Pornography’s Subordination

by Carl Pierer

Sometimes, speech achieves something. Sometimes even, speech is necessary to do something. For instance, in the now famous example, somebody is getting married by uttering "I do." Austin's theory distinguishes three aspects to such utterances. First, what is being said: the locution. Secondly, what effect it has (on, for example, the hearer): the perlocution (or perlocutionary force or act). Thirdly, what is being done in saying so: the illocution (or illocutionary force or act). Austin's main interest lay with the last, the most subtle and difficult one.

He gives a rough-and-ready marker: "in saying" for the illocutionary act and "by saying" for the perlocutionary act: In saying "I do", she was marrying. By saying "I do", she upset her mother. The right context for the utterance ensures that it in saying "I do", she was indeed marrying, that it achieved its illocutionary act. That she also upset her mother by saying so is an effect the utterance produced in the hearer, its perlocutionary act.

These acts are, of course related: one person urges another: "Read the book" and the second person reads the book. The illocution here is the urging. The same locution may have a different illuction: the first person could have advised or ordered the second.

Austin argues that illocutionary force is institutionalised, that is, in order to achieve the act, it has to obey certain felicity conditions: in the above example, it is the context (the priest's question in the setting of the marriage ceremony, for instance) of her uttering "I do" that ensures that she is marrying.

This is the background in the philosophy of language that Langton develops in a much regarded article published at the height of the feminist debate surrounding the prohibition of pornography. The aim, of that article is not, at least not primarily, to argue for the prohibition, but rather to show that the claim that pornography subordinates makes good sense. In a second part of this article, not discussed her, she also argues that pornography silences women.

Langton argues that there are subordinating speech acts. Langton explains that for her: "(…) to subordinate someone is to put them in a position of inferiority or loss of power, or to demean or denigrate them." Her claim here is precise: she does not want to show the rather trivial point that some speech might have subordinating consequences, but the more radical claim that there is speech that in itself is subordinating. Or, with the above vocabulary, speech whose illocutionary act is an act of subordination.

As an example of such an act, Langton gives a legislator who passes apartheid laws, e.g. "whites only". Among its perlocutionary force will be that non-Whites will be kept away, enforcing a racist separation of (public) spaces. But, Langton suggests, there is more to it: "it orders blacks away, welcomes whites, permits whites to act in a discriminatory way towards blacks. It subordinates blacks." This, she claims, is its illocutionary force: in saying "whites only", the legislator orders blacks away. It is subordinating, in the previous sense, for – at the very least – it legitimates discriminatory behaviour towards blacks and it deprives blacks of important rights; here, to go to certain places. But, crucially, a subordinating speech act to be felicitous depends on the authority of the speaker. What ensures that the law "whites only" has its subordinating illocutionary force is that the legislator has an authority over this domain.

This is illustrated by the following: in a match of tennis, the umpire shouts: "Fault!" This is an accepted judgement. If a bystander shouts "Fault", this a mere interjection that does not have the power to pass as a judgement. It is the institution of the umpire that confers on her (and not on the bystander) the power to pass an (official) judgement.

Since there are speech acts that have a subordinating illocutionary force, Langton then argues that pornography in particular possesses this force. Often there is a debate about which kinds of pornography are subordinating, an attempt to draw fine distinctions. For instance, when women are depicted in subordinate roles. But Langton is now equipped with a more powerful distinction: the subordination is not so much, not only, a question of the locution, of what is being depicted, but about what is being done in saying so. Firstly, "not all sexually explicit depictions of subordination are pornography". Moreover, depictions of subordination need not subordinate: a documentary showing exploitation in sweatshops, or Marx analysing the conditions of the proletariat. If pornography subordinates, therefore, it must happen at a different level.

The perlocutionary aspect has often been discussed, a subject of many studies, but these unsettling results merit to be repeated. Hearers of pornography "(…) can become more likely to view women as inferior, more disposed to accept rape myths (for example, that women enjoy rape), more likely to view rape victims as deserving of their treatment, and more likely to say that they themselves would rape if they could get away with it." In this way, women are harmed by pornography. The reason why this counts as subordination is not simply that it is harmful, as Langton points out, but the asymmetry in who is harmed. The harm is, systematically, inflicted by one group of the population on another. This is how, on the perlocutionary level, pornography subordinates.

But, the claim that pornography subordinates is, essentially, a claim about its illocutionary force. The claim is twofold: it subordinates by ranking women as inferior, as sex objects, and it subordinates by legitimising sexual violence, which is not simply harm, but it is discriminatory behaviour. This claim, however, is strongly contested. Part of the problem is that the question of the illocutionary force of an utterance is often hard to settle. There is, in general, no agreed way on how to decide what the illocutionary force is.

