Pornography Porn

In the fall of 1990, at the beginning of my senior year of college, I became obsessed with pornography—or, rather, I became obsessed with the feminist debates about it. From the late 1970s until the ...

In the fall of 1990, at the beginning of my senior year of college, I became obsessed with pornography—or, rather, I became obsessed with the feminist debates about it. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, pornography, along with sex work, butch-femme, and S/M, divided the feminist community, leading to public debates, legal battles, protests, community splits, and an explosion of manifestos, open letters, pamphlets, flyers, magazines, and books. Given my tender age, fledgling lesbianism, and profound nerdiness, my point of access to the feminist sex wars was through print culture. I was not a sex radical—I just read about them in the library.

The debates revolved around sex and power, the nature of femininity, and the relationship between fantasy, representation, and material reality. I was fascinated by the question of how to read scenes of erotic domination between women—did they repeat or refuse patriarchal norms?—and I spent hours poring over the key anthologies: Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (1983), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (1984), and Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography & Censorship (1986). Shuttling between the local women’s bookstore, the reading room, and my dorm, I followed conflicts hashed out in the pages of magazines and journals like off our backs and On Our Backs, Sinister Wisdom and Bad Attitude. And I looked at the pictures.

That world seems a long way off now. The clandestine pursuit of subcultural belonging through analog mechanisms—picking up flyers, tracking down footnotes—has gone the way of feminist bookstores. Search engines can do a lot of the detective work for young queers these days, and far more efficiently. The slow consolidation of identity through reading also seems increasingly quaint in the face of the database aesthetics of a site like Tumblr, which can so quickly assemble—and disassemble—a sense of self. A recent search for “sex wars” on the site led to a page curated by “pussy-in-heaven” that featured photographs of cats, cheesecake GIFs, and messaging: “FORGET SHIT AND MOVE ON.”

Women's Lib march in DC, 1970. Wikimedia Commons

Women’s Lib march in DC, 1970. Wikimedia Commons

What now seems least relatable in this scene from my past, even to me, is the atmosphere of moral rigor in which I contemplated the rights and wrongs of lesbian sex. In a 1984 reflection on “the fallacy of misplaced scale,” the anthropologist and sex wars veteran Gayle Rubin argues that sex acts are “burdened with an excess of significance.”1 In those days, I was living the fallacy, constantly running ethical tests on real and imagined scenarios. (I just Googled the phrase “Does the dildo have a desire of its own?”—a question that I used not only to mull over in private but also, as I shamefacedly recall, ask my friends. No hits.)

Some recent academic writing about pornography confirms my sense that this era of passionate self-making and collective contestation has passed. In his introduction to the anthology Porn Archives, co-editor Tim Dean explains that treating porn as a material archive requires “taking some distance from the feminist debates that brought the study of pornography into academia in the first place.” Dean argues that acknowledging the “full range of existing porn archives,” including its proliferation and transformation across a range of new media contexts, renders both the “pro and anti” positions “untenable.”

Linda Williams—a founding figure of the academic field of porn studies—agrees. In her book Hard Core (1989), written at the height of the sex wars, she also challenged the “pro and anti” positions, arguing that pornographic representations were too complex to be understood as examples either of domination and violence or of liberation and pleasure. She pioneered a view of porn as a set of historically changing practices rather than as a crisis or opportunity for judgment. In a state-of-the-field essay in Porn Archives, Williams observes that this “thriving subfield of history, ethnography, queer studies, and film and media studies” continues to expand, “uninhibited by seemingly irrelevant feminist debates.” Williams’s next sentence hurt a little: “If lesbian pornographies and lesbian pornography studies have been slower to develop, it may well be because they are still suffering from the legacy of those ‘off our backs,’ ‘on our backs’ debates.”

Ongoing challenges to the definition of “man” and “woman” can make some of the ringing pronouncements about the gendered politics of porn sound a bit tinny.

It’s true that I still spend a lot of time flipping through feminism’s back catalogue. Is it the lesbianism that makes it so hard for me to “FORGET SHIT AND MOVE ON”? The consensus in Porn Archives is that the conditions for the production and reception of pornography have changed so radically since the 1980s that the questions feminists were asking about censorship, agency, gender, violence, and power seem today, if not irrelevant, at least in need of a serious makeover. Given the diverse, transnational, cross-media archive that the volume brings together, the argument is persuasive—even to die-hards like me.

