To this day, open spaces to talk about pornography are few and far between. For many people, the topic is still a reason to be ashamed or is even viewed as a taboo. Pornography is often criticized in the media and science, yet the industry generates sales in the billions. The need to understand this ambivalence is important and a good reason for why research on pornography and taboos is carried out in so-called porn studies.
From Moby’s dick – the chance encounter with gay porn as a fortune
Isn’t it funny how life sometimes goes: Actually, Madita Oeming wanted to do research on the reception of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick in the art industry. But with the search term “Moby Dick”, she repeatedly came across pornographic content. Dildos in the shape of a whale’s penis, and some gay porn starring sailor Ishmael are just two examples of content that she was literally flooded with. Oeming was intrigued, wondering why porn producers bothered to spin a story around this literary classic. After all, pornography is all about depicting sex – so what is this about? Without further ado, she changed the title and subject of her thesis from Moby Dick to Moby’s Dick and began researching pornography. She did not put this topic to rest, and pursued it further in following years: Her master’s thesis was followed by a doctorate on the myth surrounding porn addiction. Today she regularly gives lectures and seminars at universities on the subject of pornography, taboos and society. As a researcher, Oeming is thus following in the great footsteps of Dr. Linda Williams , who as a pioneer of porn studies in the late 1980s brought porn onto the academic platform for the very first time.
Porn studies are finding their way into the university seminar
But how exactly can you imagine a porn seminar at the university going down? Oeming explains that contrary to what many people think, they don’t just turn off the light and watch an erotic video for 90 minutes. Rather, it works in such a way that Oeming assigns viewing orders for selected sequences, i.e. with the advice given to pay special attention to certain aspects of the film. In this way, for example, you can investigate and get to understand how porn for women breaks with the image of conventional pornography.
The fundamental question regarding porn studies: what is porn anyways?
First and foremost, there lies in porn studies the question of what porn actually is. In everyday life, pornography is understood as an explicit depiction of sex in front of a camera. But doesn’t that mean that the nude pictures sent or the private sex films also fall under the category of porn production? For Oeming the answer is: rather no. In order to make the term pornography worthwhile, public space and a certain commercialization of production must exist. But then it doesn’t even need sex and nudity: In the case of videos of BDSM practices for example, where a man wrapped in plastic film is strangled, from the perspective of porn studies it is qualified as pornography – since the video serves sexual satisfaction and is made available to the public.
Formerly filthy, and today becoming a part of world literature – the change from porn and taboos
A look at history also shows how subjectively the boundaries with the term pornography are. The following erotic excerpt is from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
“The beautiful woman threw off her sable-trimmed cloak, revealing her regal shoulders and bulging body. An imperceptible smile played on her perfect lips as she turned to him calmly. Mr. Bloom read again: The beautiful woman. Warmth gently showered him, his flesh disheartening. Meat gave itself in the midst of rumpled clothes. Whites of eyes passed out. Its nostrils bulged for prey. Melting breast ointments (for him! For Raoul!). Double sweat from armpits. Fish-gluey slime (her swelling, arched body!). Feel! Press! Crushed! Sulfurization of lions! “
After its appearance in 1922, Joyce’s work was disparagingly labeled as pornography, treated as taboo – punished and even banned. Today it is impossible to imagine schools or private libraries without its presence. No wonder “Ulysses” is now regarded as high literature and is referred to as the most important work from the Irish writer and is studied at universities.
The question of which content is labeled as pornography and treated as taboo therefore says a lot about the respective culture and the zeitgeist.
Taboos can be erotic
Porn can mean breaking taboos. This is because porn films can show exactly what the mainstream would classify as provocative. Conversely, it can be said that a society’s taboos are very clearly visible on the basis of the pornography consumed by that same society.
For example, according to Oeming, incest fantasies are a big topic in the western world. Clips with titles like “My hot Stepmom”, “Sis loves me” or “Forbidden Family Affairs” are extremely popular. Of course, the actors only slip into the role of relatives, the clips are not about the documentation of real incestuous encounters. But eroticism between relatives seems to fire many people’s imaginations and spark their interest. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to have sex with their relatives. Rather, there seems to be a special attraction to see something in porn that is forbidden in reality. After all, incest is one of the last great taboos in our society. It is questionable whether these images were so attractive in ancient Egypt, for the simple reason that incest was not a taboo at the time.
A culture’s history shapes its taboos
Another example is porn consumption in the US: a big trend in search queries on porn websites is the term interracial porn, which then leads to results like “White housewife gets kidnapped by five black guys”. A lot of racist clichés are present here. According to Oeming, the fascination for such porn in the US may still be due to the aftermath of slavery and segregation and the associated taboo of sex between black and white people.
Porn Studies between Education and Hollywood
Oeming comes to the conclusion that something in us seems to long for what is forbidden. Porn is this rule-free space that invites you to live out these fantasies with prevailing taboos. What’s important to her: porn is to be understood as fiction, as a place where fantasies and not realistic sex are depicted. She draws a comparison to Hollywood films: people watch a blockbuster to participate in a world in which they do not live themselves. In the same way, the sex viewed in porn may be the sorts of which you cannot and may not want to have in real life.
Oeming demands that the social discussion should move away from demanding an educational or educational mandate for pornography. It is not the job of pornography to play topics such as “This is how sex works and how you should behave appropriately” for young people. Nonetheless, Oeming recognizes that it can be difficult for young developing people to be able tell the difference. Especially when porn clips are designed for authenticity and pride themselves on showing it, it can lead to unrealistic ideas about sexuality for young people. For this reason Oeming calls for a more open and enlightened dialogue on pornography and taboos.
With all reservations and taboos: What good can pornography do?
In the social discourse on pornography, one question is often neglected: What good can pornography actually do? On the one hand, it is simply an expansion of the pleasure repertoire: whether alone or with somebody else, enjoying good pornography can actually make sex more fulfilling.
Gay porn is often a step towards self-discovery for homosexuals
Pornography can also be helpful for sexual minorities: homosexual adolescents have been shown to consume more pornography. This also supports self-discovery: the consumption of homoerotic films can be understood as a kind of virtual test.
The representation of the female libido and body positivity in porn
And the consumption is also revealing for heterosexual people: Here viewers can see strong female pleasure. Where, if not in porn, do you see women who confidently and freely say: “I want to have sex now”. This look at female sexuality and libido can be very important to the understanding and development of young women. Especially since there is a much greater variety of bodies to be seen in porn compared to the mainstream media, which is great in terms of body acceptance and body positivity.
So why not include a more liberal approach to pornography as part of the sexual revolution? Finally, a relaxed approach to pornography can result in sexuality being dealt with more freely and more openly.
The image of pornography in society is and remains ambivalent – it will probably never be completely resolved. With her research, Madita Oeming takes a refreshing look at the controversial topic of pornography, which has preoccupied people for centuries.