Langton suggests that, for a given locution, there are three ways, all fallible, to argue for the presence of a particular illocutionary force. One way is to argue by saying that the locution's effects are best explained by the particular illocutionary force. A person's showing up at a party might partly be explained by her having been invited. Langton writes: "In such cases the illocutionary acts explain the perlocutionary effects". Of course, it can be explained in a different way, but under given circumstances this might be the best explanation. In the case of pornography, the perlocutionary effects of heightened discriminatory, and violent, behaviour towards women after exposure to pornography might be best explained by ascribing the subordinating illocutionary force to pornography: because it ranks women as sex objects, because it makes such behaviour seem normal, even desired.

Another, better, way of arguing is to show that "(…) uptake appropriate for the claimed illocution has been secured." In other words, the fact that the hearer took a certain locution for an advice provides reason to think that the speaker really did advise (and not order, or otherwise). Clearly, this is fallible, too. Pornography's uptake, in the hearers, is varied: whilst some take it to be amusement, others take it to be subordination. Langton acknowledges that, while women may be in a better position to judge what subordinates them, what denigrates them, such a way of arguing necessitates privileging one group of hearers over the other. Yet, even if inconclusive otherwise, this way of arguing may give further support to the claim.

The third, best way of arguing is to demonstrate that – despite the vagueness of the case – certain, important felicity conditions are met. Somebody might intend to advise "read this book", yet if this person holds a certain authority and under the right circumstances, it might count as an order. It was shown above that subordinating speech acts largely turn on a question of authority. And so, whether pornography subordinates depends on whether its speakers have authority.

According to Langton, one side (‘liberals') claims that pornographic speech is uttered by a minority, outcasts "particularly vulnerable to moralistic persecution", thus devoid of authority. The other side (championed by MacKinnon), aims to persuade that this view is mistaken. Authors of pornography are, in this particular domain of talk about sex, like the umpire in the match of tennis: they show their hearers the worth of women, they introduce the right behaviour. Langton writes that to decide whether pornography has this authority one needs to know – empirically – whether it is authoritative for those who want to learn what is permissible in the domain of sex. These statistics are not new, but due to their devastating, unnerving numbers, they merit being cited at length again:

What is important is whether it is authoritative for those hearers who—one way or another—do seem to learn that violence is sexy and coercion legitimate: the fifty percent of boys who ‘think it is okay for a man to force a woman if he is sexually aroused by her', the fifteen percent of male college undergraduates who say they have raped a woman on a date, the eighty‐six percent who say that they enjoy the conquest part of sex, the twelve percent who rank faces of women displaying pain and fear to be more sexually attractive than faces showing pleasure.

Of course, there remains doubt as to whether pornography really does have this authority. Langton published her article in 1993. Today, articles and studies about how teenagers consult pornography to learn about sex abound. Peggy Orenstein wrote in 2016 in the New York Times: "(…) according to a survey of college students in Britain, 60 percent consult pornography, at least in part, as though it were an instruction manual, even as nearly three-quarters say that they know is as realistic as pro wrestling." The claim for the authority of pornography authors with the launch of a section on sex education by Pornhub[i].

One question is in what way pornography is, in fact, a speech act that can be analysed according to Austin's threefold distinction of powers. Langton states that, because the courts considered pornography protected under the first amendment, it counts as speech. MacKinnon, campaigning for laws against it, declared it an act. Langton writes: "Put these together and we have: pornography is a kind of speech act." A question that present itself is whether the two could not be put together in a different way; not as a speech act but rather as an act of speech[ii]. The former is a technical term, an artificial creation, whilst the latter is "any act of uttering meaningful words"[iii]. While Langton does not provide a clear definition of what counts as a speech act, it is perhaps enough for pornography to be considered as a speech act, if indeed the analysis works for it. There is a slight risk of circularity here: we are looking for an illocutionary force in pornography because we consider it a speech act, but we consider it a speech act because it has an illocutionary force. But there is nothing vicious about this circularity.

None of this conclusively establishes that pornography's illocutionary act is one of subordination. But, Langton has shown the following: firstly, that good sense can be made of the claim that pornography subordinates. Not merely that it has subordinating effects, nor merely that some of it is the depiction of subordination, but that its speech subordinates. Even though it may not be enough to conclusively show that it does in fact subordinate, the empirical evidence seems to point in the direction to suggest that pornography has the authority of educators, perhaps even legislators of what is permissible, correct and demanded in the domain of sex.



Green, M. (2015, Summer). Speech Acts. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Langton, R. (2009). Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts. In R. Langton, Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (pp. 25-64). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Orenstein, P. (19, March 2016). When Did Porn Become Sex Ed? Retrieved from The New York Times:

[i] The site's Wikipedia page claims it is the largest pornography website on the internet, without giving any kind of indication as to what this means.

[ii] Mitchell Green makes this distinction in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, writing: "Whereas an act of speech is any act of uttering meaningful words, ‘speech act' is a term of art. As a first approximation, speech acts are those acts that can (though need not) be performed by saying that one is doing so." For Green, however, speech acts are synonymous with illocutions.

[iii] It might very well be that this is a mood distinction and that as Searle argued, all speech is performative.