These changes include the rapid movement of images, many of them user-generated, through media networks. New forms of circulation put pressure on the understanding of censorship as legislated or enforceable by the state. Ongoing challenges to the definition of “man” and “woman” and the proliferation of transgender identities can make some of the ringing pronouncements about the gendered politics of porn sound a bit tinny. And the massive expansion of the use of the term pornography—now applied to everything from hard-core horror movies (torture porn) to voyeuristic enjoyment of global catastrophe (disaster porn) to questionable displays of empathy (poverty porn; inspiration porn)—as well as the diffusion of pornography throughout society at large (pornification) can make it hard to know what to be pro or anti about, even if you did want to take a stand. That said, Prabha Manuratne’s excellent and terrifying contribution to Porn Archives, about the traffic in leaked images of US military violence (war porn), may inspire powerful—if unrealizable—fantasies of censorship.

Porn Archives addresses new contexts for the production, distribution, and reception of graphic sexual imagery, and it is focused on questions of archival practices, including collecting, display, circulation, classification, and preservation. Drawing on Walter Kendrick’s The Secret Museum (1987), Dean argues in the introduction that it is archival practice itself—specifically the housing of the erotic artifacts collected in the discovery of Pompeii—that gives rise to the idea of pornography. Given how much of my erotic reading material has been drawn from Library of Congress HQ 76, I appreciated the inclusion of a bibliography of public porn archives, and not one but two essays devoted to library science (one featuring an image of a semen stain on a library copy of Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power [1993]).

In the contemporary media ecology, it may make sense, as the editors of Porn Archives suggest, to take some distance from the Manichean battles of the feminist porn debates. However, since the essays in the collection raise familiar questions of gender and power, I wonder whether it might be too soon to put the polemics of the sex wars to bed.

In her essay for the volume, Williams discusses the contemporary afterlife of such concerns: “If we have moved beyond the old debates of feminist anticensorship and feminist antiporn, we have only moved into new ones—about pornographies online invading the home, about fantasies of death and degradation, about availability to children, about the increasingly ‘porous interface’ between our bodies and our media technologies.” Porn Archives moves into exciting new territory, treating queer, transgender, S/M, and disability porn, and vigorously pursuing questions of race, nation, and empire. But since many of the essays in the volume deal with violent images—you can learn quite a lot from this book about serial killer porn—as well as other challenging topics, I found myself reaching for a feminist framework to adjudicate questions of consent, recognition, and harm.

The diffusion of pornography through the culture can make it difficult to come to grips with such questions. The pornification of everything—of the media, of fashion, of bodily norms, of sexual comportment—is evident in the rapid uptake of the phrase porn into the language. Some of these uses of “porn” might seem anodyne, or incongruously funny: is the porn in food porn, travel porn, or lifestyle porn the same porn in kiddie porn? Obviously not, and yet responses to these genres summon many of the feelings generated by porn porn: shame, outrage, disgust, envy, and fascination.2 In Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (2014), Helen Hester argues that, as porn has migrated into other contexts, it has retained the stigma of its original meaning.

I would add that the explosion of porn signals the widespread uptake of questions of objectification, the politics of looking, and the relation between power and enjoyment that were the hallmark of feminist thinking about pornography. The internet can sometimes look like an anarchic space of instant gratification, a place where ethics is the last thing on anyone’s mind. But the fact that we now refer to images of soft-center cupcakes, crystal rivers, and kittens in baskets as porn—as if they might be harmed in some way by the pleasure that we take in them—suggests that this way of thinking has not disappeared. Instead, it has been crowd-sourced, and, it might seem, trivialized.3 But such small-scale practices of judgment, as in the critique of micro-aggressions, get taken up in hashtags and GIFs in ways that recall both the guerrilla tactics and the high moral seriousness of the sex wars.

Alongside the widespread diffusion of porn into popular culture and media, Porn Archives tracks its increasing abstraction in academic contexts. No big surprise there. Still, it can be jarring since pornography, like sexual desire, tends to literalism. Porn Archives does not completely abandon the literal: an essay about foreskin fetish porn, which also features some close-up photographs of the genuine article, mentions that Roland Barthes “had an eye for foreskin,” includes an admiring comment about the “mechanism of preputial sliding,” and ends with the genial outburst, “foreskins are fun.” But pornography in this book tends to pull away from its traditional referent, the explicit representation of sexual acts.

The pornification of everything—of the media, of fashion, of bodily norms, of sexual comportment—is evident in the rapid uptake of the phrase porn into the language.

The work of the literary critic Frances Ferguson has been important to the proliferation of less literal framings of sex. In her 2004 book, Pornography, The Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action, Ferguson used pornography as an occasion to argue for the value of the classroom as imagined by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s regimented, competitive space—long the bête noire of Foucault-influenced accounts of social control and surveillance—figures positively in Ferguson’s account. She argues that the classroom and the factory parcel out action into discrete units and make it visible, so that it can be judged publicly. Ferguson suggests that pornography works similarly to “arrange its participants,” focusing on highly visible behavior to rank everything into “good, better, best,” or, as she argues in a reading of Sade, “strong, stronger, strongest and sexy, sexier, sexiest.” We are now living with the hangover from Bentham’s vision—not so much in the submission to a disciplinary gaze, but in the rule of meritocracy. However, Ferguson points to the “genuinely progressive” aspects of this system, the fact that it displaced inherited privilege by inventing ways to “distinguish one person from another so that you could award social credit.”

