Pornography and the Contrast Between Sexism and Misogyny

A half-covered tablet which is playing pornography

Dr. Aidan McGlynn is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

My aim in this post is to examine the bearing of sexist pornography on the distinction between sexism and misogyny drawn by Kate Manne in her recent and highly influential book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018). Manne’s overarching project is to convince us to abandon what she calls the naïve conception of misogyny, according to which it is a matter of a large number of men directing hatred or hostility towards women—all or most women—simply on the grounds that they are women. In its place, Manne offers a characterisation of misogyny that shifts our focus from the supposed hostility felt by men and onto the hostility experienced by many women in navigating various social spaces and situations (2018: 59). On Manne’s analysis, one central function of patriarchy is to position women as the givers rather than the takers of certain kinds of goods, including sympathy, attention, emotional, domestic and reproductive labour, and sexual attention. Misogyny is the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, ‘which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations’ (2018: 78). Women who don’t tow the line with respect to these norms and expectations can be subject to a number of ‘down girl moves’ which act to nudge them back into line, to punish them, and to serve as a warning to other women. Down girl moves vary across different cultures, but even within a particular culture they can take a variety of forms, ranging from the relatively subtle to the overtly violent.

One of the main considerations that Manne offers in favour of her account of misogyny over the naïve conception is that it allows us to draw a ‘clean, useful contrast’ between misogyny and sexism (2018: 78). Sexism ‘should be understood as the “justificatory” branch of a patriarchal order, which consists in ideology that has the overall function of rationalizing and justifying patriarchal social relations’ (2018: 79). Again, this ideology will be somewhat culturally specific, but longstanding and clear examples include the tropes that woman are nurturing, natural and instinctive parents, in need of protection, and less rational and intelligent (while men—especially white men—are naturally stronger, more dominant, logical, intelligent, rational, and natural leaders). An ideology built around such tropes rationalises and justifies a social order which positions women as givers of particular kinds of labour, care, and attention, and certain men as entitled to such labour and support in order to enable them to pursue supposedly grander endeavours.

Having explained how she understands sexism and misogyny, and the way that they conspire to uphold patriarchy, Manne draws a number of contrasts between them:

Overall, sexism and misogyny share a common purpose—to maintain or restore a patriarchal social order. But sexism purports to merely be being reasonable; misogyny gets nasty and tries to force the issue. Sexism is hence to bad science as misogyny is to moralism. Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts. (2018: 80).

Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel. (2018: 88)

Much mainstream heterosexual pornography looks like a problem for this way of thinking about the contrast between sexism and misogyny since it primarily seems to fall on the sexism side of the divide, but it’s not bookish, theoretical, or scientific. I don’t mean to suggest that pornography is never misogynist in character. So-called “revenge-porn” is clearly misogynist, involving devastating violations of personal privacy and autonomy, supposedly as an act of revenge (on an ex-partner, for example). As the leaks of private photographs and videos of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence show, there’s often not even a pretence of a motivation of revenge; rather, these are attempts to embarrass and expose successful women, to ‘take them down a peg’, and to affirm an entitlement to sexual access to them. Some mainstream pornography films may count as, or purport to be, ‘revenge porn’ in this sense; but, crucially, much doesn’t. The main problem with mainstream pornography, from a feminist perspective, is that it is sexist; it pushes a deeply inegalitarian ideology, according to which women are typically available for sex (even when occupying roles of relative power, such as being a boss or a school teacher), that women’s secret or repressed fantasies dovetail with men’s darkest and most violent fantasies, and so on.

Manne recognises that certain feminist conceptions of mainstream pornography pose a challenge to her views, but she conceives of this challenge more narrowly. As part of the shift away from thinking of misogyny in terms of the psychology of men, Manne argues against the idea that an essential or central component of misogyny is that men view women as mere objects or as dehumanised sub-persons. One feminist critique of mainstream pornography is precisely that it spreads such an objectified or dehumanised image of women, depicting them as lacking all agency and autonomy and as mere instruments for men’s sexual gratification, whose own pleasure is of little or no importance. Manne argues against this, taking as her main target Rae Langton’s (2009) suggestion that a central aspect of the oppression of women is that men’s attitudes amount to a kind of ‘sexual solipsism’, where men are the only fully human, fully minded creatures, and that this world-view is peddled by pornography:

