Feminism and pornography: building sensitive research and analytic approaches.

Author:Purcell, Natalie

A few years ago, an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty formed the Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster at UC Santa Cruz. Since then, we've investigated the relationship of pornography to feminism through intense research and collective reading practices. In this essay, I will use the experience of the Research Cluster to reflect on existing literature about pornography and controversial sexual expression. With an eye toward building critical yet sensitive research agendas, I will interrogate how feminists have examined and talked about pornography. Specifically, I'll look at how their personal stakes and emotional investments have shaped what gets studied and ignored, how findings are interpreted and reported, and how pornography researchers communicate and fail to communicate with one another.

I'm going to start with a review of existing literature on the psychosocial impacts of pornography and of its repression. This literature is a highly charged, politically oriented literature. Often, disagreements among those who study pornography are not only scholarly disagreements. They are political and they are personal. Most feminists working on pornography experience pressure to "take a side." A researcher, whether she intends it or not, will probably be classified by her fellow feminists as either a defender or a critic of pornography. Efforts at etching a middle ground and efforts to achieve some form of "neutrality" have been few and far between, and they have been mostly unsuccessful in breaking the discursive norms of what is a largely bifurcated debate.

After I summarize the findings of this literature and note some of the trends I've observed in both camps, I will try to answer a few related questions about the legacy of feminist research on pornography:

* Why has this literature been so roundly criticized as too emotional, too biased, and not very scholarly? Are these criticisms fair?

* Why has the debate about pornography been such a polarizing debate for feminists? How and why did we end up with two opposed factions?

* What does this legacy suggest about the prospects of contemporary feminist research on pornography?

I will close my presentation by stressing the continuing importance of research on pornography, and by suggesting how we might engage in this research in more sensitive and responsive ways. These strategies, I will argue, have the potential to take us beyond the dichotomous terms of the existing debate.

If you've read any sex wars literature--from personal manifestos to standard quantitative analyses--you probably know that investigations of pornography are seldom divorced from strong feelings. When reading, for instance, Diana Russell's Against Pornography (1993a), you learn about more than the percentages of women who are victimized in sexual assaults, or the statistical correlation between exposure to violent pornography and attitudes toward sexual aggression. You learn also, whether Dr. Russell intends it or not, about her personal readings of pornographic texts and her visceral reactions to them. You learn whether this material provokes similar feelings for you. You learn whether Dr. Russell's analysis makes you want to protest in front of the Hustler Club, sign up with the ACLU, or subscribe to Playboy. Because this literature is so unfailingly provocative and affectively-charged, it hasn't always been taken seriously. It has been easy to dismiss findings with which one disagrees by charging that they are the product of the researcher's personal bias or are a mere reflection of her own emotional reactions to pornographic texts.

I would not deny, on the basis of my own review of the literature, that affective orientations and emotional reactions have played a large part in the choice of research objects and subjects, the design of research methodologies, the interpretation of conflicting data, and the development of theory around pornography. I would deny, however, that this indicates excessively biased, unscholarly work worthy of dismissal. There are three reasons for this: First, feminists' affective orientations and emotional reactions around pornography are not mere epiphenomena when it comes to pornography; they are among the significant psychosocial impacts of pornography that warrant serious analysis (cf. Ahmed 2004 on the materiality of affect). Second, emotional reactions to pornography and to research about pornography are rooted in the actual and perceived stakes of the debate. They are tied to identified consequences of pornography and of its repression (cf. Barad 2007 on tracing the material stakes of discursive phenomena). Third, feminists have made many substantive and analytically rigorous contributions to the study of the production, dissemination, and consumption of pornography, and they have traced many apparent and less apparent, direct and indirect, psychological and social consequences of pornography and of its repression.

Let's begin, then, with a brief review of these findings and with the divergent claims made by the opponents and the supporters of pornography. Note 1

Anti-pornography feminists and other researchers have outlined the following psychosocial effects of pornography:

* Mainstream pornography consistently utilizes gender-based stereotypes of male dominance and female submission (Cornell 2000b; Dworkin 2000; Jensen 2007; MacKinnon 2000b; Russell 1993a). It makes frequent use of language and behaviors widely considered abusive and directed almost exclusively toward women (Jensen 2007). The most popular material is replete with practices that would be deemed violent, degrading, humiliating, and expressive of contempt or hostility in any other context.

* Controversial research suggests that there is a relationship between men's exposure to violent or degrading pornography and their attitudes toward and propensity to commit acts of sexual violence against women (Russell 1993a; Russell 1993b; Russell 1998; Russell 2000; Silbert and Pines 1993). There is some evidence that regular exposure to violent or degrading pornography is one of a multitude of factors that contribute to feelings of hostility or contempt toward women, normalize sexual violence, and may thereby reduce psychosocial barriers to committing sexual violence.

* Regardless of whether there is a demonstrated relationship between pornography and sexual violence, the prevalence of this material is inseparable from a broader culture of misogyny and sexism; it both relies on and reinforces this culture (Cameron and Frazer 2000; Dworkin 2000b; MacKinnon 2000b). Pornography and the gender norms and sexual practices it represents are not insignificant factors in socializing attitudes and identities, and the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes is something that affects the security, happiness, self-esteem, and relationships of all women in misogynistic cultures.

* Historically, sex-work industries include high levels of coercion and often-dangerous working conditions (Levy 2005; McNeil and Osborne 2005). Some scholars also report a high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse among pornography performers and other sex workers; high rates of prior rape, sexual abuse, and/or incest; and a trend of prior underage careers in illicit sex work.

These, as you can see, are very serious charges, most of which are backed up...

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