Porn Studies whips up a storm for academics

By Carole Cadwalladr

With pornography accounting for huge volumes of internet traffic, it's a subject ripe for analysis. But a new academic journal is causing outrage among campaigners against hardcore porn, writes Carole Cadwalladr

An English report last month found a correlation between violent pornography and young people who commit violent crimes. Photo / Thinkstock
An English report last month found a correlation between violent pornography and young people who commit violent crimes. Photo / Thinkstock

When the Guardian announced the planned launch next year of Porn Studies, the world's first peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject, there were more than a few guffaws. One headline suggested it was a "new discipline" for academics.

What it concealed, however, is a bitter and contentious academic war over the status and nature of porn research, a war almost as bitter and contentious as the status and nature of porn itself.

Campaigners working to amend the extreme pornography laws to include a full ban on pornographic depictions of rape, which are legal if uploaded abroad, succeeded in putting pressure on Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, who called on Google to crack down on the kind of sites that "pollute the internet".

Google announced that it would be donating £1m ($1.96m) to the internet Watch Foundation, a body that attempts to police the internet for illegal content.

The issue of porn - what's out there, who's watching it, what effect it has - hasn't been as live as this for years. Last month, the children's commissioner for England published a report on the effect of porn on young people, reviewing 40,000 pieces of research, and found a correlation between violent pornography and those who commit violent crimes.

And the recent trials of Stuart Hazell, who was convicted of killing 12-year-old Tia Sharp, and Mark Bridger for killing April Jones, made that link real and visible to many. They both were found to have violent pornography on their computers, Bridger watching it just hours before he abducted and killed the 5-year-old.

In many ways, it would seem the right time to launch an academic journal solely devoted to porn studies.

Edited by Feona Attwood, a professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University, and Clarissa Smith, a reader in sexuality and culture at Sunderland, their idea is to bring a focus to the current work being done into pornography in all different fields and gather it in one place.

As porn has proliferated in the age of the internet so, it transpires, has the number of academics studying it.

According to some estimates, 30 per cent of all internet bandwidth is used to transfer porn. Each month, porn sites get more visitors than Amazon, Twitter and Netflix combined. And yet, says Attwood, in her own field, cultural studies, it's been mostly ignored.

"Television, film, magazines have been studied from all sorts of angles. Something like the BBC has been investigated to death by historians, by people who analyse labour conditions, everything from accountancy to filming, but there's never been anything like that for porn."

There are "tonnes of papers" out there, she says, though much of the current research "tends to do the same thing over and over again. It just asks the same questions. Is porn harmful? Is it linked to other things? Then it doesn't define what porn is and, if it finds the link, it doesn't really explain anything. There's a lot written and very little known."

Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham University, who has been working with the Campaign to End Violence Against Women, refers to a "generational" problem of awareness about porn. McGlynn says there's a profound difference between those who grew up before the internet and those who came later. "People who are my age, in their 40s, or even 30s, generally have no idea. Most people think you have to hunt it out, or download it, or use a credit card. They don't realise it's freely available on all mainstream porn sites, whereas young people do. All my students know exactly what's out there."

To many people, particularly parents, the spread of ever more violent pornography is a huge concern, though Attwood and Smith don't buy the idea that it is getting more violent, or even that it is a huge concern.

To say that this is a contentious position is a massive understatement. And it's one of the reasons why 880 people have signed an online petition questioning the integrity of the journal and accusing it of bias. They're calling on Routledge, the respected academic publisher producing the journal, to answer questions about its "intention and focus" and its "editorial board, which is uniformly pro-porn".

Behind the petition are the campaigning group Stop Porn Culture, who refer to themselves as "a group of academics, activists, anti-violence experts, health professionals, and educators". Although they "agree that pornography and porn culture demand and deserve more critical attention" they claim that the journal is operating "under the auspices of neutrality" when it has a pro-porn bias and "further fosters the normalisation of porn".

Smith says: "We knew that there would be some reactions against the journal, because it's a controversial area."

Gail Dines, a British professor of sociology at Boston's Wheelock College and a major figure in porn academia, says Attwood and Smith are "akin to climate change deniers".

"They're leaping to all sorts of unfounded conclusions. It's incredibly important that we study the porn industry, porn culture, porn's effect on sexual identities. It's become a major part of our lives. But these editors come from a pro-porn background where they deny the tons and tons of research that has been done into the negative effects of porn.

"They are cheerleaders for the industry. And to offer themselves as these neutral authorities is just laughable."

What's apparent is just how passionately held are the views on both sides.

Routledge also defended them in the face of the attacks: "The proposal for Porn Studies was reviewed by six experts in the field, and we have every confidence that the editors and board are equally committed to our values." What's more, Attwood and Smith say it's inaccurate to call them pro-porn.

"Porn is important to people on all kinds of levels, but, if you want people to be honest or to tell you things about their engagements with pornography, you have to be prepared to listen," Smith says. "I am politically motivated about the fact that people who look at porn are not all lizard people."

It would be easy to write this off as a spat between academics, but Fiona Elvines of Rape Crisis South London, says that the sort of statements Attwood and Smith make fly in the face of "the lived experience of real women and men on the ground".

The debate about porn - whether certain types of porn should be legislated against, who gets to decide what we're allowed to watch in our own homes - is part of a wider debate about censorship and internet freedoms.

Two weeks ago, the children's commissioner for England, an independent body that has been doing an in-depth two-year inquiry into the exploitation of children by gangs and groups, published a report summarising the current research on porn.

Sue Berelowitz, the deputy commissioner, says that it was because porn kept on coming up in the evidence they were hearing.

The 40,000 research papers the report analysed found "a correlation" between the viewing of pornographic material and those who carry out those violent acts.

"It's also clear that children's attitudes to sex and sexuality are being affected, sometimes at a very young age. This material is just a few clicks away. And it's affecting them."

The academic debate over porn will no doubt rumble on. Porn is so diverse because humans are. It's also just another area of life in which technology is outpacing our ability to process it.

The free streaming porn sites are only a few years old, and the era of children with smartphones in the school playground is even more recent. Or, as Sarah Green of the Campaign to End Violence Against Women, puts it, we're only just beginning "a global experiment with our children. And we don't know what the results will be."

It's not my generation who'll live with the consequences. It's the 11-year-olds. The 12-year-olds. The 13-year-olds. The ones who are typing "free porn" into their friend's phone right about now.


The graphic details

30 per cent - of all internet bandwidth is used for pornography. (Source: Huffington Post)

70 per cent - of men and 30 per cent of women watch porn. The average time spent on a porn site is 12 minutes. (Huffington Post)

450 million - Unique visitors to porn sites each month. When combined, Netflix, Amazon and Twitter get 316 million visitors. (Huffington Post)

90 per cent - of all content included verbal or physical abuse against women in one study of 50 popular pornographic websites and DVDs. (Violence Against Women)

- Observer

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