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Why Pornography Deserves Its Own Academic Journal

• May 17, 2013 • 8:00 AM


And why the academic study of porn is nothing new.

Routledge recently announced that it will publish the first international, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the academic study of pornography. Making its debut in spring 2014, with editors Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith at the helm, the aptly titled Porn Studies will give critical scholarship on pornography a place at the proverbial table.

The announcement generated a great deal of media interest (“Porn studies is the new discipline for academics,” declared The Guardian), along with some palpable skepticism (“The world has officially lost its marbles,” wrote one online commenter), and a few snickers (“I want a Ph.D. in porn!”)

But for many of us working in the growing field of porn studies—myself included—we reacted to the news with a collective “Hurrah!”

THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF pornography is nothing new. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the journal’s editorial board.) Film and media scholars, sociologists, and legal experts, among others, have been writing about pornography for quite some time. The publication of Linda Williams’ book, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible,’ in 1989, positioned hardcore heterosexual pornography as a film genre worthy of critical engagement and helped to establish greater legitimacy within the academy for serious scholarly investigations of the increasingly diverse, popular, and profitable world of pornography.

With titles like C’lick Me, Porn.Com, and Porno? Chic! academic publishing on pornography, on an international scale, is flourishing. There’s also been an uptick in academic conferences dedicated to the topic of pornography, including the recent Feminist Porn Conference at the University of Toronto, the first international conference of its kind. And depending on where you go to college, you might be able to take a class on the history of pornography as a popular film genre, such as the one taught since 1993 by Professor Constance Penley at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Thus, rather than marking the emergence of a new field of study, as some media outlets have claimed, Porn Studies is a direct outgrowth of the mounting scholarly interest in the topic of pornography as a significant, yet relatively under-examined, realm of popular culture.

“It’s really important that academics do study porn and find ways to make their work more available so that public debate and policy can become more well-informed.”

“This journal signals that the study of pornography is at a critical mass in terms of the enormous growth of scholarship in the academy,” says Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a member of the journal’s editorial board. “It it also signals that we are at a moment when, because of the national fascination with the porn industry and questions about sexuality in mainstream popular culture, the time is right for a journal like Porn Studies to come onto the scene.”

Clarissa Smith, one of the journal’s editors, agrees: “We felt it was time to establish a journal because so much high-quality work on pornography is being carried out. [Porn Studies] will open up a space for researchers to develop conversations in different disciplines and push the study of porn forward even further.”

One of the recurring questions raised in a number of media discussions about the journal is whether there is any inherent value to the academic study of pornography, and, if so, what is it?

“We think there’s academic value in studying all forms of culture, and porn is no different from that point of view,” Smith says. “But porn is particularly interesting and important as an area of study for all kinds of reasons.”

Smith emphasizes three reasons in particular: pleasure, censorship, and controversy. First, porn is an important part of many people’s intimate lives, including their sexual relationships and identities, as well as their desires and fantasies. Second, pornography is often the focus for thinking about issues like censorship, regulation, freedom of speech, and ethical issues around sex and the media. And thirdly, pornography continues to be a controversial topic in the media and in other public forms of commentary, but, according to Smith, the way it is discussed often fails to engage with the evidence we have about porn.

But perhaps the biggest reason why pornography warrants critical engagement by scholars is that it’s a multi-billion dollar global industry that creates products that circulate widely and are consumed by many, yet we know surprisingly little about the conditions under which pornography is made and consumed, and how it affects people’s intimate lives and sexual identities.

“A lot of misinformation and myths get circulated [about pornography],” says Smith. “It’s really important that academics do study porn and find ways to make their work more available so that public debate and policy can become more well-informed.”

The editors of Porn Studies welcome all submissions, and hope the journal becomes a space for rigorous research on, and critical debate about, pornography.

“We can’t know what kinds of research will be forthcoming,” Smith says, “and that is truly exciting. We’re hoping for contributions from around the globe from different disciplines so that we can really begin to understand pornography in multifaceted ways.”

Lynn Comella
Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and a member of Porn Studies’ editorial board.

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