Silencing Without Uptake

Forthcoming in J. Gardner, L. Green and B. Leiter eds., Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law, Vol 4

Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 8/2020

18 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2020 Last revised: 21 Dec 2021

See all articles by Kate Greasley

Kate Greasley

University of Oxford, Faculty of Law

Date Written: February 6, 2020


In the argument over pornography’s censorship, feminist theorists of certain stripes have argued that one of the ways pornography might harm women is by silencing them. First suggested by Catharine MacKinnon, the silencing claim has since been considerably developed, most notably by Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby. Taking their cue from J.L. Austin’s speech act theory, these scholars have argued that pornography is capable, in principle, of silencing women in the ‘illocutionary’ sense, that is, by robbing them of a speech act power — as a case in point, the power of sexual refusal. Langton refers to this as the silencing of ‘illocutionary disablement’. The illocutionary disablement claim has met with plenty of resistance, especially concerning its reliance on an ‘uptake’ condition for illocutionary success, also attributed to Austin. Pursuant to this uptake condition, certain speech acts — meaning, acts constituted in the uttering of certain words in a certain context — depend, for their very performance, on the addressee’s recognition of a particular speaker intention.

Among other misgivings, critics of the silencing claim have found it implausible that the performance of a speech act such as sexual refusal could possibly depend on the happenstance of the speaker’s intention getting through to the addressee. Sympathetic to these complaints, I will try to relay how the illocutionary disablement claim can do without the uptake condition as Hornsby, Langton, and others have heretofore formulated it. I am aligned with their critics in thinking that performing the speech act of sexual refusal cannot depend on any individual addressee’s recognition of illocutionary intent. Nevertheless, I will argue, ‘reciprocity’ of a certain kind is a condition of women’s ability to engage that illocution. The speech act of sexual refusal depends, for its very survival, on the existence of semantic and pragmatic conventions that recognisably signal refusal to competent auditors. To the extent that pornography works to destabilise these conventions, it will effectuate illocutionary disablement with regard to that speech act power. Moreover, I argue, if porn did such a thing in the way Langton and others have envisaged, it would indeed be ‘silencing’ women in a distinctive and distinctively disquieting way.

Keywords: pornography, free speech, silencing, sexual refusal, illocutionary disablement, J.L Austin

Suggested Citation

Greasley, Kate, Silencing Without Uptake (February 6, 2020). Forthcoming in J. Gardner, L. Green and B. Leiter eds., Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law, Vol 4, Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 8/2020, Available at SSRN:

Kate Greasley (Contact Author)

University of Oxford, Faculty of Law ( email )

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