Final Exam 1-The Power Play of Pornography

This research topic submitted by Hicks, Kandawalla ( ) on 5/4/98 .


Dominance and submission are biological traits in both males and females. Men are socially constructed to be dominant, while females are socialized into submissive roles. Pornography provides a direct illustration of this socialization by depicting sexual power issues in its images. When conducting a survey on people¹s personal opinions about dominance and submission we hypothesize that, if both male and female informants believe in the social construction of male dominance and female submission, then they will not believe it is biological. For our next survey we narrowed ideas of submission and dominance to the pornography industry. Our second hypothesis that we made is that both men and women will agree in their interpretations of pornography, mainly finding males to be dominant and females submissive. We get significant results for our first hypothesis. When people found submission and dominance to be socialized, then they found no biological correlation. For our second hypothesis we do not get a significant p-value because for the most part men and women agreed about the variables we were testing. We found that overall, thirty-four out of forty people found males to be dominant and thirty-three out of forty found females to be submissive. Our results conclude that men and women are socialized to assume dominance as a masculine trait and submission as a feminine quality. Because male dominance and female submission are portrayed in mainstream pornographic material, we are not inclined to assume otherwise, when these traits could occur biologically in both sexes.


Where Œprogressives¹ are actually selling, printing or performing matter for scopophile perversion, they are actually spreading falsifications of perceptions which have their roots in the disturbance of communication, and may well be glibly spreading psychic to ill-health abroad. That the deliberate dissemination of psychic disease should be part of Œprotest¹ is impossible to accept for anyone who tries to grasp the implications of philosophical anthropology and philosophical biology² (Holbrook 108-109).

Since we are socially constructed with ideas about specified gender roles, we are attempting to separate biological and socialized behaviors. Under the assumption that dominance and submission are biological traits in both men and women, we infer that men and women have been socialized to express issues of power differently. We will be examining pornography as a reflection of power issues between men and women. By pornography, we mean: ³pictures, writings, or other material that is sexually explicit and sometimes equates sex with power and violence² (American Heritage Dictionary). If male and female informants expect to find male dominance and female submission in pornography, then they will because they are socially constructed to do so. In turn, a biological explanation will be overlooked.
We will be using theories which support the notion that submission and dominance are inherent traits in both men and women. Jane Goodall, in Through a Window supports this claim by giving examples of her studies with chimpanzees. ³It began when Passion¹s infant Pom moved to close to Jomeo during feeding. When he hit out at her, warning her to keep her distance, she did not move, but looking towards her mother then back at the big male gave a small but defiant sounding bark. Instantly Passion charged toward Jomeo, and this time, in marked contrast to his performance the year before, he fled before and, screaming in fight, took refuge up a palm tree²(Goodall, 152-53). This is one scenario which depicts female dominance over males. By exploring traits of dominance and submission in chimpanzees, we are able to separate biological behavior from socialized behavior by applying it to humans.
In Darwin, Sex and Status by Jerome Barkow, Parker¹s scenario is used to demonstrate how females overcome male dominance and in turn become controlling themselves. ³Males have evolved to seek to control female sexuality and females have responded with the evolution of confusing signals with their ovulatory status. These female countermeasures to male control include concealed ovulation, continuous sexual receptivity, and (some argue) large breasts. Females were selected to insight male-male competition so as to be better able to choose the best genes² (Barkow, 350). Males learn to assert their power explicitly, while females must adapt by expressing their dominance in subtle ways.
Robert Wright in The Moral Animal discusses the socialization of these traits starting with adolescence. ³Certainly male competitiveness has a cultural as well as genetic basis. Though male toddlers, generally speaking, are naturally more assertive than female toddlers, they¹re also given guns and signed up for Little League²(Wright, 248). Wright illustrates how early people learn to ascribe to defined gender roles. In our empirical study, we recognize this socialization in both our informants and in pornography. Our informants have, for the most part, been conditioned to adhere to specified gender roles all their lives. When viewing pornography they may, in turn, assert their socially constructed beliefs in their interpretation of the images they are seeing.
Pornography is reflective of dominance and submission between men and women because many pornographic images illustrate social power imbalances. Pornographic material has been developed under a patriarchal system which obviously already includes enormous power imbalances. When a male dominated system develops the idea, and mostly males produce the idea, women exist only as the objects of the idea for mainly male pleasure. Therefore only one party is really getting to express themselves and exert any kind of independence. ³In view of the sadistic character [the masculine role being associated with sadism] of such public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response² (Ruth, 529). By refusing to give women a voice, female viewers of pornography rarely find a point of identification. This may lead women to feel powerless and in some cases teach them that their role is subordination. Pornography does not grant them the ability to seek their inherent desires and express forms of domination.
Magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse have created a mainstream industry through the pornography of women. Playboy magazine revenued over 28 million dollars in the fourth quarter of 1997 according to the Playboy web site. Although pornography is a way people create a hierarchy between the sexes, chimpanzees illustrate the same dominant behavior through status as humans. ³Nonhuman primates send some of the same status signals as people. Dominant male chimps-and dominant primates generally-strut proudly and expansively. And after two chimpanzees fight over status, the loser crouches abjectly. This sort of bowing is thereafter repeated to peacefully express submission² (Wright 242). Pornography is a valid depiction of this sort of submission in women because of their socialization by the patriarchy. For example, in reference to the pornography found in Playboy, Rollo May addressed this sort of exploitation of women.
You discover the naked girls with silicated breasts side by side with articles by reputable authors, and you conclude on the first blush that the magazine is certainly on the side of the new enlightenment. But as you look more closely you see a strange expression in these photographed girls: detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous--the typical schizoid personality in the negative sense of the term. You discover that they are not Œsexy¹ at all but that Playboy has only shifted the fig leaf from the genitals to the face (Miller 180).

