A few comments on Carole Cadwalladr’s “Porn wars: the debate that’s dividing academia”.

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I finally get it. I get the problem with using “porn” to describe all film and photographic depictions of sex. “Porn” is a word mostly attributed to the legal adult industry. It’s not for everyone, but nothing is for everyone. Eat meat, don’t eat meat; watch television, don’t watch television. I don’t like to watch television, but a series created with no budget and uploaded to YouTube for free is not television. [Example here.] What’s incredible in our world today is that there are so many different words attributed to so many different things, and yet any visual depiction of sex is lumped into the category “porn”.

In Carole Cadwalladr’s Porn wars: the debate that’s dividing academia, Carole talks about the Guardian’s launch of a forthcoming peer-reviewed academic journal entitled Porn Studies and the debate that springs up around it.

When the Guardian announced the planned launch next year of Porn Studies – the world’s first peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject – there were more than a few guffaws. “You can just see a future University Challenge,” wrote one commenter online. “Carruthers, King’s College Cambridge, reading pornography.”

“It just sounds like a highbrow wank mag to me,” wrote another. “One which I look forward to perusing.” Even the headline had a touch of Viz magazine’s Finbarr Saunders and his double entendres about it, suggesting it was a “new discipline” for academics.

What it concealed, however, is a bitter and contentious academic war over the status and nature of porn research, a war that is almost as bitter and contentious as the status and nature of porn itself.

It’s true. People either love porn or hate porn, but it’s extremely problematic to call all depictions of sex “porn” without distinction. The reason being that there is a legal industry constantly attacked and conflated with illegal activity. To be fair, one would have to differentiate between the legal porn industry v. illegal pornographic activity, or the illegal depictions of abused adults and minors.

The article comes to a point where it seems that people are talking about different things, and I’ve seen this time and time again where “porn” is concerned. For instance, I remember reading somewhere that there were some protesters outside of an adult industry expo years ago, and Kayden Kross–a porn star–approached a woman who was protesting the show. The woman brought up “child porn”. Kayden explained to the woman that legal pornographers don’t create that kind of pornography. One is legal, one is not, and pedophiles are not attracted to adults. While reading this article, I’m confronted with the same problem. Editors Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith seem to be talking about the legal industry, but when anti-porn people are approached, they are talking about illegal activity, or flatly conflating the legal adult industry with illegal pornographic activity.

To many people, particularly parents, the spread of ever more violent pornography is a huge concern, though Attwood and Smith don’t buy the idea that it is getting more violent, or even that it is a huge concern. Smith puts it in the context of previous “moral panics”. She says: “The idea the boundary is constantly being moved in one direction isn’t necessarily accurate because there’s so much pushing back. There isn’t a clearly discernible movement of more and more stuff becoming more and more permissible.”

Even watching the industry change peripherally, I have not seen an increase in violent porn. But I’m talking about the legal adult industry; the legal American adult industry. What there is more of in recent years is feminist porn and more conscientious pornography like that made at Kink.com, where the performers are thoroughly interviewed before and after their scenes to show that the violence being portrayed is exactly what the performer came looking for when they stepped onto the set. No one from the legal adult industry has challenged that, and there is no shortage of people willing to talk in public or in private about abusers in the industry. I keep my conversations confidential unless that person requests otherwise, but will always refer to actual abuses in my writing where these conversations exist.

Unfortunately, anyone who defends the legal adult industry becomes a “pro-porn” advocate, or “porn sympathizer”. Yet, what these women are doing, and the work Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals is doing, is necessary. People should be defending the legal content creators and opening a door in academic circles for their voices to be heard because these people can help communicate issues around sex and sexuality and help fight against illegal pornographic activity. In fact, few people know that the legal adult industry contributes voluntarily to the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP), an organization that “battles child pornography through its CP Reporting Hotline and helps parents prevent children from viewing age-restricted material online with the Restricted To Adults – RTA Website Label”–according to the site’s mission statement.

Is it any wonder that when Gail Dines is introduced into a conversation about “porn”, the subject turns sinister? She is an anti-porn advocate that conflates the legal porn industry with illegal pornographic activity.

When I ring Gail Dines, a British professor of sociology at Boston’s Wheelock College and a major figure in porn academia (she is author of Pornland and a co-founder of Stop Porn Culture), she is spitting. Attwood and Smith are “akin to climate change deniers,” she says.

“They’re 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 Taormina]. 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.

“And yet these women editing the journal say, ‘Oh the research isn’t there.’ Yes it is! There’s tons of it. They just haven’t read it.”

“Tons and tons” of research? This from a woman who was forced to concede on Penn & Teller’s BS!: War on Porn episode that, “There are no definitive studies!” Of course, that was several years ago now, but where are these “tons and tons” of studies? Generally speaking, a “ton” is considered “a lot”. More than a lot, actually. Plural it’s virtually inconceivable that there is really that much research on porn. Maybe she is referring to her own debunked “research”? One can only guess.

This is where I think more harm is done and actually impedes efforts toward preventing harmful pornographic activity. By proclaiming oneself anti-porn and pointing the finger at others as somehow in favor of abuse is hysterical and manipulative. I think it is extremely damaging to our communication progress to be forced to unravel the lies and misinformation perpetuated by people like Gail Dines. This is someone who is posing as an expert witness for the Department of Justice on record-keeping laws around pornographic material at this very moment, yet even Judge Michael M. Baylson of Free Speech Coalition v. Holder has disregarded the sincerity of her testimony because she is intensely one-sided and appears to be untruthful. And that’s just an impression based upon hearing her speak. It says nothing about the “tons and tons” of supposed research she’s referring to.

