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Pornographic representations have been around for thousands of years: They have been passed down in frescos, sculptures, and paintings from ancient Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance period, copper engravings with pornographic motifs were quite common, and from the 19th century onwards, photographs took their place. Today, in the age of the internet, porn movies are a billion-dollar business. At the same time, the topic is socially taboo: Hardly anyone speaks about it, and those who do mostly speak about its supposed harmful effects on the individual and society. Media scholar Lisa Andergassen at the University of Potsdam has been researching the topic for a number of years. She asks whether pornographic movies can be subversive and maybe even fair.
Lisa Andergassen, how do you as a media expert define pornographic movies?
In the 1980s, film scholar Linda Williams said: When it comes to pornographic movies, everybody seems to have an opinion, but nobody would admit to know much about them. Those who research pornography have to avoid moral assessments and adopt a detached stance to this type of movie. Viewed in this light, pornography is, above all, a movie genre. According to Williams, pornographic movies can also be described as “body genre”, which in her definition includes horror, comedy, and melodrama. Body genres address the human body and aim at physical-emotional reactions such as fright, laughing, and weeping or even sensations of desire and orgasm.
Why does the topic continue to spark off controversy?
The number of users is actually immense, but at the same time pornography is a fear-laden subject. Many people are concerned about the protection of minors. According to some media reports, teenagers use pornography to learn about sex: Inevitably, they will come across pornographic content online and be confronted with sexist and racist patterns, which urgently need to be challenged.
What do sexism and racism in pornography look like?
The movies are categorized and indexed with keywords based on stereotypes. “Asian women” or “Latinos” evoke racially stereotyped body images and gender roles. Since the turn of the millennium, however, countermovements have been on the rise. Marginalized groups contradict heteronormative stereotypes and want to see their own sexuality represented. For instance, since 2006, the Pornfilmfestival Berlin has been featuring female-feminist and queer perspectives. In Toronto, the Feminist Porn Award was created a couple of years ago and is awarded to films made under fair production conditions.
So what are the production conditions in mainstream pornography today?
Internet clips are often produced under precarious conditions. Some of the performers have just turned 18, they shoot several movies a day, and stay in the business for only a few months. The movies, though will remain on the internet forever. Also, all too often especially women are not in control of the situation at the set – which, unfortunately, is true for the movie industry in general. Yet, ironically, pornography is one of the few sectors where women are paid more than men.
Erica Lust from Sweden is seen as a feminist movie director. Pornography and feminism – do they go together at all?
In my opinion, pornography is not in itself sexist towards women; women also consume pornography. In the history of pornographic movies, the question has been discussed controversially. The 1970s are considered the golden age of porn. Feature films like “Deep Throat” attracted crowds, and even former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have watched it in a porn movie theater. It was chic. In the 1980s, a debate known as the porn wars unfolded in the US. There were two camps of activists: a conservative group for whom pornography was outright misogynistic and another group who was critical of censorship and argued for a reappraisal of the genre. The late 1980s saw the academization of the topic; porn studies came up and stressed the subversive potential of pornography. Since the turn of the millennium, the internet has changed pornographic movies. Access to pornography was much easier, since most clips are available online for free. The content has also changed: Clips are very short, there is no frame story, more are produced, and at lower costs. After all, the interactive nature of the web also allows amateurs to publish their own movies. This does not necessarily contribute to fair production conditions and raises the question of whether pornographic movies can be fair.
What is fair porn?
A great example is Erica Lust, who not only developed her own aesthetics but also advocates for fair pay. She prefers performers who aren’t super young and know what they are signing up for. And she requires consumers to change their attitude and pay for the content they are watching. This is not, however, the intention of the large internet porn providers.
Is the debate about pornography similar to that about violence-glorifying computer games?
Oh yes, absolutely. The social discourse on whether so-called first-person shooters make kids violent is comparable to the question of whether pornography gives kids the wrong values, poor role models, and false body images. Both formats are also discussed from the point of view of addictive behavior, just as there is more talk about internet addiction in general. There is no clear evidence for or against any such theses. We should nevertheless protect adolescents from harmful content and offer alternatives to the racist and sexist mainstream.
You published a book on pornography, taught seminars, and published newspaper articles. As a media scholar, why did you choose to focus on this topic?
Studying European media studies also took me to Italy, where I attended the MAGIS International Film Studies Spring School. Among other things, it dealt with pornographic movies. I was surprised to see how rich the topic was. On the one hand, pornography is unbelievably repressive – structurally sexist and racist. On the other, it can also be just the opposite: Some movies challenge heteronormative categories, thus raising almost utopian hopes of a better, enlightened world.
Lisa Andergassen studied European media studies at the University of Potsdam. Currently, she is working on her PhD on the relationship between photography and the digital.
Interview and text: Jana Scholz.
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online: Alina Grünky
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