Dominance and submission from a biological perspective, are evident in both males and females, however these qualities are very dependent on socialization and environment. For example, a neurotransmitter called serotonin has been linked to dominant behavior in both humans and primates. However the level of serotonin in an individual is linked to their environment. If you are elected to president or a leader of an organization, you may have a higher production of serotonin as a result. ³No one is born to lead, and no one is born to follow. And to the extent that some people are born with one leg up in the race (as they surely are ), that birthright probably lies at least as much in cultural as in genetic advantage² (Wright 243).


Our research stemmed from topics discussed in Robert Wright¹s The Moral Animal. The issues of dominance and submission take many forms in our culture and we were interested in examining the effects of socialization and biology on behavior. When we began our poster project we contended that dominance and submission are biological traits in both males and females and that they are socially constructed to be gender constructed. As we began our empirical research we realized we needed a more concrete hypothesis that could be supported or refuted using numerical data.
In researching for our poster project, we also gathered a great deal of information for our empirical analysis. We found examples of submission and dominance in both sexes in chimpanzee hierarchies. We correlated the behavior of chimpanzees with that of human behavior. To illustrate that dominance and submission existed in both sexes we found studies about dominant behavior in female chimpanzees and in turn, subordinate behavior in male chimps. Some neurological influences on dominance, such as serotonin, provided examples of biological factors.
We researched cultural factors as well, in order to understand how environment affects dominant and submissive behavior. Reading materials including feminist literature, sociological studies, and web sites were used to provide further insight about human behavior. Feminist works provided us with a base for studying socialization within a patriarchal system. Sociological studies provided a more non-biased look at cultural influences through research of human as well as primate behavior. By examining web sites we were able to explore current and explicit pornographic material applying to our project.
After gathering a good deal of research, we created two surveys based upon our findings. The first survey addressed issues of social construction versus biological influence on behavior. We focused our survey (see Appendix A) on three questions: Do you think that male dominance is socially constructed by patriarchy? Do you think that female submission is socially constructed by patriarchy? Do you think that traits of dominance and submission are biological? From this survey we hypothesized that if people thought traits of dominance and submission were socialized, then they would overlook any biological influences. We took our data from this survey and conducted a chi-square test comparing responses to the three questions. The chi-square test helped us attain a p-value and let us know if our data was significant or not.
Our first survey led us into the design of our second survey. This second survey focused more specifically on pornography as an illustration of dominance and submission. The questions we focused our empirical data around were about power imbalances found in pornography. We asked if power imbalances were found in pornography: was the male dominant? Was the female dominant? Was the male submissive? Was the female submissive? (See Appendix B). We once again used a chi-square test to interpret our data. To find a p-value we compared how men and women viewed dominance and submission in pornography. We hypothesized that both men and women would agree that male dominance and female submission are pervasive in pornography. Using this data we also created a bar graph to depict the cumulative results between men and women about dominance and submission.


