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Porn Studies

Whenever the area of our research comes up, and we respond truthfully about what it is we do, we are immediately asked, “But, why pornography?” This question is incredibly hard to answer; in fact, this whole book is simply that, an answer to the question of why we should study pornography. But the question bears many meanings. It might be a question about why we, as individuals, study pornography. Of all the areas of philosophy, legal or political theory, film theory, or modern culture we could study, why choose pornography? Is there something lascivious lurking behind our ostensive rationale of furthering understanding? In this regard, the question appears to suspect our motives and impugn our characters. And oddly enough, porn studies seems to be the only field where knowing much more than others is perceived as a fault. Were we astrophysicists, you’d expect us to know everything, or pretty close to everything about physics, our field, the history of our field, and perhaps even a bit about the philosophy of science. In fact, you wouldn’t lend credence to our position if it were demonstrated that we didn’t know considerably more than most others about our field. Were we experts in war and public policy, you’d expect an encyclopedic knowledge of international law, treaties, conventions, as well a great deal about the history of war and warfare. You wouldn’t find it at all odd or troubling that we were familiar with war atrocities and conventions regarding torture. But if we study pornography, knowing a great deal leads to suspicion, and gets back to the original meaning of the question: Is there something perverse lurking beneath the surface? Another meaning to the question is, why study porn in the sense of why study something that does not matter? Porn is taken to be innocuous.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.45 PMSo the person to whom you mention that you study porn might respond, “You must really enjoy your research.” This respondent will also be wearing a smirk that seems to say, “I wish I could look at porn for a living.” This is a harmless, albeit creepy, response. On the other end is the response that belittles this line of inquiry. This response is usually some variation on, “Wow, I should’ve gone into academia.” This response is meant to diminish the value of academic work, implying that it’s simply looking at porn. It also implies that pornography isn’t worth thinking about seriously. Academics spend their time on worthless endeavors, like pornography. Rarely will the response an academic receives be proportionate to the seriousness of the work. Rarely does a researcher in porn studies hear, “That’s fascinating, and important. What do you think about . . .” After all, it’s just porn.

It is this attitude that often emotionally exhausts academics who work in porn studies, because it isn’t just outsiders, family members, or random acquaintances who respond this way—it is coworkers, colleagues in academia. But porn does matter, and how we think about, respond to, and produce and consume it is both a window onto how we think about sex and sexuality as well as the active construction of our contemporary understanding of sex and sexuality. Anyone who is interested in what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century should be interested in the issues surrounding and dealt with in the study of pornography.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PMBut the study of pornography always begins from a position of justifying itself. And experts in the field must begin from a defensive posture, explaining why their studies are valuable and why they are not in some way profligate for pursuing this area of research. In this brief introduction, therefore, we will seek to offer such a defense—a defense of why it is important to study pornography.

First, let’s begin from a simple truth: Pornography is a part of modern society, a considerable part of modern society. It is present on objects as essential and personalized as our iPhones and laptops and, thanks to Internet piracy, large amounts of commercially produced pornography are now completely free. In fact, when it comes to the Internet, you must go out of your way to protect yourself from the accidental slippage of pornography into your everyday life. One wrong key stroke, one wrong search term and immediately Google will present you with the best the adult entertainment industry has to offer, or a modest warning that you are about to venture into the red light district of the Internet. In addition, beyond traditional hard-core pornography, a pornographic sensibility can be seen permeating all aspects of culture, from tween and young teen fashions to television and commercially successful films. In fact, pornography is so prevalent that more often than not it is taken as a given in our modern social space. We assume that all people look at or know about pornography. Something this impactful, this definitive of modern culture needs to be laid open to scrutiny.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PM (4)Beginning with the very idea of pornography’s impact on contemporary popular culture, whether it is phrased as the “porning” or “pornification” of culture or the recognition of the existence of porno chic, the pervasive presence of porn in most of our lives is obvious. Pornography has infiltrated and informs contemporary culture. In this respect, we as individuals are also “porned” beings. Insofar as culture informs who we are, our self-understanding, and thus creates a feedback loop whereby we create the culture that in turn shapes our identities, a porned culture is indicative of porned individuals, and porned individuals express and recreate their porned culture. So whether we choose to accept it as a fact of modern culture or not, we are always already pornified, and thus as self-reflective, self-interpretative beings, it is our obligation to navigate a porned world as porned beings. To do otherwise is to neglect a fundamental aspect of ourselves, our culture, and our identity, and to forego our foremost duty to pursue reflective, examined lives. We need to understand pornography in order to understand our culture, in order to understand ourselves, so that as autonomous beings we can choose how, not if, we choose to engage our porned world, and how we wish to shape it and integrate ourselves into it.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PM (5)The recognition that we are porned requires us to further contemplate the specific effects of such pornification. How does it impact our collective understanding of masculinity and femininity, does it lead to the promotion of unhealthy ideals, negatively impact our sense of self, body image, relationships, and so forth? Is there a connection between pornographic consumption and violence against women, the creation of a rape culture, or sexual harassment and discrimination? Nobody would balk at seriously considering relationships, mental health, body image issues, or violence against women. And pornography is a constitutive element in this discussion. Then there are the legal issues of free speech, hate speech, and the status of sex work. From sexuality to violence, from liberty to labor, how we address pornography speaks volumes to how we think about and respond to sex, sexuality, labor markets, rights, and multifarious issues that are significant in shaping our social world. Pornography is not innocuous background noise, a mindless pastime for the lonely, horny, or bored. Pornography is a multibillion dollar industry that forces us to engage and interrogate all those values that define who we are and who we dream of being, as individuals, as partners, and as a civilization.