When you are reading Pornography, the Theory, you may find yourself wondering what happened to pornography, the pornography.4 Ferguson makes a personal appearance in Porn Archives, dropping in to visit Tim Dean’s graduate seminar, “The History and Theory of Pornography,” at SUNY-Buffalo. In conversation with Dean and his students, Ferguson insists on the value of abstraction, of thinking through pornography “empty of sexual content.” However, her comments on comparison, judgment, power, and the possibility of harm (it’s not pornography unless someone might get hurt…) resonate with the feminist ambition to adjudicate the ethics of pornography in a highly differentiated, structured, and visible way.

During the height of the sex wars, the Vancouver-based art collective Kiss & Tell organized a touring exhibit that drew on the principles of the Benthamite classroom as Ferguson conceives them. Drawing the Line (1990) brought together 100 photographs by Susan Stewart of sex acts between two women, ranging from kissing to scenes of bondage, fisting, and role-play. Visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to respond to these images in writing, describing when and how the photos “crossed the line” for them. While men were encouraged to write in a visitor’s book, women wrote their responses directly on the wall around the photographs, thus creating a highly visible, multidimensional space of comparison and judgment. 5

The classroom figures centrally in Porn Archives, and not only as a space of judgment. Nguyen Tan Hoang’s memories of watching and making pornography in university courses is a moving tribute to his teachers and to the possibilities of “intergenerational friendship” in queer pedagogical contexts. More broadly, the collection is characterized by an attention to institutions, social spaces, and material conditions that affect the production, distribution, and reception of porn. Loren Glass’s essay about Grove Press offers a fascinating history of how the “‘moral’ struggle of the ‘60s laid the groundwork for the political critique of the ‘70s and ‘80s.” Darieck Scott’s beautiful reflection on black superheroes moves between close readings of racial and sexual fantasy and a history of representations of black masculinity in comics and gay porn since the 1960s.

All the attention to libraries, museums, classrooms, and presses in Porn Archives sits uneasily alongside the key contemporary site for pornography, the internet. Marcia Klotz’s analysis of the bondage site Insex (shut down by the Bush administration in 2005) grapples with the ways that the internet has changed not only the production and reception of porn, but also its aesthetics and politics. Drawing on the 2009 documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, Klotz finds P.D., the site’s charismatic founder/guru/top, a familiar figure: she compares Insex to “a theater troupe or dance company, with a brilliant, emotionally volatile, and slightly deranged director and choreographer at the center.” But the affordances of the site’s interactive live-streaming format are new: P.D. and a team of “handlers” take a “model” (usually but not always a woman) through a scene of domination while members participate in forum discussions, giving feedback and making suggestions. In its close involvement of anonymous members, Klotz argues, Insex created an “intimate community founded on the erotic experience of sharing in the isolated shattering of the model, experienced by people likewise isolated before their computer screens, scattered around the globe.”

<i>From</i> Drawing the Line. Photo by Isa Massu / Kiss & Tell

From Drawing the Line. Photo by Isa Massu / Kiss & Tell

Insex contributed to the creation of a new genre, live and mediated, closer to documentary than to fiction, that blurs the line between consenting and acting. The proliferation of amateur pornography and the instant availability of a much wider variety of erotic materials have challenged old generic categories. While Lisa Downing’s essay, “Snuff and Nonsense,” is an excellent reminder to take claims of authenticity in relation to commercial pornography with a grain of salt, Porn Archives points to an upsurge in realist and hyperrealist productions in which consent can be difficult to establish.

The most challenging representation along these lines featured in the volume is Forced Entry, the 2002 serial rape and murder film that is the subject of Eugenie Brinkema’s “Rough Sex.” The film was featured in the Frontline episode “American Porn,” but the segment was not completed because the PBS crew walked off the set when they could not establish consent. The essay is a reminder of the literalism not only of porn but also of writing about porn. In this case the object is so violent and misogynistic that one confronts ethical questions in choosing to describe it at all. Brinkema addresses this dilemma in a footnote, in which she acknowledges that her language “risks collusion with the discourses of violence in the text,” and explains that she has chosen the course of “bland precision.” Given my difficulty in getting through even her most basic descriptions of the film’s action, I hate to think what the rough version would look like.

THE EXPLOSION OF PORN SIGNALS THE WIDESPREAD UPTAKE OF QUESTIONS OF OBJECTIFICATION, THE POLITICS OF LOOKING, AND THE RELATION BETWEEN POWER AND ENJOYMENT THAT WERE THE HALLMARK OF FEMINIST THINKING ABOUT PORNOGRAPHY.