Our first empirical research addressed the issue of social and biological influences on dominant and submissive behavior. In this survey, we did not specify pornography as a representation of socialized dominance and submission. The survey explored overall attitudes about power imbalances. Thirty people were surveyed and asked whether they believed submission and dominance were socially constructed, biologically influenced, or both. We hypothesized that if people responding to the survey believed that dominance and submission are socially constructed then they would most likely believe that it is not biologically influenced or both.
We found that twenty-one out of the thirty people believed that dominant and submissive traits are socialized and not biological. Two people surveyed responded that there are biological influenced, not cultural. The remaining seven responded that these traits are neither socialized nor biological. However, no one found these traits to be both socially and biologically attributed (see Appendix C). This numerical data created a significant p-value of 0.0253. There was such a great difference between informants finding dominance and submission to be socialized but not biological versus both socialized and biological that our data was conclusive. Our null hypothesis was therefore rejected and an alternate hypothesis was created. This significant p-value gives support to our hypothesis. The Statview ³Expected Values² were very similar to the ³Observed Frequencies² of our survey, therefore there was not a discrepancy in our results.
Our second set of empirical data addressed differences between male and female interpretations of power in pornography. In our second survey, we used pornography as a tool demonstrating dominance and submission. Twenty males and twenty females were surveyed. They were given the same survey and asked about their interpretation of power imbalances in the pornography they had viewed in their lives. We hypothesized that if men and women agree that male dominance and female submission are pervasive in pornography then they have been socialized in similar ways.
We conducted p-value tests by using the chi-square method. In the first test we compared, how men and women interpreted both male and female dominance. Our ³Observed Frequencies² showed that ten men and ten women agreed that male dominance is prevalent in pornography. It also recorded that one woman and one man agreed that females are dominant in pornography. Eight men and six women believed that both males and females are dominant in pornography. Four people surveyed did not find dominance in pornography at all. Hence, our p-value was not significant at 0.9162 (See Appendix D). Because there was not a significant difference between male and female responses, our hypothesis was supported. The Statview ³Expected Values² were once again very similar to the ³Observed Frequencies².
In our second test, we compared how men and women interpreted submission in pornography. Our ³Observed Frequencies² illustrated that men found no examples of male submission, one female interpreted male submission. Ten men and ten women found examples of female submission in pornography. Seven men and six women found both male and female submission in pornography. Six people surveyed did not find submission as a trait in human behavior through pornography. Therefore our p-value was not significant at 0.5836. Our hypothesis was once again supported because there was not a significant difference in responses from men and women. Our ³Expected Values² were also very similar to our ³Observed Frequencies² data.
We created a bar chart in Statview in order to visualize, without dividing responses by gender, the different characteristics of power in pornography (See Appendix E). We found that overall, thirty-four people found males to be dominant and thirty-three found females to be submissive. The bar graph also illustrates that overall, sixteen people found female dominance in pornography, and fourteen people found male submission.
Our results conclude that men and women are socialized to assume dominance as a masculine trait and submission as a feminine quality. Certain factors such as, homosexual pornography or dominatrix pornography, may contribute to varying responses to finding male submission and female dominance. However these types of pornography are not conventional forms of entertainment. Because male dominance and female submission are portrayed in mainstream pornographic material, we are not inclined to assume otherwise, when these traits could occur biologically in both sexes. Therefore we do not link females with dominant behavior and males with submissive behavior.