Unfortunately, to date this debate has been anemic. On one side, anti-porn crusaders argue that porn leads to rape or sexual assault. Even when evidence is lacking, or argues to the contrary, they stick to their guns and reiterate the same talking points their predecessors authored in the 1970s and 1980s. Crucially these arguments depend on porn’s history as taboo and the very lack of public debate and education that this book seeks, in part, to remedy. These anti-porn crusaders are not interested in a discussion of pornography, in understanding it as a phenomenon, as an element of culture. Frequently there is very little interest in the actual content found in contemporary pornography. Instead these authors, often focusing on a caricature of pornography or a far-from-representative sampling of what the adult industry has to offer, make sweeping generalizations about the content of porn, the working conditions of the actresses, and the responses of the viewers. These generalizations don’t speak to a deeper understanding of pornography or a bona fide interest in engaging it as a cultural phenomenon, but constitute a visceral reaction against pornography and the creation of an anti-porn ideology that speaks the language of “for or against” and seeks no further dialogue or investigation. In fact, the editors lost potential authors because they perceived the book as not being “balanced” enough. What they indicated was that a book including essays that find value in porn isn’t “balanced.” Apparently, when it comes to pornography, balance means “degrees of opposition.”

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PM (2)On the other side of the debate are those who argue against the anti-porn crusaders. And their arguments are as well constructed as those they seek to refute. They dismiss the anti-porn crusaders, promote free speech, and in so doing actually denigrate the role pornography plays in our discourse. Most often, these theorists aren’t pro-porn, they are anti-anti-porn. They deride the anti-porn crusaders as censors, they chide them for being “thought police,” claim they misunderstand the legal basis of free speech, or impugn their character insofar as their positions align them with social conservatives. And in so doing they fail to appreciate and address the real role that porn plays in culture and in our lives.

So the debate goes back and forth, with each side preaching to its choir and speaking past the other. Occasionally someone breaks this mold and is immediately shouted down as a pseudopornographer by the anti-porn camp if they are not anti-porn enough, or they are decried as anti-liberal by the antianti- porn folks if they recognize a problem with pornography and seek legal or political means of redress. This structure of the discussion has led to very little progress being made in the past couple of decades in terms of furthering our understanding of pornography and its impact on and role in contemporary culture. It also leads to a stunted discussion. If we believe pornography to be a legitimate and important topic for research and discussion, if how we theorize and project sex and sexuality is important, then we need to be open to a dialogue on pornography, all forms of pornography, and all perspectives on pornography. Progress cannot be made if from the outset we condemn our opponents and reject all claims that don’t sit nicely within our preconceived or ossified and orthodox position.

What perhaps leads to this ossified debate is the misapprehension of what is in fact being discussed. Any discourse on pornography is at root a discourse on sex. Sex, likewise, is a foundational human relationship, one transcribed by our social order, and built on constructed meanings of what it means to be male/female, masculine/feminine, and subject/object. So discussing pornography opens up a broader discourse on sex. But pornography is about more than just sex; it is about the production of sex, the production of media representations of sex and sexuality. So a discourse on pornography also affords us the ability to interrogate the effects that media have on our lives, in this case a specific aspect of our lives: sex and our sexual identities that form the basis of so many of our relationships and identities.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PM (1)Beyond the reality that to discuss pornography is to discuss sex, it must be emphasized that a clear-eyed look at the actual content of pornographic videos and print throws up yet more issues that are relevant to any exploration of contemporary society. Randomly select any given pornographic video and you will, along with the straightforward record of people having sex, find an abundance of issues that reflect societal attitudes: sexism, racism, heterosexism, ageism, and so on. By interrogating pornography we interrogate a medium that plays out many of our innate hostilities and taboos, and in turn our social constructions of gender and sexuality.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 1.02.44 PM (6)Source: Coleman, Lindsay, and Jacob M Held. The Philosophy Of Pornography. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Lehman, Peter, ed. Pornography: Film and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Church Gibson, Pamela, ed. More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography, and Power. London: British Film Institute, 2004.
Elias, James, Veronica Diehl Elias, Vern L. Bullough, Gwen Brewer, Jeffrey J. Douglas, and Will Jarvis, eds. Porn 101: Eroticism, Pornography, and the First Amendment. New York: Promtheus, 1999.
Lehman, Peter, ed. Pornography: Film and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

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Categories: Literary Theory, Porn Studies

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