Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches

By Purcell, Natalie | Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches


Purcell, Natalie, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality


A few years ago, an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty formed the Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster at UC Santa Cruz. Since then, we've investigated the relationship of pornography to feminism through intense research and collective reading practices. In this essay, I will use the experience of the Research Cluster to reflect on existing literature about pornography and controversial sexual expression. With an eye toward building critical yet sensitive research agendas, I will interrogate how feminists have examined and talked about pornography. Specifically, I'll look at how their personal stakes and emotional investments have shaped what gets studied and ignored, how findings are interpreted and reported, and how pornography researchers communicate and fail to communicate with one another.

I'm going to start with a review of existing literature on the psychosocial impacts of pornography and of its repression. This literature is a highly charged, politically oriented literature. Often, disagreements among those who study pornography are not only scholarly disagreements. They are political and they are personal. Most feminists working on pornography experience pressure to "take a side." A researcher, whether she intends it or not, will probably be classified by her fellow feminists as either a defender or a critic of pornography. Efforts at etching a middle ground and efforts to achieve some form of "neutrality" have been few and far between, and they have been mostly unsuccessful in breaking the discursive norms of what is a largely bifurcated debate.

After I summarize the findings of this literature and note some of the trends I've observed in both camps, I will try to answer a few related questions about the legacy of feminist research on pornography:

* Why has this literature been so roundly criticized as too emotional, too biased, and not very scholarly? Are these criticisms fair?

* Why has the debate about pornography been such a polarizing debate for feminists? How and why did we end up with two opposed factions?

* What does this legacy suggest about the prospects of contemporary feminist research on pornography?

I will close my presentation by stressing the continuing importance of research on pornography, and by suggesting how we might engage in this research in more sensitive and responsive ways. These strategies, I will argue, have the potential to take us beyond the dichotomous terms of the existing debate.

If you've read any sex wars literature--from personal manifestos to standard quantitative analyses--you probably know that investigations of pornography are seldom divorced from strong feelings. When reading, for instance, Diana Russell's Against Pornography (1993a), you learn about more than the percentages of women who are victimized in sexual assaults, or the statistical correlation between exposure to violent pornography and attitudes toward sexual aggression. You learn also, whether Dr. Russell intends it or not, about her personal readings of pornographic texts and her visceral reactions to them. You learn whether this material provokes similar feelings for you. You learn whether Dr. Russell's analysis makes you want to protest in front of the Hustler Club, sign up with the ACLU, or subscribe to Playboy. Because this literature is so unfailingly provocative and affectively-charged, it hasn't always been taken seriously. It has been easy to dismiss findings with which one disagrees by charging that they are the product of the researcher's personal bias or are a mere reflection of her own emotional reactions to pornographic texts.

I would not deny, on the basis of my own review of the literature, that affective orientations and emotional reactions have played a large part in the choice of research objects and subjects, the design of research methodologies, the interpretation of conflicting data, and the development of theory around pornography. …

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