This paragraph appears early in the article:

And the recent trials of Stuart Hazell, who was convicted for killing 12-year-old Tia Sharp, and Mark Bridger for killing April Jones made that link real and visible to many. They both were found to have violent pornography on their computers, Bridger watching it just hours before he abducted and killed the five-year-old.

What kind of pornographic material was it? Was it homemade footage? Whose content were they watching? I ask because later Fiona Elvines of Rape Crisis South London is introduced and states:

“We are having lots of women talking about being raped and being filmed and that being used as a method for silencing them, but that will take a while to make it into the research papers. They’re told that, if they go to the police, the footage will be posted online. We see porn being used by child abusers to groom them. My concern is the kind of knowledge we have isn’t seen as valid because the editors have a pro-porn slant and it will silence dissenting voices.”

According to this article, the killers were watching illegal content; the visual depiction of abused minors. And the kind of content Fiona Elvines is speaking about sounds personal in nature. If they are holding the footage for blackmail purposes, they aren’t making any money off of it.

Do you know to what lengths one has to go to to find the type of content used by someone like Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger? If these people are using the visual depiction of sexually abused minors and other forms of non-commercial “porn”, we need to know that, because that’s not simply “porn”. It’s extremely misleading to make blanket statements and conflate legal activity with illegal activity. Mark Kernes reported last week in Free Speech Coalition v. Holder that Janis Wolak, a senior research assistant with the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, testified in court that the majority of this kind of product is found circulated through email and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. It’s not available on every porn-related website and is actually quite hidden. Criminals don’t function by the light of day, and they will create and share their personal exploits regardless of what law-abiding citizens are doing.

Carole writes:

I watch a drunk Japanese teenager filmed on a shaky cameraphone followed through a station and on to a train. She collapses in a corner, is manoeuvred into the toilet by Mr Cameraphone, where he and his friend take turns to rape her. If it’s a performance, then she does a better impression of a drunk than any Hollywood actor I’ve ever seen.

This does not sound like a “pornographer” or “pornography” to me. This doesn’t sound like someone from the legal porn industry making content. And she says that it’s on one of “the most popular porn sites in the world.” Fine. Which site? A tube site? A third-party site that lumps a lot of different types of “porn” into one place? Is there a “most popular porn site” in the world? Hustler? Kink.com? Evil Angel?

Laurie Penny, a hip, young feminist commentator, who surely grew up with more interesting viewing than A Room With a View, cautions against state censorship of online porn, writing in last week’s issue of the New Statesman that, having “watched a great deal of pornography in the name of research and recreation, I can assure you that not all of it is violent”, and says that she does not “want to live in a world where the government and a select few conservative feminists get to decide what we may and may not masturbate to”. [Link to Penny's article here.]

I’m not suggesting that no one care, or that everyone should be “pro-porn”, or that people do not experience adverse effects to watching various forms of pornography. We are sexually unintelligent for human beings who’ve been roaming the planet for centuries. It is only until very recently that we’ve been truly free in some respects. Anyone who wishes we still existed trapped in 1950′s America can’t possibly be a black person, for instance. But actual truthful studies would benefit us. Like, who benefits from porn? In what ways has access to pornography prevented crimes? As long as we give too much weight to what anti-pornographers say, adults are shamed into not speaking up and saying anything, and there’s so much to say!

“Porn is important to people on all kinds of levels, but, if you want people to be honest or to tell you things about their engagements with pornography, you have to be prepared to listen,” [Clarissa Smith] says. “I am politically motivated about the fact that people who look at porn are not all lizard people.”

She’s right, of course. The sheer numbers involved mean that of course, it’s not all “lizard people”. And they both say that figuring out why people enjoy porn “and what they are doing and feeling and thinking” is essential.

Agreed. And you’re not going to get that kind of answer from someone like Gail Dines. We have to be cautious when listening to someone who proves they do not have the capacity for listening, themselves.

We need people who can look objectively at the legal adult industry and illegal pornographic activity; people who understand the differences and can speak to specific areas of it. Anti-pornographers block the views of people from the legal industry who actually agree with critics about harmful pornographic activity. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. The legal adult industry checks performer’s IDs. They test for STDs. They do this so the industry can remain legal and safe. Everyone trying to make it illegal and fine legal producers and put them in jail simply to make an anti-porn statement are punishing the wrong group of people, turning a blind eye to real crimes and making the legal industry less safe for the adults who choose to do it.


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Author: Julie Meadows

Francophile, oenophile, French Scrabble advocate and future zombie apocalypse survivor.

5 Comments

  1. we exist in a spectrum where nothing is black and white.

    really amazing post. great stuff

  2. Merci, Alex!

    I created a gif of Mae West that I cannot get to show up properly on Tumblr. Completely off-topic, I know. :o

  3. “Personality is the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights and the orchestra pit into that big black space where the audience is.” -Mae West. they loved her and they hated her, but they couldn’t control her. :)

    they have to be under 1MB or they won’t move, so you might have to compress it down a little.

  4. Oh my! This one can’t be compressed that small. That’s okay. I’ll just post it here! :)

  5. I concur with Alex – incredible post and a ton of great points here.

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