In April 2014, just over a year before her untimely death from ovarian cancer, trailblazing pornographer Candida Royalle did an in-depth interview with the Rialto Report. She stated:
When I hear and I read things about famous women who are responsible for the empowerment of women and sexual empowerment, you hear names like Madonna and Lady GaGa and all these cultural icons, and we're left out of this list of names, this recognition, because we're in this taboo line of work … and we're not seen as legitimate. And it really does feel bad sometimes.1
Her lament made me profoundly sad. How can it be that a feminist filmmaker so groundbreaking and important to a media form so ubiquitous could feel invisible and undervalued within feminist circles? Part of the reason is the marginalized status of pornography scholarship within feminist media studies. Porn studies does critical feminist work. It recovers marginalized feminist work and writes it back into feminist history; sex workers have been rightfully acknowledged as scholars of porn and feminist practitioners. Concepts of good sex and bad sex, masculine and feminine, good women and bad women have been disrupted. Porn studies has also challenged the constructed binaries of anti-porn and pro-porn born out of the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, which are so destructive to feminist work. The potential for the enrichment of feminist media studies through porn studies has yet to be fully realized, but recent developments indicate a rich interdisciplinary future.
When asked to write this genealogy of feminist porn studies, I wasn't sure where to start. What constitutes feminist porn studies? Many would likely start with Linda Williams's groundbreaking 1989 book Hard Core, and with good reason.2 Departing as she did from the vicious polarization of feminist analysis of porn, Williams is widely regarded to have initiated the field of porn studies. Up until this point, analysis tended to break into two oppositional stances. During the second wave of feminism, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon represented the dominant thinkers of the anti-porn side, most notably with their Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which they drafted in 1983 and which, following on from anti-porn writings of the 1970s, reframed pornography as an act of violence and therefore a violation of women's civil rights. Sex radical feminists such as Susan Sontag and Angela Carter attempted to counter what they found to be a profoundly shallow understanding of sexuality and an unhelpful reading of a complex, diverse, and contradictory media form. With her 1967 essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag challenged prevailing views of pornographic literature as misogynistic, instead attempting a theory of pornography as a genre and a defense of pornography as a valuable literature of the extreme.3 Just over a decade later, in the midst of the feminist sex wars, Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman (1979) took on perhaps the most loathed of pornographers: the Marquis de Sade. Carter's analysis centered the transgressive nature of Sade's work and the ways in which he subverted woman's biological determinism.4
Yet it was Williams who first attempted a book-length evasion of the simplistic question of whether porn was “good” or “bad” for women. Instead, she sought to understand the genre through the lens of film theory. She asked, “To what extent could I understand these pornographies as part of our popular culture and as genres like other film genres? What was their address to us as spectators? What was their history?”5 Scholars took up Williams's challenge: to study pornography in the same way that we study other media. This is what sets porn studies apart from the anti/pro-porn approaches that came before—approaches that persist to this day and that feminist scholars of pornography constantly find themselves having to circumvent.
Laura Kipnis's 1996 book Bound and Gagged adopts this media studies approach and offers an analysis of the complex pleasures of a variety of mainstream and marginal pornographies, including Hustler magazine, classified ads, and fat porn.6 Kipnis provides a much-needed lens through which to understand pornography's transgressive, provocative address as a hyperbolic reflection of that which society deems tasteless and improper. Kipnis's book remains startlingly relevant today in a current political climate that presents the excesses and extremes of pornography as evidence of its harms. In contrast, Jane Juffer deprioritizes hard-core film and the presumed hetero male spectator of Williams's work, providing a unique and important discussion of domestic pornographies accessible to women and the pleasurable transgressions they afford—Victoria's Secret catalogues, sex toys and masturbation discourse, erotic novels, and women's magazines among them.7 Juffer's book At Home with Pornography (1998) remains as relevant as Kipnis's, though, in the multiplex realm of the Fifty Shades phenomenon rather than the seedy pockets of adult magazines or the curtained corners of the video store. Taken together, Kipnis and Juffer indicate how porn studies can reveal the intersections of the legitimate and illegitimate and the gendered nature of these seemingly separate areas of media.
Much of the most influential porn scholarship has taken the form of edited anthologies, including Williams's 2005 anthology Porn Studies, which articulated the field.8 Tristan Taormino's vital contribution The Feminist Porn Book (2013) establishes the parameters of “feminist porn” as a labor practice, a genre, and a marketing category. Moreover, this collection includes essays by sex workers as scholars of porn.9 This gesture is also reflected in the Porn Studies journal, the first academic journal devoted to the study of pornography. The journal has regularly included essays written by X-rated media veterans, providing vital insights into the inner workings of the industry.
