Debate Around Academic Porn Journal Is Exactly Why We Need It

Let's talk about porn. Porn is everywhere. Even if you're not a regular porn peruser, if you are on the Internet, porn will find you. (It will most likely find you as you are trying to illegally stream Game of Thrones, in a pop-up window that brightly chirps, "Hey! I made this website for one reason and one reason only: to share the secret of FREE LIVE WEBCAMS.") For all its ubiquity and influence, however, porn is hugely underrepresented in the discipline of cultural studies. This is something Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith are trying to remedy with the forthcoming release of Porn Studies, the world's first peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject. Predictably, Porn Studies has already attracted criticism from anti-porn campaigners. The surrounding debate reveals precisely why it is that we need a nuanced, thoroughly researched, collection of critical discourse on the subject.

According to Attwood, there are "tons of papers" about pornography, however:

[Much of the current research] tends to do the same thing over and over again. It just asks the same questions. Is porn harmful? Is it linked to other things? Then it doesn't define what porn is and, if it finds the link, it doesn't really explain anything. There's a lot written and very little known.

The journal's critics allege that it has a distinctly pro-porn bias; so far, 880 people have signed a petition questioning the publication's integrity. One of the chief detractors is the campaigning group Stop Porn Culture, which agrees "that pornography and porn culture demand and deserve more critical attention" but claims that the editorial board of Porn Studies "further fosters the normalization of porn."

According to Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College and a major figure in porn academia (and a co-founder of Stop Porn Culture):

[Attwood and Smith are] leaping to all sorts of unfounded conclusions. It's incredibly important that we study the porn industry, porn culture, porn's effect on sexual identities. It's become a major part of our lives. But these editors come from a pro-porn background where they deny the tons and tons of research that has been done into the negative effects of porn.

They are cheerleaders for the industry. And to offer themselves as these neutral authorities is just laughable. Have a journal but you've got to have a plurality of voices on the editorial board and there simply isn't. There's a pornographer on it, for God's sake [Tristan Taormino*]. There are so many studies out there that show how porn is getting more and more violent, which show that the more porn boys watch, the more traditionally sexist attitudes they develop towards women.

* N.B.: It's arguable that Tristan Taormino is better known as a sex educator and activist than as a pornographer.

According to Dines, a 2010 analysis of the top 50 pornography websites and DVDs found that 90% of all content included physical or verbal abuse against women. Rape Crisis South London has shown that typing "rape porn" into Google yields the following: 86 percent of sites that come up advertise videos depicting the rape of under-18s, 75 percent involve guns or knives, 43 percent show the woman drugged, and 46 percent purport to be incest rape. According to a two-year inquiry to the exploitation of children by gangs conducted by the children's commissioner for England, children as young as 14 are committing violent sexual assaults mimicking behavior they've seen in porn films.

However, it's also frequently argued that there's no unequivocally clear correlation between violent imagery in porn and violent behavior. Several studies, in fact, have come to the exact opposite conclusion — that violent porn may reduce the desire to commit sexual violence by providing viewers with a safe, private outlet. These contradictory (and seemingly supported) views are clearly what Attwood is referring to when she says, "We operate in an area which is really bifurcated."

The current state of confusion surrounding the effects of pornography upon the human psyche is exactly why there needs to be a porn studies academic journal — preferably one that represents the entire spectrum of attitudes and beliefs towards the medium. It's obvious that ignoring porn won't make it go away. In the words of Ms. Smith, "If you want people to be honest or to tell you things about their engagements with pornography, you have to be prepared to listen. I am politically motivated about the fact that people who look at porn are not all lizard people."

"Porn wars: the debate that's dividing academia" [The Guardian]

Image via Brendan Howard/Shutterstock.