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Rebecca Sullivan (University of Calgary)

Rebecca Sullivan

(University of Calgary)

Rebecca Sullivan

Porn is a part of our culture. Why shouldn’t universities study it? Add to ...

Recent discussions of the upcoming Feminist Porn Conference and the Ninth Annual Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto reveal a more uncomfortable truth than the fact that university students are interested in pornography. They reveal the inability of Canadian journalism to address questions regarding sexually explicit media without reverting to dangerous us-them argumentation that demeans the experiences of sexual minorities.

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Those discussions, on the heels of commentary over Canadian-content regulations for pornography channels, all lead to the same conclusion: Pornography is something good, decent Canadians don’t think about.

Quite simply, there is no other aspect of our media that is as poorly understood as pornography. Where is it produced and how is it marketed? What are the working conditions for those both in front and behind the camera? Who is accessing it, and how? What are the differences between various forms of pornography and how they represent sex and sexuality? Once we find answers to these questions, we may be able to ask better ones about how we discriminate against people based on their sexual identity and sex practices.

Our ignorance about pornography practices in Canada, and our desire to pretend that it’s only something that happens elsewhere, makes conversations about sex and sexuality more difficult and less complex. This is a problem because sexuality is a critical part of how we define ourselves and relate to each other. No matter how hard we try to deny it, pornography is a part of our sexual culture.

Rather than hide our heads in the sand, we should be asking what pornography looks like in Canada. For example, one of the few studies of pornography consumption in Canada couldn’t find any heterosexual men in their twenties who had never watched porn. Furthermore, the study concluded that pornography had little to no impact on these men’s perception of women in general or of their sexual partners in particular.

We know even less about the Canadian pornography industry than we know about its consumers, other than that Montreal has a reputation as Canada’s “porn capital,” and that many Canadian producers specialize in so-called amateur and docuporn. The industry and its workers remain marginalized and misunderstood.

Some pornographies practically serve as manuals for the oppression of women and sexually marginalized peoples. Others are challenging gender norms and body images, giving voice to diverse sexual experiences that are otherwise repressed in our society. Similarly, production runs the gamut from the collective and collaborative to the coerced and exploited. Understanding these differences is crucial to improving the way we think and talk about sexuality.

We should be demanding better conversations about pornography in our news media and classrooms. These conversations should begin from the position that there is nothing intrinsically shameful about watching or creating sexually explicit media. Once we remove that veneer of societal disgust – and judging by pornography’s ubiquity in Canada, it is merely a veneer – we can begin to talk about sexual expression as a human right that should always be self-determining, authentic, and empowering of ourselves and others. That’s how we create a truly decent society.

Rebecca Sullivan is director of the Institute for Gender Research at the University of Calgary.

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