Why It's Time for the Journal of Porn Studies

Porn is everywhere, thanks to the Internet's effective distribution, and finally scholars have a venue for considering the phenomenon seriously.
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An adult actress performs during the Eropolis exposition in France. (Reuters)

The first issue of Porn Studies, an academic journal exploring "pornography, and sexual representations more generally," has debuted. 

The mere fact of its existence, which became public in mid-2013, was occasion for a media event. But the journal's articles are serious articulations of the intersection between the concerns of media studies and those of pornography. Porn Studies is not a joke, though it seems to provide everyone with some relief to treat it as one. 

That's because so many people look at so much porn: HuffPo noted last year that porn sites get more visitors than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. And yet the majority of Americans say looking at porn is "wrong." Porn is a national contradiction baked into the daily ablutions of hundreds of millions of people.

This is a profoundly uncomfortable situation for a nation. 

So pornography remains undertheorized. In the public sphere, there are very few serious ideas about what porn is or how it works or what it means to us, beside from the obvious. 

Perhaps in the past, it would have been possible to ignore this situation. But the Internet turns out to, basically, be a very efficient porn delivery machine. 

"Scholarly interest in pornography has also been driven by technological changes," write Porn Studies editors and media scholars Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith:

The increasing accessibility provided by various media technologies has opened up the market for pornography, and as a consequence amateur porn has proliferated, alongside a growing range of independent and alternative productions, while pornographies of all kinds have become accessible to a wider range of audiences.

Even more broadly: "Mediated forms of sex have become more commonplace and commercial sex products, services and representations have become steadily more visible," they write.

Porn is always two clicks away, and, hovers at the edge of so many conversations from analyses of Girls to sending messages on phones to the NSA.

The problem, however, is that there are costs to even talking about pornography. This is true even in our supposed bastions of intellectual freedom, as several of the articles make clear. "I have been told 'You don't want to be 'the porn guy'' and 'you will have to deal with the content issue of your work,'" writes Nathaniel Burke in his essay "Positionality and Pornography." 

I'd heard similar things from journalists, male and female alike. Very few people want to be "the porn guy."

And so researchers and critics choose to do work on less fraught, less important topics. Perhaps having a publication that serves as a gathering place will create some strength in academic numbers.

On the larger goal, though, can Porn Studies articles like "Gonzo, trannys, and teens – current trends in US adult content production, distribution, and consumption" or "Fair-trade porn + niche markets + feminist audience" or "Porn's pedagogies: teaching porn studies in the academic–corporate complex" or "Deep tags: toward a quantitative analysis of online pornography" actually deepen the way people talk and write about pornography? 

I don't know. At least they define a terrain beyond simple Manichean representations of pornography as wholly good or bad. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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