Pornography’s Silencing

by Carl Pierer Sexual Solipsism

A few months ago, this column discussed Rae Langton's argument that pornography subordinates women. This argument forms the first part of a longer paper re-published in her book Sexual Solipsism. The second part of this paper argues that pornography silences women. In light of recent events and discussions, this idea seems to have acquired a new relevance.

The second part of Langton's article builds on the speech act theory of the first. Silencing means, for Langton, the failure to perform a speech act. Her argument in this part of the paper is to first argue that speech acts can be silenced, secondly that there are silencing speech acts, and to conclude, thirdly, that pornography is a silencing speech act that silences the speech act(s) of women.

Along any one of Austin's three dimensions of a speech act, a speech act can fail to develop its force. So it is that along any one of these dimensions a speech act can be silenced. It is worth noting with Langton that when this happens there is an implicit power relation: because the dimensions of the speech act depend on qualifications concerning the speaker, the failure to perform along any of the dimensions is a measure of powerlessness.

The first, with undeniable political significance, is a failure to perform even a locutionary act. Potential speakers are intimidated, prevented from speaking, do not speak because they will not be listened to. They are not in the position to utter the words they want to utter. This is perhaps the most obvious case of silencing that comes to mind when thinking, for instance, about tyrannical regimes limiting free speech.

The second is a failure to accomplish what is intended by the speech: to comfort, without attenuating sadness, to invite, without guests coming, or to argue, without convincing. These are failures along the second dimension of speech acts, consequently they may be called perlocutionary frustrations. They too might have a political significance if failure along this dimension is, for example, due to the speaker's class or gender.

The third, of greatest interest for this article, is a failure along the third dimension. It happens "(…) when one speaks, one utters words, and fails not simply to achieve the effect one aims at, but fails to perform the very action one intends." This Langton calls illocutionary disablement. As mentioned earlier, certain speech acts require the speaker to have an authority to perform the illocutionary act: in the classic example, an ordained priest is required to pronounce the couple husband and wife in order for them to be married. This, Langton points out, means that the ability to perform an illocutionary act can be taken as a measure of authority and political power.

In her example, it is the established hierarchy between master and slave that prevents the latter from commanding the former. Langton writes: "Something has silenced his speech, not in the sense of rendering his spoken words inaudible or written marks illegible, but in the sense of depriving those sounds and marks of illocutionary force: of preventing those utterances from counting as the actions they were intended to be."

Langton then proceeds to give some examples of situations in which the context or a power relation prevents the speakers from achieving their illocutionary act. A non-political one is the following: an actress plays in a scene where she has to draw attention to a fire. So she shouts: "Fire! Fire!" and, to make it more real, adds: "Look at the smoke!". Then, a real fire is breaking out and the actress tries to warn the audience. She shouts "Fire! Fire!", adding "Look at the smoke!" Her intention is to warn, yet she does not succeed. Something about the situation prevents her from warning. If uttered by a member of the audience, or anyone else in the theatre, uptake would be secured. But she has been silenced. "The act of warning has been made unspeakable for (…)" her.

A second example is the all too familiar one of a woman proposing an idea to a group, but her idea is not considered. It is only when repeated word for word by a man that the idea finds uptake. The woman wants to propose an idea, she utters exactly the same words as the man, yet her proposal is not taken seriously. Something about her being a woman prevents her from making proposal. Her utterance does not count. She has effectively been silenced.

Thirdly, one may consider discriminatory policies. Langton gives the following:

A white South African makes marks on a piece of paper in a polling booth. A black South African makes marks that look just the same, and in similar conditions. Their intentions, we can imagine, are just the same. But the former has succeeded in doing something significant. He has voted. The latter has not. Something about who he is prevents him from satisfying a crucial felicity condition. South African law prevents his utterance from counting as a vote: voting is not speakable for him. He too lacks an important political power available to other citizens.

These considerations and examples illustrate how the (political) context and (gender) dynamics can silence the illocutionary force of an utterance. They demonstrate how certain acts are not available to certain speakers, due to the situational or structural context in which they attempt to act. But there are also speech acts that themselves actively silence. Langton suggests that the above three ways of silencing can all be brought about by speech acts. Locutionary acts can be silenced a simple case of ordering: a judge in a courtroom, or a minute of silence to honour victims. A case of a speech act bringing about perluctionary frustration could be the following: saying "don't go" to someone who has just been invited to a party may prevent her from attending the party. The more interesting cases are those of illocutionary disablement. The contrast is that with the prevention of locutionary acts (in the case of an ordered silence, for instance), there is room for disobedience. Despite the fact that silence has been ordered, someone may still interrupt the procedure. Similarly, saying "don't go" does not prevent the host from inviting her guest. With illocutionary disablement there is no room for such action: the actress cannot warn about the fire. The woman cannot make a proposal, and "[a] black who makes marks on the ballot paper does not disobediently vote; he does not vote." Langton writes that in these cases, the actions have been made unspeakable.

