Sex, power and control of communication: What porn studies can teach us

17 Aug 2018

Image: Caroline West

DCU sexuality studies PhD student Caroline West unpacks why the voices of porn performers are so often absent from research about their work.

Why aren’t we having more sex research? For most of us, sex is our origin story, and countless people around the world have sex in any given minute. Why is something so common yet so complex so poorly researched?

“Sexuality is so multifaceted. There’s how many people in the world now, 8bn? So there’s 8bn possible different meanings to sex acts,” said Caroline West, an MA in sexuality studies student currently completing a PhD in the same at Dublin City University (DCU).

“For every PhD workshop I go to, there’s always people who are interested in what I do and corner me on the break and ask me everything,” said West. “It’s definitely a novelty but once people get past the salaciousness that they think porn studies is about, they engage with it.”

‘There’s very little neutral sexuality studies. That’s one of the major issues: that ideology is being substituted for methodology quite a lot of the time’

How did West end up studying sex? It started out with a fondness for Eurotrash, the TV show best known for countering the “doom and gloom” narrative of sex that still hung over Irish people in the ’90s. “[Eurotrash] is just fun and silly and nonsense, and sex isn’t that big a deal. But over here in Ireland, it’s the worst thing you can ever do. And, of course, we still had [Magdalene] laundries at that time,” West recalled.

“So, I did a higher diploma in psychoanalysis, which is all about sex,” she laughed. “That was really interesting because it was Freud telling female psychoanalysts they were wrong about female sexuality and that he was right.”

The issue of who controlled sexuality discourse stuck with West as she went on to her master’s, as it was then she noticed how Freud’s attitude mirrored modern-day research into the porn industry. “It was like all we were hearing were the voices of non-porn performers telling us what it was really like to be a porn performer.”

West wondered why this trend of asserting knowledge without experience was so common in sexuality studies, and how it was shaping discussion in the discipline. “It’s that question of power over who gets to define these things and who gets to challenge them as well.”

Who’s driving the discourse?

The discipline of sexuality studies itself, West explained, is only about 40 years old. This means there’s not yet a cohesive body of research to build on. What little research there is has been conducted in different countries from different perspectives using different materials and language, and targeting different demographics.

“You could find 10 studies that say porn is horrendous and then you’ll find 10 studies that say porn is brilliant, and they’ll all contradict each other,” said West.

Research in general struggles to include multiple perspectives, particularly those from minority groups in STEM, and sexuality studies has the same issue. “Most studies don’t even touch the issue of trans performers, or black or queer performers,” said West. “Generally, all the voices that you hear are white feminists who are middle-class.”

Having one dominant viewpoint framing research that tackles subjective questions is problematic. For example, in porn, what is defined as degrading at the outset of a study might not be seen as such by many of the act’s participants. In many studies, BDSM is defined as violence and not consensual violence, thus losing the nuance factored in by those who practise it.

“There’s very little neutral stuff. That’s one of the major issues: that ideology is being substituted for methodology quite a lot of the time,” West explained.

‘I’m from a council estate in Ballybrack and I’m here in Vegas at the porn awards. It was very surreal!’

West saw little research being done on the experiences of porn performers themselves, so that’s where she aimed her focus. She wanted to talk to them about their working conditions and also to explore the ethics of why and how we should study porn performers in the first place.

Adventures in adult entertainment

Under the advice that she should “go to where the industry is”, she took a research trip to the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo and Awards in Las Vegas, a major event in the calendar for the business that attracts attendees in the tens of thousands. “I’m from a council estate in Ballybrack and I’m here in Vegas at the porn awards. It was very surreal!” West recalled.

She managed to find time with porn performers during one of the busiest working events of the industry, conducting nine semi-structured interviews on their familiar turf. “There’s a bit more equality in the research process when your interviewees are in comfortable territory,” West explained.

She learned that women working in porn come from a variety of backgrounds and their reasons for joining the industry are as diverse as their experiences. “Some came direct from other forms of sex work and some didn’t. They all had different levels of education; some didn’t have high school and some had PhDs. Some were brand new and some had years of experience. And they all had very different experiences. They reported negative experiences and they reported positive experiences.”

Stigma was a major discussion point and, for a research area so concerned with violence, West questioned why this form of social aggression is not tackled with the same rigour.

“They all experienced stigma from society which made it more difficult to find jobs, which affected relationships – like family or intimate relationships – and, generally, kept them in the industry for longer than they wanted to because it was harder to find [other] jobs,” she said. “So, when we’re talking about porn and violence, we really need to look at the violence of stigma and the stigma from the debate.”

Taking it to Monto

Once her peers get past the novelty of her research area, West said they start to see the purpose of it all. “It’s so useful for looking at communication, for gender theory, for feminism, for media, for technology, for power – for everything. It’s such a great vehicle for all that.”

She is encouraged by the scope of research coming out of her class. Other PhDs in this area are looking into the gay experience in Egypt, the sex worker movement in Lebanon, the impact of ’80s pop music on gay lives, and how HIV in Uganda compares to HIV in Ireland.

“With DCU and their approach, I’m really lucky that they get it and they allow for more nuanced approaches,” she said. “It’s very intersectional as well. It’s not just white Irish people … That’s what we need. We need for everything not to be so white straight male, because we’ve had enough of that. Diversity all the way!”

For her next research project, West plans to examine a situation a little closer to home. “There’s definitely a lot more work to be done, especially in Ireland,” she said. All going to plan, she’ll graduate next year and move on to a postdoc, and the forerunning topic right now is sex work in Monto, Dublin’s former red-light district.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic