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The evolution of porn studies

As pornography has proliferated in the digital era, so too has its study, even though this multidisciplinary field has been around for at least 30 years. But, say scholars, the study of sexually explicit subject matter has often been muddied by a binary pro- or anti-porn attitude.

By CHANTAL BRAGANZA | JAN 14 2015
Illustration by AnotherExample.
Illustration by AnotherExample.

At 8:30 on a Tuesday morning in the fall of 2013, about 40 students filed into a York University classroom to talk about porn. It was the first day of a new course on pornography launched by Bobby Noble, associate professor of sexuality and gender studies. Despite the odd bleary eyed student still adjusting to the early start time, the class was eager to be there.

Dr. Noble had jumped through a number of administrative hoops to get the course mounted – early curriculum committee questions ranged from the pragmatic, such as what to do about students under the age of majority, to concerns about students accidentally stumbling across child pornography, which was in no way related to course content – so the stakes in its success were high. “I made a deliberate choice to offer the course in the morning,” says Dr. Noble, “because I wanted it to be students who were going to be very serious about participating.”

Indeed, anyone hoping for a quick thrill in Porn Studies, as the course was called, would have come to the wrong place. For the first few weeks of class, not a single image or film clip was shown – students instead asked, and answered, questions. What makes one type of image pornography and not another? Can a sexual experience itself be porn? What kinds of cultural assumptions are typically made about pornography, and how has this changed over time? Some of the first images the class saw were well over a century old: 1850s daguerreotypes of Victorian women in various states of undress. “It just shocked [the students] that what was considered a sexy pose in front of a camera a hundred years ago was so different from what they would expect to see now,” says Dr. Noble.

From there, the course moved on to more contemporary topics, from the evolution of queer and feminist porn to how new media has not only changed the way adult pornography is consumed but also perceived. “I was very impressed by their levels of maturity, the levels of sophistication, their poetical analyses,” he says. “I could tell that these were questions about sexuality and sexual representation that they wanted to talk about, but haven’t had the space in which to do that.” A success, the course was offered again in January 2014.

Dr. Noble later wrote of the experience for the first issue of Porn Studies, the new academic journal Routledge launched to much media fanfare last spring. Many of the reports at the time made it seem as though the study of pornography was the hottest new topic on North American campuses, and it was either a well-overdue arrival or an academic disaster, depending who you asked. The controversial Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente called it “self-indulgent garbage” while a report in The Atlantic praised the journal as a “serious articulation of the intersection between the concerns of media studies and those of pornography.”

Ask an actual pornography studies scholar, however, and you’ll learn that the study of sexual depictions on screen and in print have been discussed in university classrooms as a multidisciplinary field for over 30 years. It is a storied subject with a history of controversy that has had impacts on Canadian policy and divided scholarly communities and activist movements, and some of these effects are still felt today.

Throughout the 1970s, many feminist scholars and writers of the era picked up on what they saw as the mainstreaming of porn through titles like Playboy and feature-length films like Deep Throat. This was the era of “porn chic” – the genre’s so-called golden age before the advent of the VCR – when adult films had large production budgets and were screened mostly in theatres (an era portrayed in the 1997 film Boogie Nights).

Activists vocally opposed this burgeoning media industry because they felt it violently objectified women and, by extension, promoted the same in real life. Protest groups such as Women Against Pornography popped up across North America. One of the first marches staged in the United States by Take Back the Night, an anti-sexual violence organization, was held in 1973 to protest San Francisco’s adult-film strip.

By the early ’80s, the assumption in popular culture was that if you identified as a feminist, you were automatically anti-porn. Isolated incidents of extreme tactics, including firebombing three Red Hot Video outlets by activists in British Columbia in 1982, furthered that notion. On the less radical side of the spectrum, filmmaker and activist Bonnie Sherr Klein released in 1981 Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, a National Film Board documentary that took a critical look at the adult film industry from the point of view of Lindalee Tracey, an exotic dancer who went on to work as a filmmaker herself.

Rebecca Sullivan, an English and women’s studies professor and director of the Institute for Gender Studies at the University of Calgary, recently published a book on the film, named after its title. At the time of its release, Not a Love Story was so controversial that the provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan heavily censored its screenings because the movie included clips of the very types of pornography the film was critiquing.

However, at the same time there was a shift taking place in how some scholars talked about porn. In 1981, journalist and activist Ellen Willis coined the term “pro-sex feminism” in essays she wrote criticizing what she described as a puritanical approach to women’s sexuality. In  1982, and despite organized protests against the event, Barnard College in New York held an academic conference on feminist discussions of unstudied fields of sexuality, including bondage and discipline, sadomasochism and pornography.

It was around this time that film studies professor Thomas Waugh began incorporating pornography into courses he was teaching on sexuality and cinema at Concordia University, where today he holds the university’s research chair in documentary film and sexual representation and is director of the Concordia HIV/AIDS Project, a space for dialogue and research on HIV/AIDS for the Montreal region. While the university itself was very supportive of his curriculum at the time, he says, scholars invested in the pornography debate both in Canada and the U.S. were rigidly divided. It was a topic that could have colleagues arguing at conferences and in classrooms – and, Dr. Noble notes, have them stop speaking to each other for long periods of time.

“We felt that the two sides weren’t listening to each other,” says Dr. Waugh. He says that the anti-pornography writing of noted late-’70s second-wave feminist writers and scholars – including Andrea Dworkin and University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon – ended up influencing, directly or indirectly, the use of obscenity laws and state censorship to combat pornography.

Canada’s R. v. Butler case is an oft-cited example of this. From 1987 to 1991, numerous arrests and charges of possessing and selling obscene materials led Winnipeg’s adult-video store owner Donald Butler to the Supreme Court, in a trial charged with the task of weighing whether the country’s current obscenity laws breached the right to freedom of expression. As an independent intervener in the case, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund successfully argued in court that portrayals of sexual violence contributed to gender inequality and constituted a form of public harm to women.

