Missionary Impossible: Getting Deep Into The Discourse of Pornography

MILF’, ‘Lesbian’, ‘Teen’ – just a few of the most popular searches on the world’s favourite porn site, PornHub, boasting an impressive 60 million visitors per day. Although both the amount and the variation of genres on offer seems generous, one theme prevails all – the roles and portrayals of women behind the camera.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Kinbaku (Bondage) 1979

As a visual sociology student, the significance of visual images and the effect that they have on society is something I’ve become highly conscious of. Documentaries such as John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and works by William Mitchell have highlighted how imagery is used to gain knowledge of past times and distant places. And why not? A picture is real… Right? In the sociological sphere, we often view images as a product of society or means of empirical research. But what if we’re to take a different perspective, and take a look at the cultural output produced by an image?

The apparent legitimacy of photographic imagery and film has often been a point of controversy in the public domain – body image ideals are the unrealistic product of Photoshop, ‘perfect lifestyles’ are represented by filtered Instagram feeds, the list goes on. However, while science and technology can offer an explanation for inaccuracies with the images themselves, the underlying philosophies and biases of these images can be found in the foundations of social constructions – also created, but not so easily identifiable due to their deep-rooted relationship with societies.

Viewing pornography from a sociological viewpoint is truly fascinating. It explicitly defines erected (sorry) gender roles in today’s society but can also act as a catalyst for gender inequality.

Pornography: Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement. – Oxford definition

The above definition barely scrapes the surface of what is exposed when one watches porn. On a recent tour of PornHub, I was overwhelmed by many things.  On one hand, I was viewing images of sex – just sex, with all the physical elements of various types of sex included. On the other hand, I was acknowledging a discourse within the videos watched. With each video, the respective dominative and submissive roles of the male and female characters became more and more pronounced. It occurred to me how pornographic film had enabled the basic act of heterosexual sex to evolve into this gendered hierarchy. The rather disturbing video titles such as “MILF wife FUCKED like a whore” provided context for the videos and imaginably the ideas taken from them. I moved my attention to ‘lesbian’ porn. Although there was no actual male involved, I realised how rampant the male presence still was as I watched two females simultaneously perform oral sex on a rod-shaped toy, which had a suspicious resemblance to a penis.


Sound familiar?

But what about the ‘Porn for Women’ section or ‘Fem-Dom’? Surely even the fact that these sub-genres have to be dubbed as ‘feminine’ to begin with says a lot about mainstream porn’s target audience?

If anything else, porn is two things: 1) extremely popular and 2) extremely sexist. And sexism as a popular phenomenon is something that just doesn’t sit too well with me. Nor is the fact that sexist sex on a screen is what people really believe sex to be, or what people are using as a substitute for sex education.


23% of Irish children have admitted to seeing pornography (Irish Examiner, 2014)

But how do we combat this? How about we don’t be so naïve for starters – porn has had a place in every society as far back as can be traced, combating porn would simply be impossible. Instead, how about we think about shaping the pornographic discourse? Feminist Porn has been around since the 80’s and that is exactly what it has aimed to achieve. Filmmakers such as Erika Lust have worked hard to portray women “doing rather than being done to” through tasteful plots and moralistic narratives. Why don’t we acknowledge that women having sex is a normal and human act through humane pornography, one of the most notorious yet undisclosed forms of media.

They say “a picture says a thousand words” – why not take a REAL picture of REAL sex that is representative of women, representative of men and representative of sex and gender as it should be.



  1. Nobuyoshi Araki,, Kinbaku (1979) https://www.artsy.net/artwork/nobuyoshi-araki-kinbaku-bondage
  2. ‘Porn Logic’ (2013) http://www.memecenter.com/fun/1764159/porn-logic
  3. http://www.news.com.au/technology/teenagers-have-met-with-strangers-who-made-contact-with-them-via-the-internet/story-e6frfro0-1226647903075


  1. Agnew, R. (2015). Feminist porn: putting female desire in the picture?.Available: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/feminist-porn-putting-female-desire-in-the-picture-1.2250349.


  1. Does pornography have a moral right to present things equally?

    All media is expressive, but some has more responsibility than others. A piece of art that aims for realism means higher standards. That’s why Game of Thrones comes off as misogynistic.

    Pornography doesn’t pretend otherwise. It exists so people will masturbate to it, and then leave it alone.

    Yes, we should be critical of the images we see. For millions of years everything humans saw was really there. “Things that are not there” is a new phenomenon (Jerry Mender’s book about television discusses this. I think you’ll love it). However, I don’t think these are criticism which pornographers should care about. They only need to make sure the videos bring instant gratification, and of course that no one is harmed in the process.


    • Oh, yes pornographers are subjected to criticism. Everyone who produces cultural products is! But even sticking to your comment “They only need to make sure the videos bring instant gratification”, so to whom? Most of porn is made for white men. It is all about their fantasies. Porn is very excluding and symbolically very harmful. Mis-representation might not seem like an abuse or a violent act at first sight, but it has deep consequences on our social fabric. How do you define harm? And how much of main-stream porn is based on consensual sex? Porn needs to be diverse. As diverse as sex is. I suggest you read Erika Lust’s “Good Porn” and watch her TedTalk http://erikalust.com/ted-talk/


      • I agree all cultural products are subject to criticism and I don’t even object to analyzing its symbols.
        It’s just important to remember porno has less responsibility to portray thing equally. Its purpose is to turn the viewer on. The same goes for porno that tries to appeal to women.
        I’d say the lack of female-targeted porn is related to our slut-shaming society. A woman who confesses to watching porn will get more attention than a man.
        “White men”? What does the pseudo-scientific concept of race has to do with pornography?


  2. I understand your point but I still think that a) there is a lot of room for diversity in porn and b) to me consent ALWAYS has to be part of the story. Sex without consent is rape. And about white men, well just have a look at the people who produce, direct and write most of the porn out there. There are two constants: they are cisgender men and they are not POC. So much for “pseudo-scientific”.


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