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Why is pornography so controversial?

I gave my first guest lecture on porn studies today to third year undergraduate students. Although there was nothing particularly explicit or pornographic in my presentation, the lecture was preceded by at least three disclaimers. 

After which, I went on to talk about a brief history of (Western) porn and how new technological innovations have somehow led to developments in the porn industry. The lecture’s main focus was on the study of pornography and how it is definitely a study of media, but also a study of technology, culture and philosophy.

Erotic imagery and literature have existed even before we began to use the word “pornography”. (I wonder if people in prehistory considered their nude figurines and drawings erotic. Probably not?) And pornography has evolved through the centuries. What was considered obscene in the 1800s is available on mainstream TV now. 

And yet, for some reason, pornography cannot be seen as a simple media genre. Discussions on pornography continue to be divisive. Why is that? Why does one have to be “pro-porn” or “anti-porn”? Nobody feels the need to say “I’m pro-horror movies” or “I’m anti-science fiction”.

After I told friends that I would be studying pornography, there were two kinds of reactions. 

Some were excited and in the past few months have asked me for “best [category] porn” recommendations. (My response to someone asking for “best 3D porn” – please go get laid.) Or they were excited because they see this as an act of rebellion, of crossing some kind of taboo boundary. 

Other friends were hesitant. Some asked me how I could be so open about my research topic. (“Aren’t you afraid it will affect career opportunities?”) Some expressed subtle concern about “my values”. 

Is it right or wrong?

Most people assume that I am “pro-porn”, as if to say that porn is homogeneous and that someone pro-porn is in support of all of it. That you’ve said goodbye to all of your morals and are in support of child abuse, exploitation of workers, addiction and disorders. Or that you are unaware that these issues exist. 

No. 1, I don’t have such a rose-coloured view of the world. And No. 2, I think those issues have to be questioned in any industry, not just pornography. 

Like any kind of industry, like anything else in the world, pornography has its positives and negatives. 

I’ve read about in-the-closet lesbians in East Asia who use porn to explore their sexuality in a country where they are unable to speak openly about it. Men, who through porn, come to terms with the fact that they can be both gay and masculine. And sometimes all you want out of porn, just like watching any other movie, is to be entertained, to be satisfied in some way.

Of course, the porn industry has its dark side: The fact that in 2015, Malaysia had the “highest number of IP addresses uploading and downloading... child sexual abuse content in Southeast Asia” is appalling. Telegram groups like V2K, which shared women’s photos and personal information without consent, are horrifying. 

But if sex must be consensual and everything else is assault, would these still be considered pornography? That in itself is an area of discussion. 

I suppose pornography is complicated because sex, and life, are complicated. Sex in its rawest form is, I think, situated in the Lacanian Real, where our bodies are affected but we don’t have the means to understand these effects. It’s horrifying and messy and so good it’s too much to bear.  

Looking beyond good/bad

Studying something like this means looking beyond its goodness or badness. In her paper called Reading Porn Reparatively, Kath Albury writes about the existing feminist approaches to studying porn – most of it coming from a pro- or an anti- perspective. She says instead: 

“either/or questions demand yes/no answers and I was much more interested in what the production, consumption and distribution of porn might mean to different stakeholders, and how these meanings came into being and changed over time.”

This was in 2009. The development of new technology like AR, VR, robotics and AI, means that pornography will continue to evolve. Which means more to look at, more to discover, more cross-disciplinary research required. It allows questions on ethics, ownership, representation and more. 

What an exciting time to be in this field!

References:

Albury, K. (2009). Reading Porn Reparatively. Sexualities, 12(5), 647–653. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460709340373

WTF-ery in regional news:

Sugarbook. It’s a “sugar dating” site that has been quietly around for ages. Recently, it released some stats on sugar babies from 10 Malaysian universities. Nothing too revealing, just the number of sugar babies in each university. It didn’t even provide any information on how those numbers were obtained or how active the users were. But the post made its rounds, some of the universities released statements, and the Sugarbook founder has since been arrested. Kinda hilarious to me that in Malaysia, child marriage is legal but consensual sex with monetary gifts is not. 

Ops Noda. Five women between the ages of 22-60 were arrested for prostitution in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Prices were based on whether the woman was single, widowed or married. Kelantan is the most Islamic state in Malaysia and we can see in the photo accompanying the article that all the women are veiled. I continue to be shook by this state. (PS. The direct translation of the word “noda” is “stained” but it has sexual connotations.) 

Pregnant by wind. A woman in Indonesia claimed that she was lying down after Friday prayers when she felt wind going up her vagina. Fifteen minutes later, she felt stomach pains and gave birth to a baby girl shortly after. These stories of supernatural sex happen frequently and will be a chapter in my upcoming dissertation. 

Reading / Watching:

Boogie Nights (1997). I’ve been plodding through this movie for the last three months. (I find it hard to sit through whole movies, so I watch in 10/20-minute stretches.)

Anti-porn (2013). I just started reading this and I can see why there are anti-porn movements. 


The Sex Beat was initially a podcast that I started in 2016 to experiment with the audio format. It’s what kick-started my fascination for this topic and inspired me to research it for my MRes.

This newsletter is an experiment, a way for me to document my study experience and share content that may not make it into my dissertation. I’m always open to suggestions on how I can make this newsletter better – just hit reply and let me know!

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