Let's major in Girls Gone Wild: How "Hot Sexy Coeds" became porn scholars

A new book takes a scholarly look at smut, which is increasingly being taken seriously as an academic subject

Published March 23, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-256396p1.html'>Denis Mironov</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/garrettmerchant'>garrettmerchant</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Denis Mironov via Shutterstock/garrettmerchant via iStock/Salon)

It would be an understatement of porn-star-penis proportions to say that the academic study of the adult industry is having a moment. In 2013, we saw the launch of the Feminist Porn Conference, which gathers academics, performers and fans alike to discuss the industry. Increasingly, colleges across the country are offering film, gender and sexuality classes that study the topic. Last year, the academic journal “Porn Studies” debuted. And now we have this interdisciplinary book, “New Views on Pornography,” edited by Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant, both professors of gender and sexuality studies.

Of course, there’s a long history of porn academics -- including, notably, the film scholar Linda Williams, who wrote the 1989 book “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible,” and the feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who in the same year penned “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.” But never before has the topic been paid such serious attention or interest. This was perfectly illustrated by the fact that I interviewed Comella by phone about the book while she huddled in the corner of an airport, waiting to board a plane for Italy to speak about pornography at an international film studies conference.

This substantial book is essentially an introductory, albeit rigorous, textbook on the study of pornography that spans several disciplines. There's legal analysis of both obscenity and revenge porn law, histories of feminist pornography and queer erotica, data analyses on everything from porn's alleged harm to the concept of sex addiction, and analysis of cultural issues, like the ethics of watching bareback porn. There are also interviews with porn performers, including feminist director Courtney Trouble, who discusses the issues gender queer performers encounter in mainstream films, and African-American "BBW" performer Betty Blac, who talks about the higher pay given to white actresses.

I spoke with Comella about common pornography myths, the current state of the so-called feminist Sex Wars, and the recent crackdown by tech companies on revenge porn.

Last year we saw the debut of “Porn Studies.” Clearly, you have edited a sizable academic book about porn. Is porn being taken more seriously now as an area of research?

Most definitely. The journal “Porn Studies” was an outgrowth of the fact that more research is being conducted in this area and there needed to be an academic venue solely dedicated to this work. This book was in process before “Porn Studies” launched, so it was a really wonderful synergy and very fortuitous. Right at this moment we’re witnessing the growth of the field and, alongside that, more recognition that this is a legitimate area of academic inquiry. I think it’s hard to make a case for not studying an industry that is so popular and profitable.

Why is this research having such a moment right now?

That’s a really good question. There are scholars who’ve been studying and writing about pornography for decades, so academic interest in pornography isn’t necessarily new. But in recent years there’s really been a mini-explosion of academic conferences on pornography, academic books and edited collections that focus on pornography, and of course the debut "Porn Studies," all of which has generated even more interest in the topic. Part of me also wants to credit gender and sexuality studies programs for helping to carve out spaces in academia for the study of "everyday intimacies," such as pornography, strip clubs and sex work. So, I think it’s really a confluence of many different factors: technological changes have made pornography more accessible and, as a result, more acceptable to more people, including women; social media has given porn companies and performers new forms of visibility and greater contact with fans. The time is ripe for researchers to ask the same kinds of questions about pornography that they’ve been asking for decades about other forms of popular culture.

Why do we need porn research?

Pornography is a really vast, diverse media industry, like other media industries, like Hollywood or television or the music industry. We have academic work that looks quite rigorously at how those industries do what they do, why they do what they do, who consumes those products and with what effects. So why we need good, empirical, data-driven research on pornography is because we should be asking those same questions. Who uses pornography? What motivates people to use pornography? What effects does pornography have on individuals, on relationships, on the way people think about the world in which they live? People who are doing this work are very invested in treating pornography as they would any other media or cultural industry.

We want that good research because people engage with pornography and talk about pornography -- so many articles are being written about pornography, whether people are talking about alleged porn addiction or children and pornography or the effects on pornography on relationships, it is something people are interested in. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of conclusions drawn about pornography that are based on nothing more than people’s personal moral objections to pornography.

Why we need good pornography research is because we actually just don’t know a lot about this industry that is very varied, very diverse, that has a number of different genres and different consumers. A lot of people draw conclusions about the effects of pornography based on nothing except their own objection to the idea of pornography. A lot of people draw conclusions about pornography without even watching pornography. They really do take for granted a lot of what they read or hear from pundits on television shows. One of the things that’s interesting about the field of porn studies is that it’s really generating information and knowledge about an area that we very much need better information and research about. Even in the supposedly academic studies that exist on porn, frankly, there’s a lot of bad research.

