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Academia needs a porn journal: here’s why

The launch of a new academic journal doesn’t usually grab popular media interest. But the first journal of Porn Studies seems to have bucked the trend. For the most part, media coverage has contained more…

It’s time to move past outdated ideas about porn. hansol

The launch of a new academic journal doesn’t usually grab popular media interest. But the first journal of Porn Studies seems to have bucked the trend.

For the most part, media coverage has contained more than a little nudge, nudge, wink, wink; although some journalists have recognised the rationale for the journal. Perhaps more surprisingly, those commenting on these news stories have also been upbeat, contenting themselves with statements such as this one on The Guardian’s Book Blog: “I really can’t decide whether this is an improvement, or the beginning of the end of western civilisation.”

Others enjoy the opportunity to trot out their favourite jokes and puns. It seems many have already attained “a PhD in porn studies” or have very good imaginations when it comes to punning titles for parody porn.

Of course, studying porn is not that new. Historians, art and literary scholars turned their attention to sexually explicit works during the 1960s. The late 70s and 80s saw vociferous debate about pornography’s potential harms and what kinds of legislation might be appropriate to protect women. Elements of those debates are still very live, with UK MP Claire Perry’s campaign to filter internet porn and the recent attempts to ban all pornography in Iceland keeping arguments over regulation high on the public agenda.

Yet the 1980s also saw some groundbreaking work on pornography such as film scholar Linda Williams’ Hard Core which engaged with the historical and contextual details of “dirty pictures” and stag reels. In the 1990s, scholars such as Constance Penley began teaching courses on pornography in the United States. By the time the second edition of Linda Williams’ Hardcore was published, she could point to the emergence of pornography studies, a process which has continued alongside the exponential growth of the internet and the easy availability of sexually explicit words and images.

So what are pornography studies? Well, it may come as a shock, but it involves more than simply looking at a lot of pornography. Porn studies are characterised by thinking about pornography outside of the narrow confines of “pro” or “anti” views of sexual representations.

Like all good researchers, scholars in porn studies don’t start with a single question, they don’t get stuck at the level of arguing about whether porn is a good or a bad thing, and they don’t start out already knowing all the answers. They don’t assume that we already know what the porn industry looks like, what porn means, or what impact it has on people’s lives.

Instead they set out to understand those things by drawing on scholarly work and choosing the most appropriate methods for their object of study, whether that is the economic dimensions of porn production; the connections between mainstream film, cult cinema and sex-works; the dimensions of individual porn stardom; or the intersections between sexually explicit media and current social and political mores.

Academics from a range of disciplines already publish on aspects of pornography. In the editorial board we are putting together for our journal we already have people working in media and cultural studies, journalism, communication, film, literature, law, history, sociology, psychology, gender studies, women’s studies and feminist studies. As the journal grows we hope to welcome others from other disciplines to the board.

This initiative joins the increasing numbers of conferences and publications on porn in the last few years, and we hope it will become a central forum for future debates. This is how new areas of study grow and develop over time.

But there are other reasons for consolidating that work now. As porn has become more accessible and diverse in the last decade or so it has attracted more attention from researchers around the world. It has also attracted increasing attention from activists, politicians, medics and youth workers.

Arguments about pornography centre on the accessibility of pornography (especially in relation to children) and the probability of harm and addiction, the kinds of imagery available, and the working conditions for those involved in making pornography. There are all kinds of contributions that can be made to those debates but often these get corralled into anti or pro porn positions – a division which curtails the possibilities of investigation and debate.

Porn is becoming an important part of increasing numbers of people’s lives and what that means to them is something we still know very little about. The ways that porn is produced and distributed is changing quite dramatically but much of the popular argumentation about the porn industry is based on guesswork. There is a necessity to examine how and why particular stories get told about pornography – for example, how has the idea of sex and porn addiction gained so much popular currency when even addiction specialists can’t agree that such a diagnosis is useful?

There hasn’t been a journal for academics who specialise in studying pornography until now. We think that it is the right time for this journal. By offering a space for researchers to develop conversations across different disciplines, the study of porn will be pushed forward even further.