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In a crossover of imagery in the 1980s, the conventions of high-class pornographic photography, such as Playboy’s, began to be used generally to sell products to women. This made the beauty thinking that followed crucially different from all that had preceded it. Seeing a face anticipating orgasm, even if it is staged, is a powerful sell: In the absence of other sexual images, many women came to believe that they must have that face, that body, to achieve that ecstasy.


Two conventions from soft-and hard-core pornography entered women’s culture: One “just” objectifies the female body, the other does violence to it. Obscenity law is based in part on the idea that you can avoid what offends you. But the terms ordinarily used in the pornography debate cannot deal adequately with this issue. Discussions of obscenity, or nakedness, or community standards do not address the harm done to women by this development: the way in which “beauty” joins pornographic conventions in advertising, fashion photography, cable TV, and even comic books to affect women and children.


Men can choose to enter an adult bookstore; women and children cannot choose to avoid sexually violent or beauty-pornographic imagery that follows them home. Sexual “explicitness” is not the issue. We could use a lot more of that, if explicit meant honest and revealing; if there were a full spectrum of erotic images of uncoerced real women and real men in contexts of sexual trust, beauty pornography could theoretically hurt no one. Defenders of pornography base their position on the idea of freedom of speech, casting pornographic imagery as language.