Taking back sex: Why we need to talk about porn

May 22, 2013

To say that Fifty Shades of Grey has been a phenomenon is an understatement. Since debuting in 2011, the series has sold more than 70 million copies—the fastest-selling trilogy in history. During that time, its success has led to a spike in the sale of sex gear, the rate of extramarital bondage, a projected baby boom and much hand-wringing over kinky intercourse entering the mainstream. Although everyone has written about the rise of “mommy porn,” few have written about the role erotica plays in readers’ lives—or the utility of sexual discourse.

We’re talking about 50 Shades of Grey, but that doesn’t mean we’re having a discussion. For those trying to educate themselves on pornography—whether that’s for themselves, their wives or their children, who may be porn users as early as 6 —there are limited resources beyond puritanical hysteria. The dialogue on porn is unsurprisingly abstinence-only oriented — focused on limiting porn use or “how to fight your porn addiction,” rather than engaging with the medium at hand.

For a series like 50 Shades, that's an important distinction, as the book has been widely criticized by the BDSM community for its portrayals of S&M relationships. BDSM advocates fear popular literature like this is giving people the wrong information. Thus, if there's a time to talk about sex, it's now.

A new movement of academics is attempting to do just that, challenging our cultural phobia of sex the best way they know how: education. Set to launch next spring, a journal called “Porn Studies” plans to focus on how porn “impacts our lives” and promote healthy practices and relationships for those who use it.

According to Routledge, the publisher of Porn Studies, the journal will “be the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts.”

However, the study of pornography as an academic discipline is hardly new. As The Atlantic’s Hugo Schwyzer points out, “scholars [like UC Santa Barbara’s Constance Penley] have been writing and teaching about porn for more than two decades.”

Until 2011, Northwestern offered a Human Sexuality course that got yanked after its very controversial professor held a sex toy demo front of the class. Loyola University, DePaul, Columbia and University of Chicago all offer courses on the Sociology, Psychology or Science of Sexuality, but the use of porn as a pedagogical tool is still taboo. As we see from the Northwestern example, we don’t mind when you talk about sex, but actually showing it is a different matter.

Hugo Schwyzer experienced that pushback first-hand. Earlier this year, Schwyzer brought James Deen, the well-known porn star, in to his Navigating Pornography class, which he teaches at Pasadena City College. Deen talked about the misconceptions young people often get about sex from watching porn, which could mark their first impressions on sex.

Deen told the students, "It's as if instead of offering driver's ed, we taught you how to operate a car by showing you a James Bond movie."

Hugo Schwyzer agreed. "In this country, pornography is held responsible for sex education, and that's unfair,” Schwyzer argued. “Similarly, porn should not be held up as being responsible for teaching people about how to behave during sex."

Schwyzer wants to use Deen as a way to “[give] students [the] tools to understand pornography as a historical and contemporary phenomenon.” Schwyzer told reporters, “Students today live in a porn-saturated culture and very rarely get a chance to learn about it in a safe, non-judgmental, intellectually thoughtful way.”

The professor hopes Navigating Pornography will help his students “combat sexual shame,” where studies have shown that sexual repression leads to higher rates of porn use and riskier sexual behaviors. This is especially true for queer people, who might not have outlets in their families and communities for any expression of their desires. Studies show that conservative Utah -- dominated by the historically homophobic Mormon church -- watches more porn than any other state in America.

Queer or otherwise, a majority of Hugo Schwyzer’s students grow up in households where abstinence is taught, but the expression of sexuality is not talked about.

“Many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful," Schwyzer explains. "Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the ‘wrong kind,’ while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.”

It’s this notion of ethics that seems to be the sticking point. In the days leading up to the events, administrators prepared for protests as media swarmed the campus. The school received complaint calls from concerned citizens, but the school smartly refused to allow the public into the lecture. Reports indicate that the class was packed and the students "enthusiastic," ready to learn. If only all of us were so open.

This isn’t the first time the public lost its mind over porn stars using their platform for education. In 2011, retired porn icon Sasha Grey read to a classroom of Compton, CA first-graders for the “Read Across America” program. Instead of thanking her for promoting literacy, parents threw a fit and the school quickly denied that she ever visited. Even though Grey is a noted activist for PETA and Occupy Wall Street and a genuinely fascinating and intelligent person, they could only see her for what she does in front of the camera.

A recent documentary called Aroused talked to porn stars about these experiences of dehumanization. They are often asked what “led them” into doing porn, as if they had no choice or no person would ever want to do what they do. One interviewee, Misty Stone, was surprised the filmmakers would even want her opinion. “No one usually cares what we have to say,” Stone said.

However, it’s not just folks like Misty Stone and Sasha Grey who experience our shame around sex. It’s users of porn themselves.

In an article for CNN, Violet Blue argues, “When everyone tells you that what you might be curious about, or even secretly like, is wrong, bad, sleazy, and shameful, you don't have to cast a line very far to land a set of inhibitions.”

This leaves us feeling disempowered about our bodies and sexualities, meaning that our pleasure is secretive, remaining underground. Why do you think Fifty Shades of Grey took off in its e-book editions? It’s because no one could see you reading it.

Blue states that this reality can be particularly difficult for women, who are usually left out of the discourse on porn to begin with, as the films are considered a medium for male desires.

“Many a smart, strong, sexually self-reliant girl has popped in a porn DVD and ejected it just as quickly because she saw something that offended her or made her uncomfortable,” Blue writes. “I've heard from many women that they don't like the sense of being ‘out of control’ they get from watching porn -- that disconnect between how their body is feeling and what their brain is telling them is acceptable.

When we don’t quickly change the channel, though, we can learn a lot about sex and begin to challenge the norms of pornography, the way it operates as a tool that humiliates and debases women.

There’s a movement of women -- like Nina Hartley, Annie Sprinkle and Tristan Taormino -- in the industry who are trying to make pleasure egalitarian and show human sexuality shouldn’t be dictated by the male gaze.

Sprinkle once famously claimed, "The answer to bad porn isn't no porn. It's to try and make better porn."

Looking at porn through this feminist lens, Schwyzer likewise hopes his class will “help my students to see the ways in which porn can construct and reinforce misogyny,” while helping them seek out more inclusive, woman-positive sex resources. Instead of banning porn, he argues we need to help make young people better users of it.

However, these folks shouldn’t be alone in pushing the boundaries of how we talk about sexuality. Whether or not you agree porn can be feminized, one thing is clear: We all need to take back sex.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.