Having just submitted my first work of original erotica for consideration for a Cleis Press anthology, I decided it was apropos to work out the writerly shakes by posting a bit of a rant about the recurring moral panic around pornography.
This is what a pornographer looks like.
That is, the idea that a body of work (sexually-explicit material created with at least a partial intention to arouse the consumer) might be studied using diverse methods of data collection and analysis, a wide range of primary source material within the genre, and theoretical lenses, adding to our body of knowledge about the human condition or the world we inhabit.
Last night as I was going through my RSS feeds, I noticed that The Guardian has discovered that some scholars study porn and that others object to the idea that porn can be studied as one studies, say, English poetry, American history, or cellular biology.
And they’ve discovered that some of those scholars who study porn have decided to start a journal dedicated to the subject (PDF), to be published by Routledge starting in 2014, and that anti-porn activists have accused these journal editors of being “biased” and “pro-porn”:
The journal, which announced its call for papers a month ago, and will be published by Routledge next year, marks a turning point in the academic study and treatment of pornography. It is the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the subject and its editors – Feona Attwood, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University, and Clarissa Smith, a reader in sexual cultures at Sunderland University – say it will offer a fresh cross-disciplinary approach and provide a focus for researchers working on porn.
However, a petition accusing journal of bias, and demanding that Routledge either change its editorial board or rename it “Pro-Porn Studies” has attracted 888 signatures, including from senior academics in North America and Europe, people working with the victims of sexual and domestic violence and health professionals.
Gail Dines, a British professor of sociology at Wheelock College, Boston, and the author of Pornland, said that, while it was vital that pornography was studied and research published, she had grave concerns about the editorial direction of the journal.
Some of you may remember Gail Dines from my 2012 series on her Boston University appearance along with Carol Queen at a screening of The Price of Pleasure. It’s my personal opinion that she does nothing to enhance the discussion around the ethics of sexually explicit material because her own position has become so dogmatic that she is uninterested in genuine conversation with those who think about pornography in more nuanced ways.
I’m honestly kind of creeped out that she teaches and lives here in the same city I do. But that’s life.
I want to offer two inter-related thoughts about the anti-porn faction’s framing of Porn Studies as biased because it’s “pro porn.”
1) Pornography is a genre, nothing more. “Pornography” is the word we use to describe sexually-explicit materials, most often visual materials, created or used at least partially for the purpose of arousal. Pornography is a genre, just like fiction or poetry is a genre. We can talk about porn being unethically or shoddily made, or we can talk about porn that didn’t do it for us — I’m honestly not that into Longfellow’s epic poems or anything by Ian McEwan. I think Phillip Pullman let his atheist agenda impede good storytelling toward the end of His Dark Materials and after reading a couple of reviews of Lionel Shriver’s latest it sounds to me like she’s given in to unacceptable fat hatred.
But that doesn’t mean I’m “anti-poetry” or “anti-fiction,” and I certainly wouldn’t accuse my father-in-law who loves Ian McEwan of “pro-fiction” bias because he loves an author whose characters give me hives.
This is the sort of nuance that Feona Attwood, Clarissa Smith, Tristan Taormino, Violet Blue, and the others involved in Porn Studies, scholarship on pornography, and creating porn are advocating. There’s crap porn out there, I don’t think anyone is denying that — though like with fiction we’re all going to disagree on what constitutes “crap.” (As librarian Nancy Pearl once reminded her readers, one reader’s bad sex award-worthy scene is another person’s hottest fantasy.) There is also unethical porn, which “pro-porn” feminists have been vigorously discussing and working to advocate for decades — for the most recent discussions, check out The Feminist Porn Book and associated website.
If I had to sum up what I see as the “pro-porn” feminist stance on bad and exploitative porn, it would be the following: make better porn, and empower workers in the porn industry (including your own, if you’re a porn creator) to demand (and achieve) non-exploitative working conditions.
Dines and company, on the other hand — apparently over eight hundred people! — don’t see porn as a genre. They see porn as a single, monochromatic thing which in its entirety is harmful. They see pornography as a public health harm much like smoking while the Porn Studies folks see it more like pastry or even alcohol. Inhalation of smoke increases your risk of cancer; there’s nothing you can really do to make smoking healthy. Eating a brioche, on the other hand, or enjoying a glass of wine at dinner or a cocktail at a party is not per se a self-destructive activity. It’s all about how individuals relate to the food or drink. Do you eat compulsively? Do you shop at a bakery that sells stale rolls? Pays its employees under the counter with no benefits? Are you using whiskey to mask your depression? Has the chardonnay you opened last week gone off in the interim? Wine tastings and French pastry-making classes abound in our neighborhood, testament to the fact that people see alcohol and baked goods as two classes of foodstuffs that can be made well or poorly on a number of levels.
Which brings me to point number two…
2) Scholars are nerds, and we’re generally passionate about our subjects of study. You say “pro-porn” like it’s a bad thing. If pornography is a genre, like poetry or fiction, then it stands to reason that the people who choose to study it — to build a scholarly career out of studying it — and/or are creating it are “pro” the genre. Don’t we want them to be? Accusing a pornographer or porn scholar of being “pro-porn” is like complaining Seanan McGuire is “pro-fantasy fiction” or the people on “America’s Test Kitchen” are “pro-food.”
Uh … yes? You’re point being…?
Back in the 18th century, there was, in fact, a moral panic about the effects of reading fiction — particularly its effects on girls and women (we’re flightly like that). Fiction, of any sort, inflamed the imagination and the imagination turned to sex. Reading fiction, in other words, led straight to masturbation and other lewd behaviors.
When I listen very long to those who protest against the production of porn, any porn, regardless of the context of creation, quality of production, or content, I admit that they sound about as shrill as the eighteenth-century moralizers with their warnings about how reading fiction leads to depravity.
It’s disappointing to me that so many people continue to take them seriously, instead of re-framing pornography as a genre like any other … one which we can choose to shape and reshape as we please. And study endlessly, like we study Shakespeare’s corpus or Buffy or the human genome.