Porn Studies in North American and Europe (for now)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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Earlier this week a friend let me know that the first volume of Porn Studies (a new journal from Routledge Open Access) had made its debut. This is an exciting moment for porn scholars, among whom I count myself in my never-ending quest to reconsider the relations among film, ethics, and embodiment. According to their own description of their aims and scope:

Porn Studies is the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts. Porn Studies will publish innovative work examining specifically sexual and explicit media forms, their connections to wider media landscapes and their links to the broader spheres of (sex) work across historical periods and national contexts.

Porn Studies is an interdisciplinary journal informed by critical sexuality studies and work exploring the intersection of sexuality, gender, race, class, age and ability. It focuses on developing knowledge of pornographies past and present, in all their variations and around the world. Because pornography studies are still in their infancy we are also interested in discussions that focus on theoretical approaches, methodology and research ethics. Alongside articles, the journal includes a forum devoted to shorter observations, developments, debates or issues in porn studies, designed to encourage exchange and debate.

Seeing the premiere issue of Porn Studies available online inspired me to reflect on some key texts behind my own understanding of mediated sex and a few thoughts on where we go from here.

Any list of serious work on pornography has to begin with two projects by Linda Williams, who practically invented the academic field in the 1990s, with her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” I first read Hard Core a year after its publication in 1989 and returned to it again when its second edition was published in 1999. In the first edition, Williams argued that we consider pornography as a film genre, a type of text with certain expectations and affects–like horror or musicals–and little else. The goal of porn is to make pleasure visible. In second edition, she further developed that argument and began discussing teaching “hard core” texts in classes. Williams continued her research in the edited collection Porn Studies, published in 2004, where more authors argued not only for studying but also for teaching pornography.

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Several outstanding histories of pornography, obscenity, and sexually explicit materials exist. Two especially important ones–which help us understand our own definitions and demarcations of “porn” and “non-porn” are Lynn Hunt’s The Invention of Pornography and Walter Kendrick’s The Secret Museum. As with all conceptions of mediated sex, “pornography,” has a history. Actions become things; activities become subjectivities. The process of dividing and classifying the pornographic and the non-pornographic is always a comparative, dialectical one–with activities and objects moving sliding between categories. In this way, pornography has always been located–in time and place–as the opposite, the abject, the outside other, precisely to give more legitimacy to the inside, the mainstream, the polite. The invention (and deployment) of pornography is not so much the identification (and separation) of a specifically obscene group of sexual mediations. Rather, it is the creation of a border between different groups of sexual mediations to lend legitimacy to one (such as illustrated science texts) through a comparison which delegitimizes the other.

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As several good reads point out, the division between pornography and non-pornography has run through the history of American film. Beyond simple discussions of film censorship and ratings systems, which have come and gone over the last century, the battle between Hollywood and non-Hollywood has often played out in terms of mediated sex. Authors such as Jon Lewis, in Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggles Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry, Berkeley Kaite, in Pornography and Difference, and Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne, in The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored History of the Porn Film Industry, point out that Hollywood has always been defined through a dynamic separation from what it is not. Historically, mainstream studios have invented and manipulated their difference from hard core filmmakers not to protect the public but to increase profits and brand their own product. The line between pornography and non-pornography has moved and been moved (this way and that) as it served studio productions and audience reception on both sides of the line. Porn has always borrowed from Hollywood and Hollywood has always borrowed from porn.

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Yet, in the last decades, the modern border between porn and non-porn has begun to erode. First the VCR and then the Internet brought porn more and more into the public sphere. Then, the public sphere adopted more and more of the pornographic into the non-pornographic. In Pornography: Film and Culture, Peter Lehman and others discuss the history of this porous and dissolving border. In Mediated Sex: Pornography and Postmodern Culture, Brian McNair looks at some postmodern examples of the border dissolved. Our definitions are changing. Our parameters are moving.

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We are still only at the beginning of this stage in porn studies. However, we might also be at the end of an era of pornography. Interestingly, as the line between pornography and non-pornography continues to become less well defined–as porn and non-porn continue to merge, blend, flow over one another–the very category of “pornography” begins to wither. Pornography was invented to give us a more strict sense of the non-pornographic, as that which is other to pornography. As this division and classification wears thin, so too do the objects on both sides of the line. As the line changes, what we call “porn” changes and what we do not call “porn” changes as well. It is possible, even, to imagine a moment again when pornography does not exist, not because mediated sex ceases to exist, though. Mediated sex has a long history, and most probably, a long future. How we think of pornography and non-pornography, though, may already be slipping away.

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