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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Porn studies is hot. I’m bothered Add to ...

All professors know that the surest way to scare students away is to schedule a course at 8:30 in the morning. But Bobby Noble’s course was different. He taught pornography – and his York University students never missed a class. What could be better than porn in the morn, complete with a chance to study the oeuvre of legendary porn director John Stagliano (aka Buttman)?

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“None of us wanted it to be over,” writes Prof. Noble in Porn Studies, a brand-new academic journal that made its much-anticipated debut online this week. It is published by a famed scholarly imprint and fills a valuable niche with its rigorous critical analysis of people watching other people having dirty sex.

In the ivory towers of academe, pornography is smoking hot. A vast and growing body of scholarly books, papers, conferences and dissertations are devoted to the topic. Next weekend, the University of Toronto hosts its second annual Feminist Porn Awards and Conference, which will be stacked with leading scholars, cultural critics, activists, performers and producers from all over. A highlight will be the gala celebration of the Good for Her Feminist Porn Awards, which have been “celebrating feminist smut for eight sexy years.”

Why porn studies? Why now? As the editors of Porn Studies explain, in typical academese: The field “has taken on a new urgency and significance given the continued position of pornography at the centre of controversies around media, gender, sexuality and technology. Pornographies, their spread, their imageries, their imaginaries and their consumption always have a high profile, but in the past decade or so, interest in pornography has grown exponentially – with a concomitant increase in claims about porn’s effects, both positive and negative.”

Also, porn is a career builder. If you want to shine in academia, you have to break new ground. (For example, Concordia’s Evangelos Tziallas, an up-and-comer who is on the editorial board of Porn Studies, is an expert in the horror sub-genre known as “torture porn.” )

But wait, I can hear you say. Aren’t feminists against porn?

Well, many of them used to be. The battle between pro-porn and anti-porn feminists is as old as feminism itself. The anti-porn faction (which Prof. Noble calls “paranoid”) believes that pornography is automatically oppressive and degrading. But the pro-porn faction is now in the ascendant. It believes that porn can even be empowering (especially if it’s produced by lesbians).

“When I first started teaching and researching pornography, the question of whether porn could be empowering was very much up in the air,” said Rebecca Sullivan, director of the Institute for Gender Research at the University of Calgary. (She was quoted on a university website.) “We need to go beyond the pro/anti-porn arguments that lead nowhere and instead talk about issues like consent, cultural labour, sexual citizenship, non-normative desire and pleasure, and authentic performance.”

Sadly (considering the subject), academic discussions of porn are extremely dull. Despite promising titles like People’s Pornography: Sex And Surveillance On The Chinese Internet and Finding Gender Through Porn Performance, the essays in Porn Studies are nearly impenetrable. References to Derrida and Foucault are obligatory, along with terms like “performative,” “deconstruction” and “discourse.” If for no other reason, porn studies should be banned as a crime against the language.

Fortunately, the biggest stars on the academic porn circuit aren’t academics. They’re artists, of a sort. One is Tristan Taormino, an attractive woman in black plastic glasses who has produced and performed in a number of self-help videos, including the classic Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. She will be at next week’s conference. So will Courtney Trouble, who is described as a “queer porn icon” and goes by the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Trouble's string of hits includes titles like Trans Grrrls: Revolution Porn Style Now. Trouble is celebrated for the use of what is known as non-normative bodies. Trouble's films feature a lot of fat women with nipple piercings and appliances. Both Ms. Taormino and Ms. Trouble are astute entrepreneurs, with websites full of ethical but racy products that can be downloaded on the spot by anybody with a credit card.

Not all is jolly in the ivory tower, though. Prof. Noble writes that administrators in what he calls the neoliberal academic-corporate complex can be awfully skittish when someone wants to teach a class on porn. They are uneducated in the subject, and unreasonably afraid that students might be harmed or even traumatized by the material, even though (as he obliquely points out) they’ve probably already seen more dirty sex than all their ancestors combined ever did.

The potential for porn studies is indeed awesome. If the scholars get their way, we can look forward to entire centres and institutes dedicated to it. But perhaps the administrators are right to be skittish. After all, parents might find out and wonder what the hell they’re wasting tuition money on. Uneducated donors might not be too happy, either. Or the media might draw attention to what’s going on and stir up the uneducated public.

Personally, I think civilization as we know it will probably survive unreadable academic discourses on anal sex and torture porn. I’m aware that this self-indulgent garbage makes up just a teeny-tiny part of the worthy and important enterprise known as higher education. What bothers me is the utter collapse of seriousness and rigour, and the utter inability of top administrators and granting agencies to put a halt to what is essentially a con job on the public.

If students want to watch people having dirty sex, that’s okay with me. Just let them do it on their own time.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column referred to Courtney Trouble as she. Courtney Trouble does not want to have that pronoun used.

 

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