An interview with Professor of Sexual Cultures Clarissa Smith.
We are often told that dating apps, social networks and the accessibility of online pornography impact our expectations for romantic relationships and sexual behaviour. Sexually explicit media seems to be everywhere and at the same time, paradoxically, remains under-researched and overlooked. What do we really know about the influence of new technologies on the way we think about sex? Should sexually explicit images be censored online? Strelka Magazine discusses censorship, moralization and Tinder with Porn Studies academic journal co-editor and Professor of Sexual Cultures at Sunderland University Clarissa Smith.
Your subject of research is sexually explicit media. What does that term mean to you?
When we think about sexually explicit material or media, we too often assume it has no other purpose than to talk about sex, but that’s quite a moralistic point of view. There are different forms of sexually explicit media: there’s material that might be erotic, but it might also be about sexual health.
Or it could be art?
Or pornography. One of the reasons why I’m using a term like “sexually explicit media” is so that you don’t get into divisions of whether this is good or bad material. Sexually explicit media is any form of media that has discussion, presentation, or representation of sexual matters.
Do you think there’s a line between pornography and art?
I don’t make divisions on the basis of morality. One of the ways in which porn gets divided from erotica is the idea that there’s no intimacy in porn, so it’s purely for sexual arousal. All of those divisions are elastic, time-based, culturally-specific and sometimes entirely opportunistic. We often label something as pornographic so it can be dismissed, disregarded, rated beyond the pale, made illegal or subject to various kinds of restrictions. Labeling sexually explicit media as pornography is a strategic move. There isn’t an image that you can look at objectively and say, “that is porn, and that one is erotica, or that one is art”, because those boundaries are fluid. Artists have used pornographic imagery or pornographic activities to say something quite significant about identities or the culture we live in.
Because these lines are blurred, it’s hard to control, censor or even come up with rules in terms of how pornography and sexually explicit images could be regulated. Do you think there should be some guidelines?
I don’t. Porn is in the eye of the beholder, and one of the problems is that often the desire to legislate is not about the images themselves, but about wanting to limit other people’s sexual activity. In a lot of countries the material that is censored is gay, lesbian or feminist, while heterosexual male-oriented pornography is free to circulate. There’s something very heteronormative and punitive about censorship.
Regulation doesn’t just stop things; it produces ways of overcoming rules, right? And these ways may be even less acceptable than what you were trying to stop in the first place. I think there could be guidelines on how materials are produced, legislation around protecting workers’ rights, maintaining workers’ safety, their rights to say yes or no, rather than enforcing censorship for a particular kind of content.
I’m very suspicious of the motives for censorship and for regulation. I’m not convinced by the arguments that pornography affects people in ways damaging to the human psyche – that evidence has not being delivered, even though there’s been years and years of research attempting to prove exactly that, but those links have not been found.
What do you think is the actual motive?
Despite moves towards acceptance of differing sexualities in the UK, there is still an underlying idea of what constitutes “good sex,” which is based on very heteronormative, married, straight kinds of sexual activity. Added to this are the attempts to regulate pornography, which are really about wider issues that concern the Internet. Censoring or putting controls on porn is a popular political move because a lot of people would support that. But the outcome is that the Internet is no longer free to access for everyone and other forms of information are being blocked as well.
You’ve participated as an expert in court cases about obscene images.
Yeah, those cases were brought under UK legislation which outlaws the possession of “extreme” porn. And in order to convict, the prosecution has to show that the images are extreme, that they have no purpose other than sexual, that they are realistic and that they include damage and injury to body parts. I went into Court to aid the judge and the jury in reaching a decision about whether the images were realistic. One case was about a set of 80 photographs telling a story, but when it came to court, only one photograph out of 80 was selected as pornographic, extreme and realistic. It was an image of a knife being pushed into a breast.
I argued that the image was taken out of context; the pictures were highly stylized but more importantly, they formed a narrative; the single image had no meaning without the others. They failed the test. And that’s my expert role: not to tell them what the law is but to explain why there’s a defense for those images and why context matters.
You’ve conducted a large scale study of young audiences engaging with sexual media. What did your studies show?
One of the key things that we found is that young people have fantastic self-reflection. They are very aware of the ways in which they are talked about in the media, by politicians, educators, parent groups, concerned activists. They are recognizing how porn might have a place in their lives and sometimes they are worrying about it. A lot of people talk about the ways in which sex education doesn’t meet their needs. Young people have a desire to know more about sex and porn is sometimes the only place they can get this knowledge.
If we believe that porn is a bad educator, I think it’s beholden on us to make the efforts to produce good sex education because the cat is out of the bag. Sex is a part of everyday life. I agree: porn isn’t a great educator, but that’s because it doesn’t set out to educate. We need comprehensive education that helps kids to deal with their sexuality, the feelings that arise from that, the emotional fallout from engaging in relationships of all kinds. And it’s not rocket science.
