copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Unstable boundaries:
sex, academic research and
conceptions of normalcy

by Susan Ericsson

Williams, Linda, ed. Porn Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP. 2004.

Church Gibson, Pamela, ed. More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power. London: British Film Institute. 2004.

It seems academic tectonics may be moving once again, this time shifting around conceptions of sexuality studies. Just as women’s studies programs around the country began changing their name to gender studies in order to place emphasis on systemic and interrelated aspect of gender relations rather than focusing on a particular group (woman) and reifying notions of (wo)man as a fixed category, so too the scholarly intersections of sexuality may soon be realigning. Several recent scholarly publications are continuing the challenge of how we partition the discourses of sexuality and confront what we think of as normative and non-normative sexual practice.

One such example of realignment comes from Michael Warner in his book The Trouble with Normal (1999) where he argues that queer politics should move away from defining its borders by LGBT issues to include marginalized heterosexual practices that are similarly de-legitimated and regulated by the state, such as sex work and other forms of non-marital, non-monogamous sex. Another example is Laura Kipnis’ Against Love (2003) in which she debunks the myth of heterosexual marital monogamy through a combination of statistical and ideological proofs of sexual dissatisfaction with current socially defined ideals. Together, such works as these push at standard ways that categories of sex have been divvyed up and congealed.

Practices of consuming pornography and the understanding of such behavior are also being further reconceived. As Jane Juffer argues in the anthology More Dirty Looks,

“Pornography consumption, it would seem, is becoming a ‘normal’ practice in the US, an accepted part of home entertainment, a domestic technology” (45).

This normalization stems from different factors such as new media technologies like satellite TV, DVDs, and the internet which further domesticate porn beyond the 80s explosion of the video market. Other factors include sizable economic investment by major media players (at least $10 billion, with General Motors, AT&T, Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp making huge profits through DirecTV, broadband cable services, hotel room casts, on demand) and accompanying corporate assertions that justify pornography through an ideology of “the self-regulated individual defined by consumer choice” (45).

Juffer shows how pornography’s availability for use in the domestic sphere has shifted demographics to further increase the number of female consumers, as compared to eras when explicit sexual material was predominantly available through purchase in commercial social spaces. At the same time however, broad distribution and the “mainstreaming of porn” has altered production so as to avoid regulatory crackdowns resulting in decreased diversification of sexual practices and more representation of conventional (hetero)sexual sex. Juffer’s research project addresses how pornography in these ways is “shaped by government and industry policy” (46).

Linda Williams in the introduction to Porn Studies provides statistics that poignantly substantiate the need for more academic research on the abundantly available and booming area of pornographic media. Dissecting the term obscene, Williams argues that the etymology of the word meaning “off (ob) the public scene” no longer applies and in its place coins the term on/scenity. Williams argues that explicit sexual representations, or “speaking sex,” does occur within the public sphere and the term

“on/scenity marks both the controversy and scandal of the increasingly public representations of diverse forms of sexuality and the fact that they have become increasingly available to the public at large” (3).

And thus it marks

“the tension between the speakable and the unspeakable which animates so many of our contemporary discourses of sexuality” (4).

In dissecting an Internet site which includes autobiographical gay sexuality via webcam display, Amy Villarejo in an essay in More Dirty Looks pushes back at tendencies that label such Internet sites as pornographic. Rather than interpret Timo’s website as “sexual cyber-exhibitionism” or think through it via new media technologies research, Villarejo urges us to consider the sexual aspects of the site within the context of all the other written and visual information posted. Through this shift of understanding, Villarejo concludes that defycategory.com shares a great deal with Andy Warhol and the traditions of the New York 1960s avant-garde. Camp then, becomes the interpretive lens with which to think about the particular example of cyber-sex. If we think of Timo’s work predominantly as camp rather than pornography, we can better scrutinize how norms are being challenged, given that camp makes “unstable the very mechanisms of valuation” and functions “between the place of the normative, the place of the already-known, and the wink” which plays with popular conceptions and structures of social relations (in Church Gibson 88, 89). Conversely, the last part of the Porn Studies anthology “Pornography and/as Avant-Garde” attends to two particular art works through the lens of pornography. Ara Osterweil analyzes Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and Michael Sicinski investigates Scott Stark’s NOEMA; Osterweil looks at the cultural collision of explicit representations in 1960s art work and pornography and Stark considers how audiences view pornographic works via recognition of bodily labor. Together the three essays continue the scholarly discussion of how porn and avant-garde artworks intersect, inspecting and confronting the solidity of the two categories.

While academic discussions continue to complicate ideas of normative sexual practice, other cultural forces have sought to codify notions of sexual norms. The law is one such area, where we have seen aggressive moves to stabilize conceptions of normal sexuality through obscenity related legal disputes. As Linda Williams proves, writing in the Church Gibson anthology, while the juridical sector has vehemently maintained a belief in normal sexual practice and representation, paradoxically, what it has defined as normal has substantially shifted in the last thirty years. In the 1973 American Supreme Court case, Justice Warren Burger aimed to define obscenity through a list of acts in the Miller Test that begins with “ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted.” Then in a 1985 case, the Supreme Court shifted the demarcation for censorship, relegating normal heterosexual acts as acceptable and declaring abnormal lasciviousness censorable. Thus while some heterosexual acts would still be considered censorable for their "perverse" nature, normal heterosexual behavior became excused, and abnormal practices became the new marker.

“Thus in the definition of obscenity, explicitness has given way to the deviant sexuality of the ‘other’” (167).

