What Soft-core Can Do for Porn Studies
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What Soft-core Can Do for Porn Studies

I have an unfortunate habit of developing rationales for my projects only after completing them. True to form, after finishing Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Context, I noticed I had not highlighted the value of the book's soft-core focus to the forever "emerging" field of pornography studies. What follows proposes to fix this defect by articulating the benefits of "soft-core studies" to porn studies as a whole. My approach presupposes, then, that porn studies has significant handicaps. Like film historian Eric Schaefer, I consider the field both "an accepted, and legitimate, area of scholarly inquiry" ("Dirty" 89) within film and media studies and a deeply problematic area whose challenges must be faced.

It doubtless comes as little shock that a scholar who has recently completed a culturally oriented genre survey believes the biggest problem facing his field is a dearth of similar studies. What may be less intuitive is my prognosis that a new focus on soft-core, which in porn studies is understudied, undertheorized, and routinely belittled, might prove beneficial to the field by encouraging other scholars to undertake ambitious projects. Ultimately, soft-core studies has this potential because genres like the contemporary soft-core feature are inexplicit forms situated in cultural and industrial "middles."1 Next to hard-core, soft-core is unthreatening, which makes its texts mainstream and accessible in that they are fairly easy to purchase, to consume, and to teach. Further, because it is difficult to discuss soft-core without also analyzing its shifting relations to more and less explicit sectors, a focus on soft-core yields the kind of nuance most likely to demystify porn both in classrooms and in academic publications.

Before evaluating this prognosis one must grasp what porn studies is and how it fits into an academic marketplace that encourages and restricts sexualized material; one must also grasp how this multidisciplinary field fits into a sexploitation culture characterized by a similar bivalence. Thus the article that follows offers a précis of the literature that situates porn studies within the academy and the larger culture. It also provides in its first section an assessment of the field's equivocal relation to antiporn feminism and, in its second, a brief history of soft-core cinema. These and other overviews are unified by the idea that porn studies has been encouraged by the institutional logics of academic publishing even as it has been restricted by the related logics of academic pedagogy. By framing porn studies this way one may diagnose the field's deficiencies and clarify the benefits of a turn toward soft-core.

Incentives, Disincentives, and Distribution

I imagine most porn scholars have an anecdote to support their suspicion that the outcry that has greeted their field is a function of ignorance. My own anecdote concerns a screening of Deep Throat (1972) that took place at the University of Chicago in April 2004. This screening was notable for the packed house that applauded the lamest aspects of director Gerard Damiano's comedy while squirming before the unfamiliar vision of fellatio on a forty-five-foot screen. But because it was in many ways more predictable than the film, the talk that followed in a separate room before a separate audience left the deeper impression on me.

The panel in charge of this talk introduced an open mike—but not before making references to feminist politics and to Linda Lovelace's travails in particular, references clearly designed to enliven the proceedings. Sure enough, this stimulus elicited condemnations of porn from the audience—comments that were biased in their [End Page 51] ideas of male sexuality and groundless in their failure to establish complicity between sexual violence and hard-core texts. Seemingly taken aback by the success of their "prompt," the panelists displayed a careful reserve, nodding their heads throughout the antiporn outpouring that followed. Their tacit sympathy in effect silenced alternative opinions. Indeed, when I offered that it was the details of production and distribution, not some ahistorical essence "in" hard-core texts or "in" heterosexual men, that were to blame for abuses linked...