Quantcast

'Porn Studies' Is the Sexiest Time You'll Have Reading an Academic Journal

An academic journal dedicated to pornography launched last Friday and is already generating controversy among the anti-porn feminist community, even though the publication has no discernible agenda.

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

Screencap via YouTube uploader sameesha1000

Porn Studies, the "first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic," launched on Friday, and it's currently free. For a limited time, non-academics like you and me can peruse it and try to wrap our quivering brains around some hot, throbbing knowledge before a paywall gets draped over all the best parts.

The time was evidently right for the study of porn to take another step toward recognition as an academic field, with not just a journal but also a workshop called "the Pedagogy of Pornography" slated for the Society for Film and Media Studies' 2014 conference in Seattle. Such conferences don't exactly attract media attention, and so there was no public titillation when the giants of porn studies got together for an all-star show. I contacted them to find out how it went.

But first, check out all the action at the journal's website. You can get unfettered access, not just to thumbnails but to full-length essays with titles like "Humanities and Social Scientific Research Methods in Porn Studies," "Positionality and Pornography," "Authenticity and Its Role Within Feminist Pornography," and my personal fave, "Deep Tags: Toward a Quantitative Analysis of Online Pornography." And if you prefer your quantitative analysis completely raw-dog, here's a link to a spreadsheet of the entire dataset from the study. Kinda freaky, but, ya know, some people are into that shit.

The journal itself is published by Taylor & Francis, a 200-year-old British publishing company that lends gravitas to any such title, and it is perhaps this fact that attracted anti-porn activists to take notice and get their hackles up. After all, even though the journal is a compendium of MLA-formatted essays with proper parenthetical citations, and even though it's intended for consumption more or less exclusively by tweedy academics, there's international controversy afoot.

I guess that shouldn't really surprise me, because, after all, the journal discusses videos of naked people fucking.

Gail Dines, screencapped from Youtube user PublicChristianity

You see, there's a debate about the ethics of pornography that goes beyond famous battles such as The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Mom vs. 17-Year-Old Son, and when a publication like the Independent in the UK writes about it, that's their angle. Publications looking for someone to at least sound eloquent and rational tend to look no further than Gail Dines, who also pens editorials for the Independent. Their article gives her a platform to say things like "These editors come from a pro-porn background," implying that a more objective journal would take a very explicitly "anti-porn" approach. 

Dines began as a feminist, and I suppose she remains one to this day, but in the 1970s and 80s there was a schism over how to regard sex in a world informed by feminism. During this era, called The Sex Wars, many feminist friendships and professional associations ended. Dines formed a makeshift coalition with the religious right, and to this day, she writes books and gives interviews about how harmful porn is. Let it not be said that Dines' writing never includes hard numbers and facts. In a New York Times op-ed from 2012, she wrote the following:

The most extensive peer-reviewed study in the past decade found that a majority of scenes from 50 top-rented porn movies contained physical and verbal abuse of female performers. Physical aggression—including spanking, open-hand slapping, and gagging—occurred in 88 percent of scenes, with expressions of verbal aggression—usually a man calling a woman derogatory names—in 48 percent.

No one who brings numbers to a debate can be wrong, right? I think we can all agree that, indeed, the lion's share of cisgendered, hetero porn lacks situations in which sensitive men focus on pleasing women. Porn is often a garish form of nightmare theater that repeatedly plays out the phallocentric fantasies of society's lowest common denominator. To put it another way, in porn:

[...] Young women with crisp fake tans, long platinum blonde hair extensions, silicon breasts, and acrylic nails are fucking cocks that are artificially erect. They vocalize a performative sense of pleasure with moans and squeals as their male counterparts lead them through a formulaic equation of sexual positions that ‘opens’ the penetrative action up to the camera for the viewer's pleasure—not their own. This assemblage of ‘fast food’ pornographic sex continues until the female performer is instructed to ‘fake’ an orgasm and receive a load of hot cum on her face.

Any idea where I got that pull quote? From a paper in Porn Studies, the very publication Dines staunchly opposes.

Dine's censorship rhetoric, as in her editorial, "Stop Porn Culture," allows for a publication called Porn Studies only if what's being studied is how to abolish it. However, with porn being consumed by approximately everyone, and there being, according to some estimates, as much as one entire internet of porn in existence, advocating for abolition doesn't seem as helpful as the apparent mission intuited by the editors, contributors, and readers of Porn Studies: to include pornography as a facet of what academics call cultural studies.

John Stadler, literature graduate student at Duke University, and one of the figures at the forefront of porn studies, explained this to me more fully in an email. "Porn is a part of culture, and whether one likes it or not, it has and will continue to be a part of our culture throughout our lifetimes. It behooves us as a society to critically engage it without a predetermined agenda."

Because of the whole "without a predetermined agenda" notion, he actually seemed hesitant to weigh in about anti-porn advocacy, since this kind of advocacy is just not part of his job description. When academia is working right (and admittedly it isn't always), people who have something interesting to say about an issue rise to prominence, and people who just have an ax to grind for one reason or another are relegated to TV talk shows and New York Times editorials.

For more on this aspect, I also got in touch with Dr. Constance Penley, one of the leaders in the field of porn studies, to get her take on the reaction to this new field. Penley is a professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara, and one of the first people who ever studied cultural phenomena like fan fiction in an academic setting. 

Constance Penley, screencapped from the Huffington Post 

She told me that the publication of Porn Studies is just the tip of the iceberg for the field. "2013 was the trifecta for porn studies," she said. In addition to the journal, there were other events she considered milestones like "the release of The Feminist Porn Book, and the first annual Feminist Porn Conference." So while Gail Dines is being targeted by men's rights advocates as the man-hater who wants to ruin everyone's fun, she clearly does not have the market cornered on feminism in pornography. 

Penley told me anti-porn advocates are hardly a blip on the intellectual radar of those in the field, saying, "There isn't a pro- v. anti-porn argument among scholars but a protest of porn scholarship by anti-porn activists, some of whom try to pass for scholars, who don't like the scholarly literature's conclusions," she says.

In other words, Porn Studies will be "pro-porn" when an author has a positive takeaway, "anti-porn" when he or she doesn't, and probably, more often than not, ambivalent about porn as a whole. This means rather than a rehash of a debate from the old Sex Wars days, the debate can take place in print, every quarter, and it will be peer-reviewed. 

Penley says the problem with advocates like Dines is that they help perpetuate a somewhat stifling culture within academia. "Nearly 70 percent of the professorate is contingent, adjunct labor without the protection of academic freedom to do teaching and research on whatever the professor deems worthy and necessary. Adjunct faculty can't risk doing anything new, edgy, or nontraditional, anything that would raise controversy. This is a problem not just for porn studies, of course, but for all of humanities and social science scholarship."

It's hard for non-tenured faculty, whose jobs are not secure, to study anything controversial, because they might be fired when the media picks it up and makes it into something tabloid-worthy. Academia increasingly can't stand up to the power of bad PR. Donors are extremely susceptible to PR, and it's easier for a university to just ditch the faculty members causing controversy than to hire a decent branding firm in order to defend their scholarship, even when the scholarship is important and shouldn't have to be defended.

So what will the scholarship consist of? According to Stadler, it will consist, at least in part, of finding hidden complexity. "Porn is often treated as though it were not complex," he says. "The body has always been a site that has had to struggle to prove its relation to knowledge. That misunderstanding is one that deserves correction."

The body's "relation to knowledge?" If you can parse material written in academic-ese, there's about to be some heavy shit written about porn. Personally, I just hope I can keep up.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.