Sunday, March 20, 2011

Langton - Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts

As I occasionally do, I'll use this blog as a place to keep a store something I wrote for a conversation somewhere else: in this case (as with the Swanton piece I did last year) it's a summary of a favourite paper of mine: Rae Langton - 'Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts'.

Langton sets out to to defend a claim by MacKinnon's that pornography constitutes a harm to women, in particular that it represents acts of subordination and thereby is an act of subordination. MacKinnon says lots of other things as well, but that is the only claim Langton is engaging with here. The problem with MacKinnon's claim is that something isn't automatically an act of subordination merely in virtue of portraying subordination (which is a fair point). Langton sets out to see whether portrayals could also constitute harms to women, and she comes up with two ways in which it could.

The first, more familiar, way is that, if pornography were to be an authoritative voice in sexual matters, then it would spread and validate an image of sexual relations wherein women are demeaned and degraded. Langton doesn't try to prove that pornography doesn't have such authority -- she admits that it is often taken not to by wider society -- but she suggests that in certain audiences, especially among adolescent men, it very well might. If that were the case, that would mean that people in that audience would follow the example that pornography sets them, with harmful effects.

The second, very original, analysis of how pornography might constitute a harm to women Langton presents is that an environment infused with pornography is one wherein certain speech acts would be unperformable. In such an environment, if a woman would attempt, amongst other things, certain refusals or protests, she couldn't make herself be understood as doing so. The outward signs of refusals and protests (Langton's examples) are understood in such an environment as part of the role women play in normal sexual activity ('when she says no she means yes' is the most familiar example of this thought), so while a women could say exactly the things which would count as a refusal or protest normally, they couldn't count as such in that environment. This is the most important contribution of the paper.

I especially admire how carefully Langton lays out the scope of her analysis: the first part succeeds if pornography is authoritative in its portrayals of sex (at least among some audiences), the second part succeeds if pornographic portrayals of sex don't allow scope for women to do certain things, like refuse advances or sincerely protest them (and be taken seriously). It is worth quoting Langton on what here analysis is supposed to establish (from right near the end of here essay):
The claims that pornography subordinates and silences women make perfect  sense; they are not sleight of hand, not philosophically indefensible, not confused. Moreover, if pornographic speech is indeed authoritative, the claims may well be true. The premise about pornography's authority is an empirical one. If you think it is false, you  will disagree with the conclusion about the truth of the claims, but not, I hope, with the conclusion about their coherence.


  1. To my great surprise, the stats page for my blog says that this is far and away the most read of my posts, with more than twice as many page views as the next most-viewed piece. It also tells me that almost all of these page views come from Facebook. I have no idea what could be bringing all these readers here - I did place a link to this on Facebook, but I expect that only my friends there would have seen it, and I don't know why they would keep clicking on it even months later. Could one of the many readers of this post on a rarely-updated, low-traffic blog sate my curiosity and tell me what brought them here?

  2. I googled Langton's piece looking for notes or summaries of it.