I Know It When I See It

“I know it when I see it…” stands as probably the most famous yet least helpful definition for pornography the world has come up with. Pornography is a subject as embattled as it is ambiguous, with a very particular relationship to feminism and the scholarship that surrounds it. In his article Sex Sells, But What Else Does It Do?, Chris Pappas provides an overview of American pornography and the numerous controversies that surround it.

The piece begins with the million-dollar question: “What is Pornography?” It explains the difficulty in accepting a simple definition like “sexually explicit material intended to cause arousal.” ‘Explicit’ is a complicated word because of the difficulty of determining when depiction of sex is artistic versus immoral. Pappas discusses a number of tests officials have devised to distinguish between the two, but none of them fully evade the problem of moral subjectivity.

Pappas goes on to discuss the history of feminist attempts to define pornography. During the porn-boom of the 1970’s, many feminists tried to fight against pornography on the grounds that it contributed to rape culture and the devaluation of women. To do so, they had to distinguish it from erotica, which they characterized as innocuous in comparison to pornography’s misogynistic tone. Still, activists couldn’t get over the hurdle of establishing standardized criteria for what defines pornography.

Next he discusses the sociological import of pornography. Pornography is billion-dollar industry, a mainstay of modern pop-culture, and a major avenue for sexual exploration and identity formation. It both affects and reflects the state of society’s sexual morals. As such, whatever our moral opinions of it may be, it at least ought to be studied and understood as a cultural artifact. He claims that while solid data about pornography consumption is unavailable, we can tell its influence is large and still growing from the porn industry’s sales figures. Do you feel comfortable with taking pornography seriously as a source of information about our cultural identity?

The final section discusses a few institutional issues within the production of porn. It mentions how actors who performed with minority actors used to be blacklisted and that white domination and offensive stereotypes about minorities still pervade the industry. However, significant progress has been made in the realm of racial integration, both through the embracing of minority stars and the success of a few minority-operated studios. Pappas provides the interesting statistic that today’s porn industry is one of the few economic sectors where women’s wages vastly outstrip men’s. This is a relatively recent development though, and historically, women actors were subject to extremely abusive conditions in pornography.

If we read this piece as an argument for the necessity of studying pornography from a sociological standpoint, it’s successful. Pappas clearly articulates the magnitude of porn’s cultural role and its relationship to various ideologies. However, frankly speaking, this piece doesn’t live all the way up to its subtitle: “The American Porn Industry.” While he does successfully explain porn’s sociological significance, the piece falls short of provided a general survey of the issues embedded in the American Porn Industry. What about transsexual porn? What about softcore porn? What about the rise of interactive porn over the Internet? What about collisions of video games and pornography? How are consumers usually first exposed to pornography? I can’t give an objective criterion for what makes a survey incomplete, but I know it when I see it, and it feels like too much is missing here.

This piece is another chapter in a story we’ve been hearing frequently this semester: A body of culture traditionally written off as dirty, thoughtless, or frivolous actually has a huge amount of information for us to glean about our cultural moment. Think 50 shades, hip-hop music, anal sex… et cetera. When we allow ourselves to turn a scholarly eye toward content that stigma and taboo once forbade, we learn a great deal about the world we live in, and often something about why those taboos existed to begin with. I’d bet that the majority of Vanderbilt students’ sexuality have in some way been impacted by pornography, whether by viewing it directly or having expectations built by pornography thrust upon them. It seems like it would be a grave misstep to ignore the opportunity to understand something that affects nearly everyone’s life in such a strong way, albeit usually silently. Can you think of other potentially valuable sources of cultural and self-knowledge we write off as sub-scholarly?

Thinking back to the issues of defining pornography and determining whether it promotes misogyny, consider the recent public outcry when a hacker released nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities. It’s a no brainer that hacking a woman’s computer and publicizing her nude photos is glaring misogyny, but do you think those photos count as pornography? It’s difficult to determine. Obviously they were taken to cause sexual arousal, but not for a public audience. Do they somehow become porn in the illegal act of being publicized? Even if they aren’t pornography, could a culture increasingly interested in porn be responsible for the Internet traffic the photos received? The more we feel entitled to seeing digital images of naked women maybe we are less likely to stop ourselves from clicking on the link when that’s right thing to do. Perhaps there’s something to all this “moral decay” stuff after all?

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