Williams notes that the change can also be identified in the initial Jesse Helms’ NEA bill wording that passed in the Senate in 1989 (though was reworded back to the Miller definition of obscenity in a House-Senate bill). Helms reverses the order of the Miller Test’s “normal or perverted” to make perversion the primary targeted behavior. The bill stated that funds should be denied to art works with material

“‘including but not limited to depictions of sadomascochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts’” (167).

The recent historic shift of conceptions of obscenity has placed ‘deviant’ behavior at its center, whereas explicit normative heterosexual acts have become pardonable. Analyzing the legal discourse, Williams notes,

“What does emerge, however, is the way the line has tended increasingly to be drawn between a normal and a perverse rather than a non-explicit and an explicit representation, and how these two poles depend on one another for definition” (168).

Such legal recompartmentalizing underscores the importance of Michael Warner’s claims about the shared social framework of LGBT oppression and heterosexual "perversions."

Also addressing how law cases impact our understanding of pornography, Chuck Kleinhans, in the Church Gibson anthology, analyzes the complex legal and representational implications of child pornography that is digitally constructed rather than created via photographic processes involving a real child. In the 1982 Supreme Court decision New York v. Ferber, a visual document such as a photograph was seen as evidence of the crime of photographing children obscenely. When Congress passed The Child Protection Act of 1984, the new guidelines for interpreting the image included sexual suggestiveness, coyness and the intention to excite. As Kleinhans argues,

“Therefore the legislation shifted attention from the child porn image as a document of an event (realism) to questions of intent (communication) and the viewer’s act of reading the image (reception, interpretation)” (in Church Gibson 73).

Through the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, visual media that "appears to be" depicting children obscenely became actionable (such as representing adults as children or through computer-generated "non- real" imagery). The 2002 Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition successfully challenged the "appears to be" and maintained the earlier decision that child pornography is defined by its status as a document that records a crime. The majority thus ruled against defining virtual images as child pornography and additionally decided that “presenting adults as children” was not criminal.

As Kleinhans argues, contemporary debates about sexuality are more concerned with the image than with written or spoken. The proliferation of explicitly worded text is the basis of Maria St. John’s argument in the Williams anthology about how Kenneth Starr’s report on President Clinton’s impeachment resulted in the widespread circulation of detailed description that functioned as pornography. Despite the categorization of the events as newsworthy politics, the particulars of sexual acts and fluids produced not only investigative reportage but also extensive pornographic text in mainstream media. St. John provides an analysis of the Starr report along with Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s testimony by comparing their assertions to the conventions of different genres of pornography.

The two pornography anthologies released in 2004 substantially update and expand the body of literature on explicit sexuality, further grounding the study of pornography within the academy. The Williams’ anthology contains works by several key scholars — Rich Cante, Constance Penley, Angelo Restivo, Eric Schaefer, Tom Waugh and Williams. It spans a range of historical topics from World War II pinups and stag films to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the Pamela Anderson sex video. It addresses a variety of media, such as Japanese comics, reportage, home movies and the Internet in addition to print, 16mm film, and video. And it includes a plentiful mix of essays taking on queer and straight, mainstream and avant-garde, multi-racial and dominant whiteness, further diversifying academic pornography studies. Additionally the book contains a substantial annotated bibliography, useful for research and planning course syllabi.

The articles in the Church Gibson anthology on the whole take on more abstract questions than the Williams’ collection, discussing such topics as the rhetoric of anti-porn feminism, Internet terminology, self-reflexivity, transnationalism, taste cultures, and the state of porn studies. So too, the authors discuss pressing socio-political issues such as the legal status of child pornography, college teaching of explicit material, anti-Arab orientalism, and depictions of violence. Together the two books represent current work by most of the foundational scholars of pornography, More Dirty Looks adding Richard Dyer, Jane Gaines, Jane Juffer, Chris Straayer, Laura Kipnis and Chuck Kleinhans to the list.

Porn Studies demonstrates, as Williams notes in the introduction, that the area of scholarship no longer needs to situate itself within the initial oppositional feminist framework of anti-censorship vs. anti-pornography. Instead there is a vast range of sexually explicit material that needs further understanding through academic study that continues to veer from the originating polarized arguments. Highlighting these tensions and challenging norms, Porn Studies represents graphic sexuality, necessarily through the topic of pornography which it addresses, but additionally in the authors’ graphic written descriptions and through the inclusion of explicit photographic material, intentionally pushing at boundaries that traditionally divide proper intellectual topics of study and illicit sexual depictions.

Despite the social, legal and academic discourses that demonstrate various shifts in how norms of sex and its depiction are being reconceived and reconstructed, powerful cultural forces remain invested in defining and controlling conceptions of normative sexual practice and representation. The idea that “normal” libidinal desires, practices and representation do exist and should exist helps to keep alive the fierce debates. In the academy, irregardless of the academic literature that takes serious the task of understanding sexually explicit media, educational instruction about pornography remains highly contested by university administrations and larger social structures that scrutinize the workings of the academy – one more aspect of erecting boundaries of propriety. More Dirty Looks and Porn Studies begin with insightful reflections on teaching pornography to college undergraduates, by Henry Jenkins and Linda Williams respectively, providing solid rationales, discussing obstacles that the authors have encountered and suggesting strategies for navigating the likely landmines.


Church Gibson, Pamela, ed. More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power. London: British Film Institute. 2004.

Kipnis, Laura. Against Love: A Polemic. New York: Pantheon. 2003.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Boston: Harvard UP. 2000.

Williams, Linda, ed. Porn Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP. 2004

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