ACADEMIAVILLE—Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian refers to it as the Porn Wars: the debate that’s dividing academia, and points to the negative reactions to Routledge’s plans to publish a peer-reviewed journal called Porn Studies next year as a prime illustration of what she calls “a bitter and contentious academic war over the status and nature of porn research, a war that is almost as bitter and contentious as the status and nature of porn itself.”
Announced in May of this year with a concurrent call for submissions, Porn Studies is edited by Feona Attwood, a professor of cultural studies from Middlesex University, and Clarissa Smith, a reader in sexual cultures at the University of Sunderland.
In their call for submissions, Attwood and Smith define Porn Studies as “the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts. Porn Studies will publish innovative work examining specifically sexual and explicit media forms, their connections to wider media landscapes and their links to the broader spheres of (sex) work across historical periods and national contexts.”
Back at The Guardian, however, Cadwalladr contends that the growing criticism of the Porn Studies journal—including the almost 900 signatures thus far recorded on the Routledge Pro Porn Studies Bias petition—comes as the call to do something about the proliferation of pornography online has reached a crescendo, especially in Britain.
“On 7 June,” she explained in her article, “campaigners working to amend the extreme pornography laws brought in as part of the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act to include a full ban on pornographic depictions of rape—which are currently legal if uploaded abroad—succeeded in putting pressure on David Cameron, who last week called on Google to crack down on the kind of sites that ‘pollute the internet.’
“On Tuesday,” she continued, “calls for sex and relationship education to become a compulsory part of the national curriculum were made in the debate for the children and families bill. On Thursday, Labour introduced a debate in the Commons calling for search engines to change their default options to exclude porn. And on Friday, Google announced, ahead of a meeting with culture secretary Maria Miller and other internet companies tomorrow, that it would be donating £1m to the Internet Watch Foundation, a Cambridge-based body that attempts to police the internet for illegal content.”
The momentum, says Cadwalladr, is therefore on the side of those looking to do finally something about pornography—“what's out there, who's watching it, what effect it has”—with the added kicker that only 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.”
So what’s the big deal about a peer-reviewed journal looking into just these issues, and to what extent is there really a “war” in academia over it?
Well, it turns out Cadwalladr includes only two names on her list of concerned academics, one of whom—Gail Dines, professor of sociology at Boston’s Wheelock College—should come as no surprise. The other, Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham University, does not even specifically mention the journal, but instead speaks generally about the differing experiences successive generations have had in terms of their exposure to porn.
"People who are my age, in their 40s, or even 30s, generally have no idea,” she told Cadwalladr. “Unless they're avid users of pornography, they just don't realise quite what's out there and how easy it is to watch. The technology has changed so rapidly even in the last few years. 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."
Dines, on the other hand, occasionally “blows her top” during her discussions with Cadwalladr, especially when Attwood and Smith start talking about shoring up the research on pornography in order to counter "so many things [that] have become accepted as true but [about which] actually there's no hard evidence. It's become accepted that girls now shave off all their pubic hair because they've seen porn films, that porn is becoming more violent to women, that everyone under the age of 10 has seen it. There's very little evidence, solid, robust evidence, but it's become part of the conventional wisdom that we know these things. We don't know these things."
Dines counters to Cadwalladr, “That's complete crap! Why are young girls taking off all their pubic hair? We know it's because of porn. Because boys can't bear it. Women's mags are telling them every week to be clean down there. I talk to counselors and anal rape is almost as prevalent as vaginal rape on campuses now. Where is that coming from?
"There is so much evidence about the effect that porn is having,” she adds. “We know that it's becoming more violent. The definitive piece of research from 2010, which analyzed the top 50 sites and DVDs, found that 90 percent of all content included physical or verbal abuse against women. That's proper empirical evidence-based research. But that is not what these women do. Their research is not evidence-based."
Dines is especially harsh on Attwood and Smith in terms of their personal ethics, calling them "akin to climate change deniers," and telling Cadwalladr, "They are cheerleaders for the industry. And to offer themselves as these neutral authorities is just laughable.”
Needless to say, Gail Dines calling anyone out for their lack of neutrality is the pot calling the little black, but there you have it. The anti-porn voices in this conversation will not be satisfied until their view is accepted as the truth. Voices on the so-called other side of the equation—in this instance, Attwood and Smith—have apparently not come to a final determination about porn’s effects on society. The divide has also now become personalized, and at times feels a lot like the war over abortion, in which a viable middle ground exists but no one wants to occupy it. It’s also an issue, like abortion, that is increasingly dividing feminists into two complex but pretty identifiable camps that, let’s be honest, really do seem to hate one another. It’s the distaff side of the Hatfields and McCoys, with porn acting as the bright line in the sand in this especially nasty part of the culture wars.
Cadwalladr's article also contains commentary from people on the ground, one of whom, for instance, runs in a rape crisis center in London where she contends the real-world effects of porn are a fact of life. "We are having lots of women talking about being raped and being filmed and that being used as a method for silencing them, but that will take a while to make it into the research papers," said Fiona Elvines.
While such empirical testimony needs to be a part of the conversation, the particular acts described by Elvines above could also be challenged as having less to do with "pornography" per se than it does with criminal behavior involving the use of sexual images as a form of intimidation. Tying those acts to the adult entertainment industry seems far-fetched at best, but that is exactly what academics like Dines endeavor to do on their side of the Porn Wars chasm. It's not as if there is not ample research that shows a steady decline in rates of child sexual abuse, at least in the United States, during precisely the years that the internet has seen its most explosive growth.
While long-term affects associated with pornography use is a viable subject for research and should not be discredited by the adult industry, neither can the anti-porn crowd scream societal doom when the numbers refute their claims. According to The New York Times, "Overall cases of child sexual abuse fell more than 60 percent from 1992 to 2010, according to David Finkelhor, a leading expert on sexual abuse who, with a colleague, Lisa Jones, has tracked the trend. The evidence for this decline comes from a variety of indicators, including national surveys of child abuse and crime victimization, crime statistics compiled by the FBI, analyses of data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect and annual surveys of grade-school students in Minnesota, all pointing in the same direction."
If some people are having problems associated with their abuse of porn, by all means let's help them get help, but this incessant and increasingly shrill cry that the sky is falling all because of porn is getting a little old in the face of long-term trends to the contrary.