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Essay on debut issue of Porn Studies

Intellectual Affairs

Let X = X

May 7, 2014

Perhaps you’ve heard of Rule 34. It expresses one of the core imperatives of 21st-century culture: “If something exists, there is porn about it. If no porn is found at the moment, it will be made. There are no exceptions.”

Consider, for example, the subculture devoted to eroticizing the My Little Pony cartoon characters. More people are into this than you might imagine. They have conventions. It seems likely that even more specialized niches exist -- catering to tastes that “vanilla” My Little Pony fetishists regard as kinky -- although I refuse to investigate the matter.

Consider it a topic for future issues of Porn Studies, a new journal published by Routledge.  “Just as there are specialist journals, conferences, book series, and collections enabling consideration of other areas of media and cultural production,” says the introductory note for the inaugural double issue, “so pornography needs a dedicated space for research and debate.” (Last year, many people disagreed: news of the journal inspired much protest, as Inside Higher Ed reported.)

The most interesting thing about that sentence from the journal's editors is that “pornography” functions in it as an active subject. Porn is figured almost as an institution or a conscious entity — one capable of desiring, even demanding, scholarly recognition. The satirical Rule 34 comes very near to claiming agency for porn. With Porn Studies, there is no such ambiguity about the sheer world-making power of pornography.

It’s not just that the journal acknowledges the porn industry as an extremely profitable and expanding sector of the economy, or as a cultural force with an influence spreading all over the map. That much is a commonplace, and Porn Studies take it as a given. But something more happens in the pages of Porn Studies: academic discourse about porn turns into one more manifestation of its power. 

One recent call for papers refers to “the emerging field of porn studies” — a piece of academic-entrepreneurial boilerplate that proves significant without actually being true.

It’s now a solid 10 years since Duke University Press published a volume of some 500 pages, also called Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams, whose Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, 1989) is by far the most-cited book in the new journal.

She wrote it amid the drawn-out and exhausting battles of the 1980s, when an uneasy alliance formed between radical feminists, rallying under the slogan “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice," and the religious right, which wanted to enforce the sexual “Thou shalt nots” by law. On the other side of the barricades were the "sex-positive” feminists and civil libertarians, who were not necessarily pro-porn so much as anti-censorship.

Hard Core went beyond the polemics, or around them. Williams approached the X-rated films of the 1970s and ‘80s with as much critical sophistication and command of the history of film as other scholars more typically brought to the cinematography of Eisenstein or Hitchcock. She didn’t deny the misogyny that appeared on screen but saw other forces at work as well -- including scenarios in which women were sexually exploratory or assertive in ways that the old phallic order couldn’t always predict or satisfy.

To anti-porn activists, whether feminist or fundamentalist, it went without saying that the market for pornography consisted of heterosexual men. Likewise, the heterosexual-male nature of the “gaze” in cinema was virtually an axiom of feminist film theory. Williams challenged both suppositions. Women became an ever more substantial share of the audience, especially after videotape made it possible to watch at home.

The status of Williams’s work as foundational suggests that porn studies began “emerging” at least a quarter century ago. Recent volumes of papers such as C'Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader (Institute for Network Cultures, 2007) and Hard to Swallow: Hard Core Pornography on Screen (Wallflower, distributed by Columbia University Press, 2012) take the field as growing but established.

For that matter, porn-studies scholars would have every right to claim ancestors working long before the Motion Picture Association of America invented the X rating. In The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (1963), Gershon Legman surveys about two centuries’ worth of secondary literature, in several languages. The contributors launching the new journal do not cite Legman, much less any of the figures he discusses, even once. Nor does a single paper discuss any form of pornography that existed prior to the advent of video and digital forms of distribution.

The body of commentary and analysis predating Hard Core includes psycho- and sociological research, legal debate, and humanistic work in a variety of fields. It is seldom mentioned, except when dismissed as simplistic, under-theorized, or hopelessly in thrall to moralistic or ideological assumptions rendering its questions, let alone its arguments, highly suspect.

“Porn studies,” in other words, is not synonymous with scholarship about pornography, as such. It is its own demarcated zone of discussion, one that is present-minded and digital media-oriented to an extreme. (All of the double issue is available to the public here.)

An exemplary case is the  paper called "Gonzo, trannys, and teens – current trends in U.S. adult content production, distribution, and consumption” by Chauntelle Anne Tibbals, who is identified as an independent scholar from Los Angeles. It is perhaps more sociological in perspective than an article from a porn-industry trade journal, and like other papers in Porn Studies it shies away from generalization even when inching in that direction:

"Some performers, producers, and others call for ‘feminist porn’ – a self-identified genre and social movement with no one articulated definition. At the same time, many producers and performers reject the attribution while creating content that seems decidedly feminist. At the center of every one of these debates are porn performers themselves, each of whom are impacted by individual choice, market concerns, and representation. ...  Even if one was to focus only on the images contained in ‘pornographic’ representations, with no consideration of production processes or variations in reception, we would still be left with a vast and diverse body of work that is constantly shifting. Consequently, there is no way to say ‘pornography is this’ or ‘pornography is that’ – as I have done in this essay, all one can really do is attempt to describe and contextualize existing patterns as they currently resonate (in this case, with me).”

You cannot step into the same porno river twice. Even so, Lynn Comella’s “Studying Porn Cultures” calls for researchers to spend more time studying the performers, marketers, and fans in their native element, such as the Adult Entertainment Expo. (Other “data-rich field sites” range “from erotic film festivals to feminist porn sets to adult video stores.”)  

Comella, an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, writes that she has attended the Expo “every year since 2008, as a researcher, a credentialed member of the media, and an invited participant in the Expo’s popular seminar series,” twice serving as moderator for the session devoted to women and the adult entertainment market.

The practice of “porn-studies-in-action” she advocates is “accountable to cultural plurality, specificity, and nuance,” she writes, and “rejects sweeping generalizations and foregone conclusions that rely on preconceived notions about pornography’s inherent ’truths’ and effects."

The problem with that being that nobody ever intentionally accepts “sweeping generalizations and foregone conclusions that rely on preconceived notions.” If only it were that easy. One era's critical perspective can become the next's tacit presupposition. In Hard Core, Linda Williams challenged the assumption that the pornographic film was one big homogenous set of images and messages created to stroke the egos and stoke the libidos of straight white guys. By contrast, the papers in Porn Studies all take Williams’s interpretive stance as a given: the audience, product, meanings, and the effects of porn are intrinsically heterogeneous and in flux. Any general statement beyond “More research is needed” thus becomes highly problematic..

A BBC documentary from a few years ago included a segment on one of the better-known subgenres of recent times. In it, the porn director (who is also the star) has a performer who is young, but of legal age, dress up as if she were a schoolgirl. He then brutalizes them at length with slapping, gagging, abusive penetration, and a running stream of verbal humiliation, after which he and other men urinate on her.

The documentary crew follows an actress to the set, with the camera focusing in very closely when the male performer begins chatting up the actress as the scenario begins. The expression on his face is chilling. Ted Bundy must have gotten that look in his eyes once the victim was handcuffed.

Given that his video product, too, is part of the diverse and polymorphous carnival that is the adult entertainment industry — and not the least profitable part, by any means — I would have liked to see a paper in Porn Studies that asked about damage. So many of the contributors celebrate the feminist and LGBT-positive aspect of the industry that a naive reader would think nothing else sold, and that it exists solely to increase the sum of happiness in the world. This may be doubted; indeed, it must be. At times, the journal seems not just to analyze the world of porn but to be part of it. Not in the way the performers are, by any means, but perhaps as a sort of conceptual catering service.

 

 

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