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September 28, 2010

Question: What is Objectivism's position on the morality (NOT legality) of pornography?

Answer: There is not to my knowledge a well-established position on pornography in Objectivism . However, here is my attempt to give an Objectivist treatment to the issue.

Pornography is the visual or textual representation of sex acts, presented and enjoyed exclusively for their titillating character (and therefore not as artwork nor as journalism, nor for research purposes).

The first thing to say about it is that Objectivism is not prudish. It does not counsel denying one's sexual nature, does not regard chastity as a notable virtue, does not regard masturbation as sinful, and thinks that in the context of a rational life, one should seek and enjoy pleasure. Speaking broadly then, it holds that one should enjoy what is to one's taste, and this could well include forms of erotica and pornography.

However, the Objectivist view of romantic love counsels some caution. In the Objectivist view, sex is not merely a practice of physical stimulation and relief. At its best, as part of a love relationship, it allows two people to experience deep and intimate contact, exchanging appreciation of each other at the physical and spiritual levels. It is a profound experience of self. But this is something one experiences with another person, and while that person's body and the physical act of sex is essential to the experience, that person's character, personality, ideas, and tastes are all integral as well.

The trouble with pornography is that it tends to present a physical fantasy of sex. This can give the viewer or reader a sense of false emphasis, an overemphasis on the visual and the physical aspects of sexual desire. It can associate sexual pleasure with stylized ideas of beauty and stereotyped conceptions of sexual encounters. This is not all there is to sex and love. In addition, a great deal of pornography trades on fantasies of abuse or degradation, to say nothing of peculiar fetishes. Again, in the context of a rational life, there is nothing wrong with indulging one's tastes, but to the extent that one's tastes relish a denial of the essential humanity of sexual and romantic partners, it seems to me questionable whether fascination with these kinds of representations is either rational or healthy.

Another danger of pornography is that it can serve as a substitute for normal sexual stimulation. This could leave one numb to an important dimension of relations with others.

This said, pornography can be a source of sexual titillation and pleasure, and is so for many. Objectivism does not counsel alienation from pleasure. But like other sources of pleasure, it can be abused, and therefore, if used, should be used with caution, and not as a substitute for a fuller experience of life.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

William Thomas
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