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Catalyst Con 2015: the porn panels

Gram Ponante: Covering Porn: The Life on an American Porn Journalist
After taking a break for lunch, I went on a futile search for coffee, returning to the vendor area where coffee and tea were made available for attendees and as we'd find throughout the weekend, no coffee was to be had. But to my surprise, Lynn Comella was at the convention bookstore unpacking her new publication, New Views On Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law. So I made my way to over to purchase a copy of the hefty academic text and ended up chatting excitedly about porn studies, since I'd just finished a 6 week couse on the topic. But before long, I was heading out to listen to Gram Ponante's talk on porn journalism.

Turns out at Gram Ponante is a fantastic storyteller as his talk was mostly his story of how having barely even seen any pornographic movies, he ended up with a career writing about porn for AVN, i.e.the Adult Video News.

The take away message from this presentation is that it is nearly impossible to spend any amount of time telling entertaining anecdotes without addressing the various legal challenges faced by the industry. The adult industry has always existed on the line of legality and until the Freemen decision of 1988, the filming of pornographic movies was done in secret, with cops regularly busting shoots and the actors being arrested under charges of prostitution. But thanks to one court battle going all the way to the Supreme Court, the production of pornographic materials became legal in the state of California. And this is why productions are always made in CA. One would logically conclude that the ruling would automatically make the production of porn generally legal, but it hasn't been tested in other parts of the U.S. and no one is eager to find out, especially as many of the courts have become significantly less liberal in their interpretations of law.


But this led gracefully into the final panel I attended that day, New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law with  Lynn Comella PhD, Kevin Heffernan PhD, Kimberly A Harchuck Esq LLM, and Carol Queen PhD to discuss the growing field of porn studies. The date of this talk actually coincided with the one year anniversary of the release of the first academic journal dedicated to the discipline, Porn Studies. And the panel talked about the current interest in the academic study of pornography, but they primarily focused on their individual contributions to the newly released book, New Views on Pornography. edited by Lynn Commella and Shira Tarrant.

Kevin Heffernan (Southern Methodist University) pointed out that we talk about pornographic film differently than we do any other media. However, there was a time when porn was exhibited in theaters. In his study of the horror movie, he noticed that the genre responded more to changes in the movie industry than it did to major cultural changes. So in his chapter included in New Views, he explores the impact that shifts in the distribution of pornographic films has on the adult industry, legal battles around censorship, and finally on the films themselves.

First Amendment lawyer, Kimberly H Harchuck, addressed the relationship between the adult film industry and the obscenity laws. Basically, pornography has always pushed up against censorship and is a test of the first amendment. Our regulation of pornography is rooted in the Miller test. Basically, community standards determine when something is deemed obscene, but now that pornography is primarily distributed on-line, how do you determine community standards for a global medium?

So today, pornography and our internet freedoms may be the test that demonstrates our relative human liberties. Kimberly Harchuck pointed out that today, China has locked down their internet, tightly regulating the content that citizens can see. And porn is blocked. By comparison, the UK filters porn at the level of service provider and is attempting to restrict access to certain kinds of pornographic materials.

And finally, Carol Queen sees a resurgence in anti-porn feminism as fueling porn scholarship.

Her chapter in New Views traces the history of legendary women friendly sex toy store, Good Vibrations. When the store opened in 1977, they were opposed to carrying porn. But Susie Bright was instrumental in bringing pornographic film to Good Vibrations and curated a small selection of woman friendly porn. At one time, they even kept a notebook where customers could write their reactions to the movies.

And finally, Carol Queen points out that in today's landscape of very private consumption of porn, we no longer enjoy porn as a cultural phenomenon.

And finally, the panel discussed the major question of 'why do we need porn scholarship?'

Basically this boils down to the general lack of good studies on the topic. The media tends to regurgitate the same poorly executed studies that claim various social harms as a result of the availability of porn. Laws are even drafted citing bad science. So the field is instrumental in our understanding of the social impact of pornography. And this volume even includes essays on how to properly evaluate existing studies on pornography. I cannot wait to tear into my copy, but am waiting until I finish some of the essays by many of the same scholars included in the Feminist Porn Book.



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