Brinkema reads the absence of any redeeming eroticism in Forced Entry as “roughing” up the genre of hard-core pornography. In contrast to many pornographic representations of forced sex, rape is not converted into seduction: “There is not a single act of nonforced sex in the entire film or any instance of female pleasure, either in complicity with or against the will.” This doesn’t exactly sound feminist, and Brinkema in fact refers to the film as “an antipornography feminist’s nightmare.” But she suggests that by refusing to eroticize rape, Forced Entry emphasizes the absoluteness of the violation. Given that total lack of reciprocal pleasure, I wasn’t sure that Forced Entry qualified as pornography—was this roughing up the genre or abandoning it altogether?6 In the end, Brinkema celebrates the exteriority of an intruder who is never welcomed, never made familiar. Citing the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay about his heart transplant and reading the formal logics of the film as about endless breakage, Brinkema writes: “The entry may have to take place infinitely.”7

Nancy’s reflections on his heart transplant may strike some readers as a bit far afield from material questions of gender and power. For these readers, Mireille Miller-Young’s conversation with the porn producer and director Shine Louise Houston, “This is What Porn Can Be Like!” represents an important contribution to Porn Archives, one of the few pieces that foregrounds female pleasure or invokes a queer feminist context. Houston’s recounting of her experience in the industry makes clear the personal and economic contingencies that go into the making of porn. “I didn’t set out to make porn,” Houston reports. “I was working retail at the feminist sex shop Good Vibrations and wanted something else but couldn’t decide what. Learn to make furniture? Go back to painting? I’d always wanted to learn about film, so maybe that? Somehow all the doors opened in the film direction, so I decided, Okay life, if this is where we’re going, let’s go.”

Miller-Young published a brilliant monograph last year on the representation and experience of black women in porn. In A Taste for Brown Sugar, a combination of history, ethnography, and textual analysis, Miller-Young interviews several women about their experiences on the job, their pleasure in performance, and the paradoxes of agency. The focus on practice is refreshing: it allows Miller-Young to celebrate the talent, beauty, and savoir-faire of the actors, without papering over economic realities, the racism and sexism of the industry, or the violent history that conditions representations of black women’s sexuality. Miller-Young describes her pleasure in these women’s performances as well as her own struggles writing about this material. But she emphasizes the archival value of the project, noting that “this book reproduces and circulates images of black women in pornography, perhaps to the greatest degree ever accomplished in an academic work.”

Both in Brown Sugar and in the interview with Houston, Miller-Young focuses on concrete practices of producing, distributing, and viewing porn, and in this sense she shows the promise of the project of Porn Archives. Houston has been making multiracial lesbian, queer, and trans porn for the last decade. She mostly dodges questions about ideology, directing the conversation toward angles and lighting. She remarks: “The less I think about the sex, the better I can capture it…When I formulate cinematic ideas around race, gender, and representation, I superimpose too much of my own shit on the sex and I miss my goal.” Hard words for those of us whose job it is to overthink things. But I am grateful that people continue to have sex and to take pictures of it. It gives me something to do in the library. icon

  1. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes For a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole Vance (Routledge, 1984), pp. 267–319, 278–279.
  2. Preferably in combination. For an example that also includes an explicit reflection on the porn turn, see Chelsea Fagan’s attack on General Lifestyle Porn in “The Minimalist Pixie Dream Girl: Who She Is and Why I Hate Her.”
  3. Carolyn Dean considers a longer history of pornography to describe a compromised ethics of looking in The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2004). See also Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).
  4. Another remarkable book, How to Do Things with Pornography by Nancy Bauer, published this year, may disappoint if you go into it with really specific things you want to do with porn. Bauer addresses pornography and censorship in contemporary culture, but the book is really about ordinary language philosophy.
  5. For a fuller account of Drawing the Line and of Kiss & Tell’s work more broadly, see B. J. Wray, “Imagining Lesbian Citizenship: A Kiss & Tell Affair,” Journal of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Studies Association, vol. 1 (1999), pp. 25–46.
  6. See Linda Williams’s discussion of S/M in Hard Core, in which she contrasts the loneliness of the Sadeian hero whose aim is to abolish difference to the give-and-take of the masochistic scenario. Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (University of California Press, 1989), p. 212.
  7. So much breaking and entering reminded me of Sharon Marcus’s argument in “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words” that rape should be understood “not as the invasion of female inner space, but as the forced creation of female sexuality as a violated inner space.” Sharon Marcus, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and Joan Scott (Routledge: 1992), p. 399.
Featured image: Food porn in a literal sense. Photograph by Dennis Skley / Flickr