According to Austin's theory, the illocutionary force of a speech act relies on certain felicity conditions to be fulfilled. The question then is how these are established. What makes it possible to get married by saying "I do" is that it is an established procedure to reply in this way to the question of the priest in a marriage ceremony. So here it seems the answer is that convention establishes the felicity conditions. But it is not always this clear. Langton suggests that sometimes, in the case of marrying, divorcing, and voting, the felicity conditions are enshrined in law. These laws can themselves be regarded as speech acts, in particular their enactment constitutes an illocutionary speech act. They define a space of possible actions and they determine by whom these actions can be performed. Thus, "illocutionary acts fix the range and scope of other illocutionary acts." In this way, Langton shows that illocutionary acts can bring about illocutionary disablement; they can effectively silence people in this crucial third way: by making certain actions unspeakable.

Of course, not all speech acts are regulated by law. In most cases, the felicity conditions are not quite as clear, and their setting even less so: what regulates protesting, refusing, etc.? Langton suggests that: "But again, the answer may be that, by analogy with the legal cases, they can be set by what is said, this time by informal practices of speech and communication that gradually establish precedents and informal rules about what counts as, for example, a warning." Turning to some further examples, Langton illuminates how, in particular, pornography shapes the space of possible illocutionary actions.

Her first example is described with such restrained power, and the numbers she quotes are so maddeningly elevated, that it merits being quoted in full:

Consider the utterance ‘no'. We all know how to do things with this word. We use it, typically, to disagree, to refuse, or to prohibit. In sexual contexts a woman sometimes uses it to refuse sex, to prohibit further sexual advances. However, in sexual contexts something odd happens. Sometimes a woman tries to use the ‘no' locution to refuse sex, and it does not work. It does not work for the twenty percent of undergraduate women who report that they have been date raped. It does not work for the twenty‐five percent of final year schoolgirls who report that they have been sexually forced. Saying ‘no' sometimes doesn't work, but there are two ways in which it can fail to work. Sometimes the woman's hearer recognizes the action she performs: i.e., he recognizes that she is refusing. Uptake is secured. In saying ‘no', she really does refuse. By saying ‘no', she intends to prevent her hearer from continuing his advances. But the hearer goes ahead and forces sex on the woman. She prohibits, but he fails to obey. She fails to achieve the goal of her refusal. Her refusal is frustrated. ‘Perlocutionary frustration' is too meek and academic a label for what is simple rape.

But sometimes there is something even odder going on: a woman saying "no" to sex is not counted as a refusal. She may have every intention of refusing sex, but her refusal is denied its illocutionary force. Much like the actress in the above example, something about her situation, something about her being a woman, makes refusal impossible – it has become unspeakable for her.

The second example Langton gives is that of the book Ordeal. This book by Linda Lovelace (whose real name is Linda Marchiano) has received much attention in feminist literature. Langton writes: "In the book Marchiano tells the story of her involvement with the making of the film Deep Throat, describing how she was beaten, hypnotized, and tortured in order to perform her starring role." It is written as a testimony to protest the cruel practices of the pornographic industry. Its locutionary content is the depiction of a woman's subordination, mistreatment and degradation. Yet, its illocutionary force is that of protest. It does not arouse or invite fantasy, but provoke indignation. "It does not ‘endorse the degradation'; it does not ‘celebrate, promote, authorize and legitimate' the sexual violence. It does not have pornography's illocutionary force."

Nonetheless, the book is found included in a mail-order catalogue for adult reading. It is treated as a piece of pornographic literature. For these readers, the descriptions become erotic. Marchiano utters the words appropriate for protest, she means what she says and she tries to protest. And yet, her book is not taken as such. Her protest has effectively been silenced.

In the case of the second rape victim, as well as in Marchiano's case, for some reason the felicity conditions for refusal and protest are not met. Langton writes: "The rules fixing possible moves in the language games of sex are such that saying ‘no' can fail to count as making a refusal move, and telling the story of one's own subordination can fail to count as a move of protest." Her claim, consequently, is that pornography, in the domain of sex, functions like a legislator. It is pornography that defines the legitimate moves in the context of sex. It sets the conditions that make certain actions unspeakable for women.

