In 2014, Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood launched “Porn Studies,” the world’s first academic periodical devoted exclusively to pornography, although many of their colleagues—and anti-porn feminists—advised them against it.
Clarissa Smith, a professor of sexual cultures at the University of Sunderland in the UK, is describing to me the ideal sex robot. “Maybe it wouldn’t look like a human at all,” she says. “It could be like a sleeping bag you zip yourself into and have a whole-body experience. How fabulous would that be? You could have your toes tickled and your head massaged at the same time.”
I ask if she’s seen the two-legged cyborgs from Boston Robotics that don’t fall over, even when shoved. “They kind of look like horses,” she says. “They’re not sexy.” She tells me that if she had any business acumen, she’d design her own pleasure bots. “I wouldn’t be talking about this journal.”
The journal we’ve been talking about is Porn Studies, the first academic periodical devoted exclusively to the study of pornography. Founded in 2014 by Smith and Feona Attwood, a professor in cultural studies, communication, and media at Middlesex University London, it’s since become the go-to quarterly for hot-and-heavy, peer-reviewed research on how porn is constructed and consumed around the world.
After receiving a raft of coverage from the Atlantic, the Washington Post, VICE, and, of course, the Daily Mail, nearly 250,000 people viewed the journal online over its premiere weekend. The first issue featured an article by groundbreaking film scholar Linda Williams, an essay on how porn literacy is being taught in UK schools, and a meta-analysis of porn titled “Deep Tags: Toward a Quantitative Analysis of Online Pornography”—which reads sort of like Nate Silver’s guide to PornHub. Later issues have explored topics as varied as the “necropolitics” of zombie porn to the “disposal” of gay porn star bottoms who bareback.
Porn has long been a popular field of academic research—professor Linda Williams’s seminal text on the subject, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” was first published in 1989—but its scholarly inspection has not been without controversy.
“It has been considered a ‘despised form,'” Smith said. “But I think there are enough people around now who are approaching pornography from a whole range of viewpoints, not just asking, ‘Should it exist?’ or ‘How should we regulate it?’ but ‘What is it? Who’s in it? How does it work?'”
Before Smith became a leading expert in pornography, she was working at an ad agency and pursuing a master’s degree in women’s studies. “I sat through so many lectures about the radical feminists’ rejection of porn,” she said. Then, one day at the office, she received a press packet from two publishers who were just about to launch soft-core magazines for women.
“I was like, hang on, two publishers think it’s worth it to launch porn magazines, and yet women supposedly have no interest in this?”
Smith had friends who were into porn, she enjoyed a good Chippendales show now and then, and she’d watched as the Ann Summers sex shop in her neighborhood had transformed from someplace dark and seedy to a “bright and colorful” spot to buy sex toys.
“I saw these things happening, which, according to theory, couldn’t be happening.” She had a gut feeling that porn, too, was being misjudged.
In 1999, Smith decided to analyze For Women magazine, a relatively upmarket glossy that ran features like “Semen: a user’s guide” and “Women who sleep with strangers night after night.” The magazine, Smith argued, sought to manufacture “a space where women [could] be sexually free” by writing about things like three-ways, cuckolding fetishes, and anal sex in a way that made them seem normal. It was also primo masturbation material, offering “male bodies for female consumption” and real-life sex stories.
Academics and peers she respected tried to dissuade Smith from continuing down the porn path. “They would ask me, ‘When are you going to move on from this area into more serious study?’ They’d also tell me I was really brave.” She laughs. “I wasn’t brave, I was interested!”
When academics analyze comics, horror films, video games, or anime, it isn’t generally assumed that their scholarship constitutes a ringing endorsement of everything in their field of study. But with porn, it’s different. The topic is so “burdened with significance,” as transgender studies professor Bobby Noble once described it, it’s easy to get trapped in the debate over its existence—instead of looking at it objectively as a cultural product.
