in the most naive and literalist theories of representation, the commissioners nevertheless brilliantly used visual images during the hearings to establish ‘truth’ and manipulate the feelings of the audience”.
  • “Establishing “the truth’ about pornography, that is, to characterise and describe the sexually explicit material that was said to be in need of regulation”.
  • ” The commission capitalized on the realistic representational form of still photos and movie and video clips, stating that the purpose of viewing these images was to inform the public and themselves about ‘what pornograohy was really like'”.
  • Pornographic images consistently captured the audience’s attention”.
  • “Slides featured subjects guaranteed to have a high shock value:  excrement, urination, homosexuality, bestiality (with over twenty different types of animal, including chickens and elephants), and especially sadomasochism (SM)”.
  • “Predictably, the commission relied on the realism of photography to amplify the notion that the body of material shown was accurate, that is, representative“.
  • “The desired fiction was that extreme images were found everywhere and that all pornography was the same. Images existed in a timeless pornographic present”. 
  •  “Shock, discomfort, fascination, repulsion, arousal all operate to make the image have an enormous impact and seem undeniably real“.
  • “Pornography depicted actual violence; pornography encouraged violence; and pornography promoted male dominance and the degradation of women”.
  • “An image that is erotic to one individual is revolting to a second and ridiculous to a third”.
  • “It’s strategic use of images was a crucial component of this emotional managment. Because the POWER  of this emotional climate fades in the published text, it is not obvious to most readers of the commission’s report”.
  • ” Anyone who experienced arousal to the images shown felt simultaneously ashamed, abnormal, and isolated”.
  • ” The lesson was a complex one, but it taught the importance of managing and hiding sexual arousal and pleasure in public, while it reinforced sexual secrecy, hypocrisy, and shame. The prospect of exposure sure brought with it fear, stigmatisation, and rejection”.
  • ” The commission’s success in maintaining and intensifying a climate of sexual shame depended on the inability of witnesses to address the question of sexuality and pleasure“.
  • “The antidote to the Meese Commission – and by extension all conservative and fundamentalist efforts to restrict sexual images, whether in pornography, sex education, or AIDS information – is a complex one, requiring vigorous response that goes beyond appeals to free speech”.

Bellow are a few quotes taken from the final paragraph of the essay which is an overview about the whole essay and the key nuggets of information that Carole S. Vance has brilliantly wrapped up together. Here She puts her own conclusion from the debate into written detail:-

  • “We must challenge the conservative monopoly on visual interpretation”.
  • ” The visual arts community needs to employ its interpretive skills to unmask the modernised rhetoric conservatives use to justify their traditional agenda, as well as deconstruct the ‘difficult’ images fundamentalists pick to set their campaigns in motion”.
  • “To do all this, visual artists and art groups need to be willing to enter public debate and activism, giving up the notion that art or photography is somehow exempt from the right-wing crusades against images”.
  • “Take courage and begin to speak to what is missing, both in the Meese Commission’s monologue and in the anticensorship reply: desire, sexuality, and pleasure”.
  • “The tantalizing connection between visual and sexual pleasure”.

From reading this essay I have gained a great understanding into the how many people perceived pornography/erotic imagery, in the past. I feel that although many of these quotes (above) taken from the essay depict how people from this time felt towards these types of work, these feelings have changed in the current era. The final point that I am going to make is that throughout this essay it always seems that the material be it image or literature based held the power, it was the centre of the argument, the focus point of the people involved in the debate. For me and the research project that I am undertaking this realisation has given me a whole new perspective on where the POWER RELATIONSHIP lies within erotic photography on a whole, another vast avenue of which i am going to have to research in more depth.


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Filed under 3rd Year, Working with Photography in Context - Symposium

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