What are you hiding in that brown paper bag?

April 21, 2006

Stop wrapping porn in a cloak of theory, says Nathan Abrams. It's time to confront sex in mainstream culture.

Pornography is perhaps one the last untouched taboos of British academic study. In mainstream culture, it is seemingly all the rage and a number of films and documentaries over the past few years have feted various porn stars and entrepreneurs. Ron Jeremy (aka The Hedgehog), Seymour Butts (whose nom de porn also doubles up as his sales pitch) and Steve Hirsh, chief executive of the Vivid Entertainment Group, have all had their own reality TV shows. This is not to mention the various biographies of the likes of Jenna Jameson and Traci Lords.

Yet British academia has yet to catch up with these developments. We do have a great deal of literature debating the legality of porn, its definitions and whether or not it constitutes obscenity. There is also a great deal of writing about the rights and more often the wrongs of porn. To this can be added the emerging academic genre of "porn studies" - in the US, at least, if not yet in the UK.

Even then, academics tend to take the approach adopted by film theorist Linda "Hardcore" Williams, which is to bury porn beneath a welter of theory. It is depressing to pick up a book, such as her edited collection, Porn Studies , and discover that philosopher Slavoj Žežek gets more mentions than Ron Jeremy. Since when has Žežek ever appeared in a porn film? It seems to me that the means to get around touching a taboo subject such as porn is to hide it behind a thick veil of theory. It is the academic equivalent of the brown paper bag.

Few in Britain have yet dared to include it in an undergraduate curriculum.

Witness the fuss at Wolverhampton University in 2004 when two lecturers showed their students video porn, even though they went to every possible length to ensure no one was offended. A secret ballot of the students was held before the class to decide whether to include visual material and in what form; a lecture and edited clips from broadcast documentaries describing the production, consumption, censorship and potential harm of pornography followed; and then a coffee break to offer the opportunity for escape. After all that preparation, the students then watched 20 minutes of the type of video that many had probably already seen at home as teenagers.

The tabloids seized on this as further evidence of the dumbing down of our university curricula, and even The Guardian got in on the act, accusing the course of degeneration.

Compare this with the US, where courses on porn have proliferated to the extent that right-wingers are fretting over the veritable explosion of courses that include porn in their curricula. In "Sexuality and the Media", students watch Dirty Debutantes 86 , Deep Throat and Insatiable . Cultural theorist Laura Kipnis screens "fat porn" and "transvestite porn" as part of her film studies programme at Northwestern University. X-rated performance artiste Annie Sprinkle tours campuses giving demonstrations of what she does. I even heard one story of a student working as an intern at a porn production company in Southern California during the summer months as a part of her studies. Whether we like it or not, porn is now as much a part of our culture as the other subjects we choose to teach at university. It is produced and consumed on a huge scale and arguably one simply cannot understand contemporary American culture without it. As Kipnis asks in her Bound and Gagged : "What impedes us from considering pornography as a mode of expressive culture? What disastrous thing would happen if we were to - just experimentally, provisionally - approach pornography as we would any cultural form, applying it to the same modes of respectful analysis, the kind of critical attention received not infrequently by even the dumbest forms of mass culture?"

I am researching the history of Jews in the adult film industry in America.

Yet I wonder how many of my academic colleagues know this. While it is no secret, I do not advertise the fact. Such work might not be considered appropriate or the proper business of a serious historian. It might not be considered RAE-able enough. I might get asked with a snigger and a smirk, as I did recently when I addressed a final-year undergraduate class on the topic, "How many films did you have to watch for this research?" This topic certainly does attract the sniggers and wary looks that suggest a measure of seediness. Of course, this is balanced by the number of (usually male) students who offer, unprompted, to loan me their entire libraries of the stuff.

With a subject such as Jews in porn, I have another related problem. The field of Jewish studies in America is overwhelmingly celebratory and this topic certainly doesn't fit that agenda. A recent proposal to present a paper on this topic at the American Jewish Studies annual conference was rejected. Furthermore, I found myself thinking "do I help to feed anti-Semitic prejudices with such a study or will I be accused of anti-Semitism myself?" The rightwing American website frontpage.com

contains just such a discussion, asking "Is Abrams anti-Jewish?"

As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Jewish audiences have been very receptive and tolerant of my claims. A late-night session at the Limmud Conference in Nottingham in 2004 drew an audience of more than a hundred, male and female. Subsequently, I bumped into many people who had enjoyed my presentation.

But I still don't feel fully confident in coming out about the subject to my academic colleagues - particularly as I work in a history department, where even viewing a "normal" video is seen as suspect by some. Perhaps it's about time we thought seriously about this taboo and began taking porn seriously.

Nathan Abrams is a freelance writer and lecturer.

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