In such situations as that of the second rape victim, it is not that her refusal is sexualised. Rather, she cannot refuse: the only move permitted to her is to consent. Pornography that legitimates rape may not depict refusal as refusal. It is merely absent, thus implying that all a woman can do is to consent. Someone who learns about sex from this kind of pornography may be unable to understand refusal. Langton argues that the fact that rapists do not consider their actions to count as rape points to the fact that refusal is not option for the victim.

The example of Ordeal shows that pornography turns protest into more pornography. Marchiano's descriptions no longer count as decrying a horrid situation, but her locutions have been hijacked and deprived of their illocutionary force: "If you are a woman using sexually explicit speech, describing in some detail the savage sexual violence you have suffered, and especially if you are already a famous pornography star, what you say simply counts as pornography." For Langton, this is not an isolated case, but part of a wider phenomenon. If violence is legitimated as sex, then victims of harassment or rape describing their sufferance cannot achieve the appropriate uptake. Their intention to testify about the violence they have experienced is silenced.

So, Langton concludes, the claim that pornography silences rests, just like the claim that pornography subordinates, on the claim that pornography has the authority to regulate what is permitted in a sexual context. As was argued last time, there are good reasons to believe that pornography does in effect have this authority. Thus, pornography can silence along all three dimensions of speech acts. It can prevent a locution from taking place: Langton quotes MacKinnon on cases where "children coerced into pornography are blackmailed into silence by pornographers who threaten to show the pornography to their parents and teachers." Through threat, silence is enforced. It can also prevent women from achieving with their locutions what they want to achieve. If pornography legitimates rape, women are forced to sex despite their saying "no" and despite their refusal being taken as refusal. Lastly, as seen in the case of the second rape victim and Ordeal, pornography also provides the framework for illocutionary disablement.

A comment on the first article suggested that it is implicitly assumed that pornography women are depicted as objects. According to the comment, the argument that pornography subordinates (and, by extension, since the argument works analogously, silences) presupposes this without justifying it. Because this is arguably not the case for all pornography, a more empiric approach is needed to determine the actual effects of pornography.

The response to this objection is twofold. Firstly, Langton explicitly recognises the limits of her argument: the argument that pornography subordinates (and silences) women relies on the claim that pornography has an authority to set the legitimate framework for sexual behaviour. It has been suggested that pornography indeed has this authority, although this is not a question to be settled from the philosopher's armchair. Secondly, the ingeniousness of Langton's argument is that it moves away from the mere content debate. Pornography, for Langton, does not denigrate, subordinate, and silence women simply because it depicts women as objects. It does so by virtue of its illocutionary force: Pornography is subordination. Of course, the separation of the locution from its other dimensions is tricky, but it is not indefensible. The whole idea is that, as was argued above, the illocutionary force is not determined by what is said (see Marchiano's example). It is therefore possible that the context of pornography, rather than what is depicted, is what subordinates and silences. Consequently, her argument draws hardly on the content of pornography.

Perhaps it is the following, legitimate worry that informs the above objection. In her essay, Langton does not explicitly define what she means by pornography. She does, however, cite MacKinnon: "We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women in pictures or words." Note that it is not the depiction of subordination; pornography is subordination. Subordination is not the effect of pornography but the very being of pornography. Langton's paper argues that this is not a confusion, nor a metaphor, but a definition with a good philosophical basis. In other words, it makes sense. There is, however, a question as to what saturates this definition. What are the works that fit under this category? This is a general problem of definitions and it seems plausible to demand an explanation.

A possible reply is to acknowledge that the stated aim of Langton's paper is not primarily to argue that pornography is subordination. But rather to show that to say it is makes perfect sense if we use Austin's speech act theory. A more satisfying approach is to look closely at how Langton uses the term "pornography". One clue is provided by the case of Ordeal, which shows that pornography is as much about the uptake than it is about content. It is the context that determines what counts as pornography, more than the content. Unfortunately, to elaborate this in detail goes beyond the scope of this article.

To summarise, Langton's paper argues that the two claims pornography is subordination and pornography silences make good philosophical sense. Furthermore, they both depend on granting pornography a certain authority: the authority of regulating legitimate sexual behaviour. There is good reason to believe that pornography does have this authority. One problem with this argument is that the concept of pornography remains somewhat underdetermined. But as was suggested, it is the context and in particular the uptake in the consumer of pornography that determines what counts as pornography.


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.