Porn again

After my last post about the debates around the new Porn Studies journal I wanted to add a further comment on the subject. Writing that post got me thinking about why I consider pornography to be an interesting and useful arena of study.

Studying Sex Advice

Personally I haven’t conducted much research directly on pornography, other than a study on slash fiction some years back. However, I am currently involved in a project with Rosalind Gill and Laura Harvey analysing various forms of sex advice (TV shows, problem pages, self-help books, sex education websites, and the like).

The reason that I am particularly interested in this genre is because the advice that is given tells us a great deal about people’s understandings and assumptions about sex. If we look at the most mainstream sex advice – the self-help books that publishers are happy to take on, or the particularly common kinds of magazine articles that we see again and again – we find out what is considered to be sex in the current time and place in which we are living: who is assumed to be involved, what practices they engage in, what is seen as desirable or ‘good’ sex and what is not, and so on. Also, if we look across the diversity of sex advice – including self-help books aimed at various sexual communities, and websites designed to be particularly ethical, feminist, or ‘sex-positive’ – we see what other possibilities are available, and also what the limits seem to be on possible understandings, and where the boundaries are drawn around sex.

I think that this is interesting and useful work because it is helpful (as sex educators, sex therapists, and other kinds of practitioners) to know what people are likely to be talking about when they talk about sex: the assumptions they might be making (some of which may be linked to problems they are having or risks they are taking health-wise), and the ideas they are likely to be familiar or unfamiliar with. Also, looking at the diversity of sex advice is helpful in making us aware of other possibilities which we might offer: different ways of looking at things or alternative practices people might consider. And, in analysing the sex advice that already exists, we can be better informed in producing our own materials in this genre which might aim, for example, to open up multiple possible understandings of sex, to put forward a diversity of possible practices, or to question existing boundaries between sex and other activities (leisure, art, sport, etc.) My chapter on sex in Rewriting the Rules was my first attempt at something along these lines.

Studying Porn

If all this can be said for studying sex advice, then it seems to me that much the same arguments can be made for studying pornography. Pornography refers to materials ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’. Looking at the most common and popular versions of pornography (mainstream magazines and top rated movies and websites) can, again, tell us a lot about what people generally understand about sex, and what is imagined or experienced as being sexually arousing. Looking across the ever-increasing diversity of erotic imagery and fiction can tell us about the range of things which are possible in terms of sexual practice and fantasy. And the awareness of the most common understandings of sex, and the different possible understandings of sex, that we gain from this can help us in our more applied work as well as enabling us – potentially – to inform future production of materials in order to address some of the exclusions and gaps in the current ones.

Of course people who research pornography do so for many reasons and with many different aims. I’m not arguing that the aim of understanding how people view sex should replace the aim of assessing whether pornography can be harmful (which many of those who were against the Porn Studies journal have as their aim) or any of the other aims which pornography researchers have. However, I think that it is one legitimate and important reason for studying porn.

Additionally this is an aim which does not fit into the pro or anti polarisation which I wrote about previously. If – as I believe – wider societal understandings of sex are problematic and limited in many ways, then we would expect both sex advice and pornography (and romance fiction and Hollywood movies, and reality TV, and all sorts of other media) to reflect and to perpetuate such problematic and limited understandings. We would expect that the presence of two ‘opposite sex’ people would be by far the most common representation because sex is seen as being all about the (different) gender a person is attracted to. We would predict that men would be expected to be active and initiating and that women wouldn’t be given much agency and would be focused upon meeting men’s desires rather than having their own. We’d expect that bodies would behave in certain ways to map on with our common ideas of what makes ‘functional’ sex (erections, penetration and orgasm). And we’d anticipate that there would be little emphasis on consent or on how to treat people ethically in sex.

Sex Critical Engaged-with-Porn Research

So we would certainly be critical – of mainstream pornographies as of other forms of sexual representation – for perpetuating such constraining and problematic ideas of sex, gender and sexuality. But this would not make us ‘anti-porn’ as a whole because we would be mindful of the diversity of sexually arousing materials out there which are not limited in these particular ways, and of the fact that people read all materials in different ways which may be more or less aware of such problems, or resisting of such messages. Also we would consider whether our criticism is best levelled at pornography in particular and/or at the whole way of understanding gender, sex and sexuality which it is representative of.

Additionally we might specifically look for pornographies which do something different to these mainstream versions, such as opening up alternative understandings of sex; or explicitly addressing the ethics of sex or the power dynamics between people; or including people, bodies and practices in positive ways which are often excluded or invisible. But this would not make us ‘pro-porn’ because we’d also be aware of the limitations of such materials which are present despite attempts to do things differently, and we would also be mindful of what such representations might close down for people as well as what they might open up.

Such an approach would hopefully prevent those of us who struggle with a lot of what we see in pornography from failing to engage with why people may find it useful, or from imagining alternatives. At the same time it would hopefully prevent those of us who want to celebrate the potentials of sexually arousing materials from noticing the concerning aspects of many pornographic representations of sex. Remaining open in this way would hopefully enable more fruitful conversations across different views and different types of research as well as making it more likely that future materials could be shaped by our research findings and theories, and that wider understandings of sex, sexuality and gender might also shift instead of remaining static.

It is such a sex critical (rather than sex negative or sex positive) and engaged-with-porn (rather than pro-porn or anti-porn) approach that I am hoping and expecting that Porn Studies will take.


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  1. ighwoman

    5 June

    I am a loyal follower of, and adherent (?)to, Alexis McKinnis who writes for, and answers sexuality questions in the vita.mn in the Twin Cities, MN (www.vita.mn/alexis). I find her take on sexuality questions to be fact based, judgement free, gender bias free, wide ranging sexuality open, and – uncannily so – exactly the sort or responses I might write. I highly recommend her take on the subject!

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