Rather than the intended outcome of cracking down on the distribution of pornography that depicted the exploitation or abuse of women, the 1992 ruling ended up lending customs inspectors legal cover in laying obscenity charges against a disproportionately large number of women’s and LGBT bookstores and arts businesses. In one notable example, which occurred within six weeks of the Butler decision, Toronto police charged Glad Day Bookshop, under section 163 of the Criminal Code, for selling lesbian erotic fiction.

“I think we have the benefit of hindsight to be dismissive of early anti- porn discourse,” says U of Calgary’s Dr. Sullivan, who spoke to a number of Canadian feminist activists of the ’70s and ’80s for her book. Of these earlier feminists, she says: “I would not connect the dots the way they did, but I’m not surprised they did.” And in some cases, such as with the working conditions on the sets of porn films at the time, these concerns were not without merit.

“This was … not a very ethically run industry,” says Dr. Sullivan, pointing to the case of Deep Throat adult-film actor Linda “Lovelace” Boreman. Ms. Boreman eventually left her career in adult film and joined the anti-pornography movement in the 1980s to speak out about the abuses she’d suffered on set and at home by her husband and manager, Chuck Traynor.

Now, three decades later, the research of York University associate librarian Lisa Sloniowski is a telling indicator of how much pornography studies has moved on. Along with Dr. Noble, Ms. Sloniowski has been studying and theorizing best methods for archiving porn. The Feminist Pornography Archive, which received a three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2010, began simply as an inquiry into how to make materials available to students of sexuality and gender studies courses without sending them to a sex shop. “You immediately realize, in trying to decide what you’re going to collect, that you’re engaged in a definitional act – saying this is what constitutes feminist porn,” observes Ms. Sloniowski.

Julie Lavigne, a professor of sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal, is also interested in how we socially define what constitutes pornography, but from an art history perspective. “Deciding what is pornography is often a moral judgment. It’s not objective. If you look at more objective characteristics, you’ll notice that pornography is a more restricted term than something like ‘erotic.’ You have to follow some codes in order to be pornographic.”

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Her most recent book, La traversée de la pornographie, explores how these codes, from cinematic tropes to sex positions, have been used in modern feminist art. “Artists like Annie Sprinkle or Carolee Schneemann are actually using the codes of mainstream pornography, using the same scenarios in female-oriented contexts, to expose what real women’s sexuality is.”

Back at York, the porn archive has raised another issue: should the collection be closed off as its own archive or integrated into the larger library itself? What impacts would that have on both staff and library users? The project’s next step, says Ms. Sloniowski, will be to investigate how the archive might operate as a digital collection. “So much of porn is produced only in digital format now. We’d be foolish to not think of how to acquire that material.”

At Carleton University, assistant professor of criminology Lara Karaian is also concerned with the intersections of pornography and the digital world, but from a very different angle: selfies and their function as a form sexual expression among young adults. “[Porn] has become a lot more democratized in some ways, because we’re all … taking part in the production and in the design of it,” says Dr. Karaian. She has been conducting focus groups across Ontario as part of a two-year study on digital sexual expression among teens and on the issues that arise when authorities try to control it when things go awry.

“The age of consent for sexual relations is 16 and the age of consent for representing sexual relations is 18,” notes Dr. Karaian, “and that gap is policed in problematic ways” – namely, the tendency to charge teens with distribution of child pornography when photos are shared without consent.

Outside of the legal system, she also identifies concerns about the way sexualized selfies, or sexts (a term Dr. Karaian notes was primarily coined by adults), are treated by Internet-safety initiatives. “Our responses continue to perpetuate the idea that some people are sexual subjects and some people are sexual objects,” she says, referring to the way sex-ed classes or media reports always seem to talk about sexting in one way: as an act of violence committed against unsuspecting teen girls from middle- class backgrounds.

While things can certainly go wrong in any instance of sharing sexual images with others – non-consensual distribution, peer pressure, bullying – Dr. Karaian has found in her studies that for a number of adolescents, the relationship with sexting isn’t quite so fraught. “The older teens I’ve been interviewing who engage in it, some of them find it to be a really important self-expressive practice.”

Lynn Comella, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, notes that, in the U.S., professors who study pornography often find themselves fighting for legitimacy and space in an increasingly conservative education climate. Though she’s been teaching courses that involve the study of pornography as an industry and cultural medium since 2001, it was only after she received tenure last July that she decided she would start using the word “porn” in the course title. “I knew within the first year or two of being here that if I called my course ‘Porn Cultures,’ it had the potential to cause a controversy, and that my course syllabus could possibly find its way into the hands of conservative state legislators. This has happened in other cases.”

Beyond convincing state legislators or newspaper columnists that the study of porn in its various forms is a valid pursuit, legitimacy also comes from removing assumptions often made of the people doing the scholar-ship itself, says Dr. Comella. “That was a large concern [with the Porn Studies journal] that the editors and the editorial board were largely ‘pro-porn,’ ” she says. “It’s an odd phrasing to me. You don’t usually talk about people who do television studies as being ‘pro-TV’ or people who study film as being ‘pro-Hollywood.’ ”

Dr. Sullivan at U of Calgary, speaking of an advanced film seminar on pornography that she’s taught since 2008, says: “I want to look at this film the same way we’d look at Hitchcock. What’s going on here? What do we learn? How to we embrace or resist it? Let’s move away from the pro- and anti- argument. It’s divisive and counterproductive. And it’s bad scholarship.”

Chantal Braganza is a Toronto-based writer, editor and part-time master of arts student in Ryerson University’s communication and culture program.

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