Happily, over the last five years feminist porn studies has enjoyed an upsurge of single-author books that grapple with neglected areas of the field. The Black female subject has advanced to the fore thanks to Mireille Miller-Young's ethnography of Black women in porn, A Taste for Brown Sugar (2014).10 In a related manner, Jennifer C. Nash's The Black Body in Ecstasy (2014) analyzes racialized pornography and the pleasures it might afford Black female consumers.11 Ariane Cruz continues the complication of racial pornographies in The Color of Kink (2016), asserting the complicated possibilities of Black female pleasure in the context of a history of sexual terror and slavery.12 These three projects work in tandem to create a space where Black women are recognized as agents, producers, and consumers of racialized pleasure.
The above contributions deal almost exclusively with moving-image pornographies—film, video, and digital media. One of the criticisms of the inaugural issue of Porn Studies was that it focused on visual media. This limitation is evident in the field as a whole. Literary pornographies do not attract nearly as much scholarly attention as hard-core. However, exceptions include Lynn Hunt's indispensable anthology The Invention of Pornography, 1500–1800 (1993), which covers pornographic art and literature across four centuries and several countries.13 Lisa Z. Sigel studies Victorian literary pornography in Governing Pleasures (2002).14 Yet beyond historical analyses, there is little work concerning twenty-first-century literary pornographies. Indeed, due in part to an overemphasized period of around twelve years (1972 to 1984) where porn mimicked traditional Hollywood narrative and was exhibited in theaters, “porn studies” is often assumed to mean “porn film studies.” In turn, porn studies has tended to rely on traditional film studies approaches that are not always the most fruitful ones.
Recent scholarship concerning online pornographies has productively complicated this film-centric approach. Susanna Paasonen discusses pornographic spam mail, shock sites, and other online pornographies in Carnal Resonance (2011).15 Helen Hester, Bethan Jones, and Sarah Taylor-Harman address microporn—fan-made gifs of mainstream porn hosted on Tumblr—and the special temporal pleasures it offers women in “Giffing a Fuck” (2015).16 And I study paratextual porn—behind-the-scenes features, marketing materials, blurbs, and photo sets in my recent essay “Period Porn.”17 Such developments reflect exciting scholarly movements into “convergence culture,” a shift that attends to Pamela Gibson Church's complaint that in porn studies, “things have not been properly pulled together” to address “the new reconfiguration of visual culture.”18 This reconfiguration is at the heart of much feminist media studies, rendering media studies a site from which porn scholars might draw new approaches.
The majority of porn studies also deals exclusively with US and European content. Katrien Jacobs, who studies netporn, critiques this tendency, arguing that “porn studies should be a meaningful encounter with divergent legal, moral and religious parameters, sexual tastes and bodily ideals, as well as the particular inter-racial and political tensions that go beyond Euro-American controversies around pornography.”19 Recent efforts to address non-Western pornographies signal attempts to redress this balance. For instance, in Cut Pieces (2013) Lotte Hoek provides an analysis of an unusual phenomenon: strips of locally produced pornography spliced into action sequences of mainstream Bangladeshi cinema.20 Hoek's work diversifies porn studies not only on an international level but also in terms of platform, context, and media. In addition, Porn Studies recently issued a call for papers for a special issue on South Asian pornographies.21 These gestures signal gaps in the field that are slowly being filled.
While porn studies has accelerated as a discipline over recent years, it remains something of a curiosity at the margins of more established and respectable academic fields. Hurdles include the assumption that those who study porn as a genre like any other are advocating for the industry. Pornography is such a politically fraught topic of discussion, especially for feminists, that efforts on the part of porn scholars to provide valuable interventions in feminist media studies are often met with hostility, dismissal, or polite silence. Yet I have hope that the fruitful relationship that has been steadily building over the decades will blossom into a cohesive, intersectional, and truly interdisciplinary association to the benefit of both fields. Porn studies practitioners, tending to rely on a film studies approach to content that deviates so profoundly from traditional film, can turn to media studies as a way to resolve the lack of methodology in the discipline. Likewise, feminist scholars of media would benefit from casting a wider net that touches upon the vulgar fringes of the genres, texts, and creators under examination. Pornography is an integral component of how mainstream media functions (and vice versa). Pornographers are important creators, technology innovators, boundary pushers, and tastemakers. For porn studies or media studies to operate as separate spheres would be a limitation in understanding the media landscape.