But Smith ignored the naysayers and, over the next few years, penned a number of articles with titles like, “Shiny Chests and Heaving G-Strings: A Night Out with the Chippendales” and “They’re Ordinary People, Not Aliens from the Planet Sex! The Mundane Excitements of Pornography for Women.”
She was cavorting with other porn academics and traveling to conferences when she fortuitously met Feona Attwood. “It felt like we were the only two people talking about [porn], at least in the UK,” Smith said. The pair eventually brought their idea for a porn studies journal to the multinational academic publishing house Routledge, initiating two-and-a-half years of negotiation. When, finally, the two were told their proposal for the journal had been accepted, they “sat in stupefied silence for about ten minutes,” Smith said.
Nearly as soon as Porn Studies was announced, a feminist anti-porn organization in the UK called Stop Porn Culture circulated an online petition demanding the creation of an anti-porn journal for the sake of balance. Signatories claimed the journal was akin to “murder studies” from the viewpoints of “murderers.”
Smith and Attwood believe they somewhat missed the point. “We were trying to move away from the idea that there were only two ways of thinking,” said Attwood. “Like for or against television, or for or against the novel. It’s a bizarre way of thinking, from an academic point of view.”
At the time, the UK had recently banned a long list of hardcore sex acts from porn produced in the country, including “spanking, caning, whipping, penetration by an object ‘associated with violence,’ physical or verbal abuse (consensual or not), urination in sexual contexts, female ejaculation, strangulation, facesitting and fisting (if all knuckles are inserted).” The country’s mood wasn’t exactly sex-positive.
“We have this idea that we can just keep undesirable things out of the country,” Smith said.
That fearful attitude, naturally, extends to university campuses. “I don’t think there was ever a golden age for studying porn,” Attwood told me. “It’s always been tricky!” She says the resistance the pair encountered—and continue to encounter—is part of a “much broader” problem related to academic freedom; at the University of Houston, for example, teachers were recently told they might want to modify what they teach in case students are carrying concealed weapons.
“The social and political context we are working in at the moment as academics makes our work more precarious and dangerous in all kinds of ways that are not just about what we study,” Attwood said.
Yet the history of porn research in the United States isn’t as dramatic as you’d imagine. Linda Williams was able to teach porn with full support of her administration way back in the (H.W.) Bush years.
“There is still such a thing as academic freedom,” Williams said nonchalantly when I asked how administrators reacted to her porny syllabi when she taught the subject at UC Irvine, in the heart of conservative Orange County, in 1992.
Back then, Williams, who’d already published a book on the subject by that point, would screen whatever porn was floating around in the cultural ether. She had her students watch gonzo porn; feminist porn (“cleaned up with lots of potted plants and no money shots”); and sadomasochist porn (“the theatrical kind…and the other kind”).
The biggest issue students had was with the gay porn, which Williams says freaked out the hetero guys—a lot. Usually, though, what students did in her classes was laugh their heads off. “That’s kind of a protective measure, because otherwise they might, you know, get horny,” she said.
When I asked Smith if she screened porn in her classes, though, I was surprised to hear that she didn’t.
“Both Feona [Attwood] and I have tenure, but that still doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. Also, I’m at a small, provincial university that is one of the post-1992 schools [formerly polytechnics or colleges of higher education in the UK], and we don’t have a very bullish attitude that we’re the elite, so I have to be aware of the university’s sensibilities, which are: Can we defend this to parents? I don’t want to cause that kind of trouble.”
For now, Smith is advising graduate students, conducting research, attending conferences, and, of course, editing Porn Studies. She says she’s most concerned about making sure the next generation doesn’t feel the same sense of shame over their sexual desires as the older people she’s interviewed in her research. “In the research that Feona and I did, one of the key things that comes through when you talk to older people about their engagements with porn [is that] people say, ‘I just wish someone had had a proper conversation with me about sex. I just wish I hadn’t felt so much shame about looking and finding bodies attractive and going looking for it. It’s taken me a long time to understand what I like sexually.’ Why do we want another generation coming up afraid of their bodies and ashamed of their desires?”
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