For example, I read some academic work that professes to show the effect that pornography has on individuals. Whether it's adolescent boys or adult men -- but they never talk to those people, they talk to porn producers and directors and they get data about a porn producer’s vision of what they’re making and then they make a leap to a conclusion about how its affecting the individuals consuming it.

We’re certainly seeing more graduate students interested in studying different aspects of the porn industry who are writing masters theses and dissertations on pornography and some of those people are finding tenure track academic jobs, it’s not as though they’re hitting a dead end. Again, there’s a shifting climate where many universities are recognizing that there is a place within academia for this kind of work. I’m currently teaching a class an UNLV called, “Porn Cultures.” It’s a small elective class and my students come from disciplines and majors across the campus.

You mentioned some of the bad research that’s out there about the effects of pornography. How would you summarize what the good research that’s out there tells us about the effects of pornography?

The effects question is a really complicated one. Media effects research can be tricky. Whether you’re talking about video games or violent lyrics in music, it’s really challenging to study effects in a laboratory setting because that’s artificial, and it’s challenging to isolate. We live in a world in which we’re being affected by many things all at once. What good effects researchers do is try to make sense of the overall cultural climate that is influencing how people think about the world in general. Part of that is factoring in sort of “corporate messages” about the world, about danger and violence for example. Pornography gives us corporate messages about gender and sexuality. One of the downfalls of pornography research is people who talk about pornography as though it’s a monolith. “Pornography is x.” But there are many different pornographies. It’s a very diverse industry.

There’s a great piece in the book that did a big survey that was interested in the motivations for consuming pornography. Some people watch it because they’re bored. Some people watch it because they’re at a point in their life where they’re not sexually active anymore, so pornography is a sexual outlet for them. They watch it because there are few places that reflect that kind of desires that they have. The piece paints this really varied picture of why people watch pornography in the first place. We just assume we know who the consumer is and know what’s motivating a consumer, but these are things we actually know very little about. One of the exciting things about porn research is how there are a lot of questions that haven’t been asked yet. There are a lot of studies that haven’t been conducted.

The book gets into the anti-porn and pro-porn feminist movements. Where are we today with those debates?

I think they are alive and well. In the last decade, there's been a resurgence of anti-porn activism. One of the things that I was really intrigued by in editing this collection was the number of essays in the book, even if they weren't writing historically about the feminist Sex Wars, that referenced that. It's almost as though you can't really talk about the history of pornography or engage with different aspects of the porn industry without at least nodding to the continued presence of those debates. I'm finishing up a paper for an academic journal about how even in the debates about "Fifty Shades of Grey," the way that some journalists talk about it being potentially damaging and then other journalists say it's created a cultural space for women to feel like they can explore their desires, there's a way to see the competing positions of the feminist Sex Wars are alive and well. Whether people are conscious of it or not, it shapes how people in general think of pornography, this kind of good or bad, dangerous versus empowering. Of course the picture is far more complicated than good or bad. Culture doesn't work in such a black-and-white way.

One topic covered at length in the book is censorship and it seems a particularly relevant issue in the U.K. as of late. Last year, the government censored porn featuring squirting, fisting and face-sitting. Not long before that, the prime minister pushed for ISPs to filter out porn by default. What exactly is going on across the pond?

That is a really good question. That's a question I ask. I'm not exactly sure. Clearly, there is a kind of anti-pornography contingent having political success in conveying a message of danger.

Obviously, the U.S. has its own history with censoring pornography, but lately there's been a petering out of obscenity prosecutions. Do you think we'll ever see a resurgence of obscenity cases?

Anything is possible when it comes to obscenity. One of the things that history has shown us is that obscenity prosecutions really ebb and flow according to who is in the White House, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican and the extent to which they either personally feel that they need to safeguard quote-unquote public morality or the extent to which they're pressured by their political friends to do that. You've seen that ebb and flow just from George W. Bush's administration to Obama's administration.

Since the book's publication, Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have effectively banned revenge porn from their platforms. What do you make of that?

I'm glad they've done that. Obviously, pornography is a legal industry, and it's an industry based on the idea of consent. That is not something that exists in the world of revenge porn, it's quite the opposite. It's a highly gendered phenomenon, often done by men to women with the sole purpose of humiliation and tarnishing a person's reputation. One possibility is that the broader cultural conversations that have gone on about consent have maybe started to sink in and some of the social media platforms are maybe thinking about revenge porn in a broader way. The conversations that feminist activists have been having around rape culture, maybe some of that has taken hold in a way that allows them to make connections. Just because it's called pornography doesn't make it legal.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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