What, now, of Langton’s views about the nature of pornography? In some sense, Langton is clearly right that there is a genre of hetereosexual pornography that depicts women as blank, staring, comparatively mindless creatures. (The female lead always wants what he has to give her, and breathy affirmations more or less exhaust her vocabulary.) But I think it is a mistake to suppose that pornography of this kind engenders or reflects this literal view of women. I find it more plausible to think that it is, rather, a marketable fantasy, in offering an escape from more painful and confronting realities. Women’s subjectivity and autonomous sexuality is increasingly difficult to deny, for anyone not utterly delusional and endowed with an Internet connection (ironically). For, women’s voices ring too clear in cyberspace. Hence, from the perspective of patriarchal values, women may be human—all too human, sometimes. Pornography may provide a welcome relief from realities that are difficult to bear in being apprehended. It may soothe by imaginatively defusing the psychic threat women’s humanity can pose, insomuch as she has the capacity to reduce men to shame or humiliate them sexually. This is as opposed to expressing or even shaping men’s literal view of women. (2018: 162-3)

Manne is surely right that mainstream pornography doesn’t try to convince its viewers that women are “blank, staring, comparatively mindless creatures”, and that most of the makers and the viewers of pornography are well aware that women have subjectivity and sexual agency and autonomy. However, it doesn’t follow that pornography is innocent of peddling a harmful sexual ideology, an ideology that expresses or shapes men’s ‘literal view of women’. Rather, as many feminist critiques of mainstream pornography have emphasised, this ideology recognises (or at least pretends to recognise) the subjectivity, autonomy, and agency of women. The ideology spread by mainstream pornography is that women choose and enjoy sexual encounters and acts which position them submissively, almost entirely prioritise male pleasure over female pleasure, and which are frequently humiliating and painful, involving verbal and physical abuse. Catharine MacKinnon captured this ideology as follows:

All the ways men love to take and violate women, women love to be taken and violated. The women who most love this are most men’s equals, the most liberated. (1987: 172)

Moreover, empirical studies of recent pornographic videos on the internet have provided support for such claims, showing, for example, that women are depicted reacting positively to being verbally abused, spat on, having their hair pulled, or being ‘choked’ (e.g. Klaassen and Peter 2015: as Manne reminds us, ‘choking’ in this context would be more accurately described as strangulation). Moreover, pornographic films often suggest that the behaviour of the women in them reveal what that what most other women would choose and enjoy, were they not constrained and inhibited by the usual social norms and niceties. Manne is right that pornography presents a fantasy world in which women’s humanity poses no threat, but contrary to the conclusion she wants to draw, this fantasy does seem to express and influence men’s view of women and (hetereo)sexual relations.

Let’s return to the distinction between misogyny and sexism. What I think reflection on mainstream pornography shows is that Manne has overstated the contrast between these. Sexism, as the ideological branch of patriarchy, need not be bookish or theoretical. There are few lab-coats to be seen, on or behind the camera, in contemporary pornography. Sexism can be violent and abusive. It too can wield a cudgel; it just depicts being cudgelled, not as punitive, but as something that some women—perhaps many women—choose and enjoy.

To say this much is not to suggest that we can’t or shouldn’t draw the distinction Manne draws between sexism and misogyny, and it doesn’t require us to turn away from Manne’s analysis of misogyny, back towards the naïve conception. Even if you accept what I’ve argued here about pornography, you can continue to think that separating out the ideological and law-enforcement branches of patriarchy is important, and that the terminology of sexism and misogyny offers a useful way to speak about this distinction; in fact, this is my own view. But we should be cautious not to draw the contrast in such a way that sexism comes off as relatively mild and gentle when compared to the horrors of misogyny, so well explored in Manne’s book; those engaged in trying to dismantle patriarchy should recognise that sexism can be nasty and combative too, in its own way.


Klaassen, Marleen and Jochen Peter. 2015. ‘Gender (In)equality in Internet Pornography: A Content Analysis of Popular Pornographic Internet Videos.’ The Journal of Sex Research 52 (7): 721-35.

Langton, Rae. 2009. Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine. 1987. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Manne, Kate. 2018. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.