Men and women both possess qualities of dominance and submission inherently, however, they are expressed according to their socialization. We have found numerous examples of biological influences leading to dominance in females and submission in males. These include status hierarchies in primate populations, serotonin levels which are correlated with dominant behavior based on environment, and females who demonstrate subtle dominance through their ability to reproduce. Pornography is one illustration of power imbalance which is reinforced by our culture. Not only do the images of pornography imply power imbalances between men and women, but they also illustrate how men and women are socialized to believe in these inequities. Our data demonstrates that men and women interpret pornography in similar ways which exemplifies the immense influence of socialization. Our culture, based on a patriarchal order, ingrains the notion that males are dominant and females are submissive. Included in this report are examples of pornography which illustrate roles of dominance and submission.
There were some errors in our methodology which would have made our study more complete. Our first weakness was in the structure of our survey. Because our informants had all viewed different types of pornography, we should have provided the images for them to interpret in order to give some constancy to our project. In the future, we would choose several different depictions of pornographic images and perhaps post them to the web accompanied with questions. This would allow our survey to be easily accessible to our informants with clear color images. Another weakness of our survey was in the specificity of our questions. We should have been more explicit about which forms of pornography we were surveying.
We encountered problems in transferring our hypothesis from our poster project to this empirical report. Our original hypothesis did not seem to be testing anything but rather reinforced our own beliefs about the patriarchy. By looking at how informants interpreted pornography we were able to create a more testable hypothesis.

Let me discuss this problem round the prevailing sexual symbol of our time, the nude Œgirlie¹. She symbolizes sexuality separated in an objectified, schizoid way from human wholeness. In the light of psychoanalytical insights, she is part- object, a breast, detached as an object of appetite, arousing that excited attention from one area of the hungry mouth-ego, such as made us feel alive when we were infants (Holbrook 180).

These symbols cause direct sociological affects on attitudes about men and women. Each sex is therefore placed in a categorical hierarchy which limits our freedoms of sexuality, interpretation, and humanization.


Barash, David. Sociobiology and Behavior. Elsevier Scientific: New York, 1977.

Barkow, Jerome H. Darwin, Sex and Status. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1989.

Betzig, Laura. Human Nature. Oxford Universtiy Press: New York, 1997.

Goodall, Jane. Through a Window. Houghton-Mifflin Company: Boston, 1990.

Holbrook, David. Sex and Dehumanization. Pitman Publishing: New York, 1972.

Holcomb, Harmon. Sociobiology, Sex and Science. State University of New York Press: Albany, 1993.

Miller, Russell. Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1984.

Ruth, Sheila. Issues in Feminism, Third Edition. Mayfield Publishing Company: Mountain View, 1995.

Trigg, Roger. The Shaping of Man. Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1982.

Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal. Random House: New York, 1994.

web sites:

Appendix A

Submission and Dominance Survey

1. Are you: male or female

2. Do you like to be: a) seduced b)the seducer

3. Do you think that male dominance is socially constructed by patriarchy?

4. Do you think that female submission is socially constructed by patriarchy?

5. Do you think that traits of submission and dominance are biological?

6. If these traits are biological, are they gender specific?

Appendix B

By Pornography, we mean: Pictures, writings, or other material that is sexually explicit and sometimes equates sex with power and violence (American Heritage Dictionary).

1. Are you male or female?

2. Have you ever been exposed to pornography?

3. Did you find power imbalances in the pornography you viewed between the sexes?

4. If so was the male dominant?
Was the female dominant?
Was the male submissive?
Was the female submissive?

5. How much of the pornographic material that you have viewed included multiple sex partners in a situation?

6. Did these situations depict several people dominating one person?

7. If so, which gender was dominated the most?

Love, Hayley and Spenta

Appendix C, D, E -- See Statview 4.5

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