Do you think that having almost free access to pornography changed the behavior of younger people, let’s say, in the past ten years?
It would be difficult to make a proper argument; it’s something we need longitudinal studies for. Some people talk about young people engaging in anal sex more, or shaving pubic hair more, because of porn. It’s not a new argument: some people blamed the ‘60s sexual revolution for oral sex. Anal sex didn’t arrive with pornography, but certainly pornography may well have made the possibility that one can engage in anal sex more likely.
In all other aspects of our lives, we talk about the benefits of expanding our horizons; of thinking differently; of trying different tastes, sensations; of doing things in different ways. But when it comes to sex, the menu is expected to be pretty small. Porn offers a cornucopia of possibilities and many people see that as a bad thing and likely to promote bad behaviours. But perhaps it’s not so much the fact that people try new things that is worrying, maybe it's the fact that some people don’t deal with their partners in ethical ways. That’s not great, but it’s not porn’s fault. That’s about relationships, consent, young people having the tools that enable them to say no or being able to stand up for themselves. It’s about talking to young men about their behaviors and how they respect negotiations in intimate life. That’s part of the culture we still live in where women’s needs are understood as secondary to the men in their lives, which leads to bad practices, lack of ethics in relationships. And that’s not porn’s fault.
A lot of the stereotypes we are talking about continue to live on. Is it the same in academia? Are subjectsrelated to sex taken less seriously ?
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and that remains the case. There are scholars who take the subject seriously, but outside of those groups, it can be quite shocking to discover that while pornography is talked about as a problem, it is absolutely dismissed as a topic for research. “Well, that’s just pornography,” therefore we don’t talk about it, we don’t need to address it, we don’t need to understand it, we just dismiss; it’s just sexual exploitation or softcore porn, there’s nothing that needs to be understood.
But that has also changed significantly: there are lots of PhD’s being done around sexual forms, sex work, pornography, young people’s experiences of understanding their sexual identity, transbodies, orientations, romance and sex and their representations in the media. That particular genie can’t be put back in the bottle; there are spaces in which discussion is moving forward and it’s really exciting.
Is the dismissive attitude towards sex a challenge for your career?
I’ve been very lucky with the university that I work in: I’ve got some very supportive colleagues, and the institution itself has made a decision to support my research. Other colleagues have not been so lucky. In different universities it’s been made very clear to them that this is probably the aspect of research they should move away from if they want a career or a promotion. We talk about academic freedom a lot, but there are different ways in which people can find their freedoms curtailed.
In your studies, have you discovered some trends or general directions in the ways in which our understanding of gender and sexuality have changed?
The idea that there was just male and female heterosexuality – that’s over. Sex is important to people. We’re not living in an era of heterosexual romantic love; in fact, people are experiencing the ways in which their sexuality changes over time. Multiple partners and serial monogamy are becoming the norm; there is less expectation of one staying in the same relationship for life. People understand that this is not likely to be their experience.
There’s a lot of discussion of cause and effect. Do dating apps offer new kinds of relationships to young people? Or are we looking for different kinds of relationships, and dating apps are catering to our needs?
Technology is a key means by which young people interact generally. Snapchat and other apps are just means of talking to their friends, playing games, communicating, making arrangements to go out, and of course they are used for sexual purposes as well. The idea that dating apps will corrupt young people is one of the fears that we have about technology in general: the telephone was going to corrupt young people, cinema was going to corrupt young people, even bicycles were going to corrupt young people when they first came on the scene.
Is it just the fear of the unknown that makes people skeptical?
Those fears can feel very real and they come from a good place, which is wanting to keep young people safe, but sometimes those desires for protection can end up in punishment of the very people they are supposed to protect. There are some people who experience problems as a result of using dating apps, but equally there are lots of people who are engaging in communication through mobile media without any difficulty whatsoever. The world is changing and our understandings will have to accommodate that.
Do you prefer to keep moralization out of it?
Well, what’s the point of being moral about it? It doesn’t alter the fact that people want to talk to each other, right? Of course, there’s the problem that you don’t really know who you are talking to online. There probably are difficulties around the intimacy of the screen. You move very quickly into what seems to be very intense friendship, communication, but that also happens when you meet people face to face and you feel like you have a real connection. What do you know about people when you meet them face to face? You don’t know anything. You haven’t got their family history, you haven’t got their CV.
The world is speeding up, our connections are speeding up. There’s been a collapse of time and space. I can be in the UK and talk to you in Russia via Skype; I can do this face to face and that makes a significant difference in how relationships move much faster than they used to. You know, before Tinder people used letters to do precisely that kind of hooking up.
So, Tinder isn’t the second sexual revolution?
That remains to be seen!
Text: Alya Datiy