The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Laura Helen Marks, Porn Studies in Academia

Laura Helen Marks is a professor of practice in English at Tulane University. Her work in analyzing pornography has appeared in Salon, Feminist Media Histories, and The Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. She has also served as an expert for BBC and Vice. Her book, Alice in Pornoland: Hardcore Encounters With the Victorian Gothic, explores pornographic film adaptations of the Victorian gothic.

You can listen to the full conversation on Spotify

Could you explain what porn studies is and what it means to study pornography?

Porn studies as a field is generally traced back to the late eighties when Linda Williams published her book, Hard Core. Her thesis called for us to treat pornography like another media form. Basically, approaching pornography as a genre of media or a genre of film or whatever the case may be instead of treating porn as a social problem. Prior to Hard Core, porn was a thing we needed to treat not as a media product—not as a thing that we watch, but as a thing that impacts people.

When I first started working on my dissertation, it was not as established a field as it is now. Some stuff had been written, but I remember I felt so lonely working on that dissertation. I remember working on a paper about interracial porn and there was not a single thing I could find on the topic. I had to look into cinematic studies about race in other genres and then apply it to pornography.

I did not have very much support from the diploma department, and I also had not chosen to go to LSU to study porn. There was no one there that was even remotely connected in the field. I had to go to people in gender studies, and some of those people were not cool with what I was working on. By the time I finished my PhD, there was such a radical change in terms of how many people were working in porn studies, and how much more it was accepted or considered ‘real’ by other academics.

The films that you analyzed in your book, Alice in Pornoland, seem very different from what is on the homepage of PornHub. They have higher production values, values of artistry and costuming, and more sophisticated plots. Has the type of pornography that is mass consumed today become increasingly superficial and, as you wrote in your book, “just fucking?”

Porn, as a whole, is never ‘just fucking’. Even something that appears to be ‘just fucking’, it’s still fucking with the camera placed just so, your bodies placed just so, and it’s choreographed! Even if you wanna make it seem completely authentic, that also is a choice.

There’s absolutely truth to movies from what they call a ‘golden age’. In the seventies through to the mid-eighties, porn movies had way more developed plots. Even if it’s literally no dialogue, just sex scene after sex scene, there is some attempt at creating context.

Lots of mainstream movie makers would make porn under a different name either directing or cinematography, but with the shift to video and then to the internet, you get lower budgets and more and more products with easier and easier access. If people want a higher-quality product for free, that’s not gonna happen. Now, it almost seems weird to pay for porn, which I find really depressing.

I also think it is connected to the way we’re taught to think about porn. We are taught to believe that porn is trash, like it’s garbage and we’re using it for a shameful reason. If you say that you take it seriously, it makes you a simp or it’s embarrassing. That has, in my opinion, a profound impact on the shape of the product.

Could you elaborate more on the difference between pornography produced in the seventies and eighties and pornography that is produced today?

The difference is definitely dramatic, but I think people are probably overly nostalgic about the quality of the films from the seventies and eighties. People forget that there were hundreds of way lower-budget releases that were playing in the cinemas. Basically, we remember the good stuff, just like Hollywood. However, today I think it is way more challenging to make a product like that. You’re not shooting on film, so if you’re making a digital film and you’re trying to make it look rich and lush like a cinematic product. You have to be skilled, but you also have to know how to edit. You have to know how to do sound design, things like that.

However, there’s also something to be said for the authenticity or the weirdness of some of the new movies. Porn is diverse in that way. There is something really cool about people who exclusively film themselves going to weird public places and having sex in those public places, like outside the Eiffel Tower. There’s like one particular performer that does it all on their iPhone, but it’s performed well and it’s their niche and it’s really popular and they do a really cool job.

What is porn literacy and why is it important?

Porn gets blamed for a lot of things, but the real problem is we’re not taught how to interpret and understand things in a pornographic text. We are erotically illiterate and parents don’t wanna talk to their kids about it.

When you try to introduce porn literacy in high school, which some schools have done, the reaction of conservative and feminist factions cry, “Oh, you are trying to indoctrinate our kids. You’re grooming our kids. You’re trying to force them to watch porn.” Trying to introduce a module about pornography in sex-ed is seen as crazy—as if kids aren’t watching it anyway.

Porn gets blamed for all manner of things, but the difference with porn is you don’t have the opportunity to talk to people about it. Pro-wrestling is the best analogy because it is kind of real, right? They are actually throwing people onto the ground, people have died in the ring, and often it’s hard to tell whether something is real or staged. The wrestlers have a plan of what they’re gonna do, then it’s improvised as they go along, and their real lives are part of their characters.

But, with wrestling, you get taught how to interpret the media. We recognize that these are fantasy constructions for entertainment, so any kind of negative impact on you is mitigated by the understanding of how that media form works.

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