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  • The Queer Heart of Porn Studies
  • John Paul Stadler (bio)

In a field retrospective, Linda Williams historicizes the development of porn studies under the tutelage of film and video studies. Williams notes that, in hindsight, porn studies might also have thrived under “history, anthropology, cultural studies, or the then-developing queer studies.”1 Following this supposition, I want to explore what queerness can teach us about the study of adult film.2 The familial resemblance between porn studies and queer studies suggests that their coemergence was perhaps not coincidental at all but resulted from sex-positive feminist and nonstraight scholars who, amid the culture wars (and the rise of neoliberalism), took that indeterminate site of power—sexuality—as their primary object of study. Both epistemological projects are deeply indebted to Foucauldian thought, poststructuralist methodologies, and unabashed interest in perversion. Both emerged in dissent to and reconfiguration of second-wave feminism, both share an objective to denaturalize sex and uncover its social constructions, and both agitate against the patriarchal processes of normalization.

To map their similarities, I turn to queer theory, which inaugurated the development of queer studies in the 1990s. Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex” laid the groundwork for queer theory by asking why feminism had not yet “critically thought” the sexual practices that [End Page 170] fell outside of “the charmed circle” or that imagined division between “good” and “bad” sex.3 In her diagram, pornography and homosexual sex acts both unsurprisingly exceeded the circle’s normalizing boundary. Rubin was responding in part to the infamous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality that had tumultuously brought together bristling factions of antipornography and anticensorship feminists. Porn studies, too, emerged out of that tumult, for early porn studies scholars had to defend themselves against the media-effects debates of antiporn feminists.4 But whereas Rubin wanted to “think sex,” Linda Williams in Hard Core sought to “speak sex,” a distinction that highlights the enunciatory imperative for sex to produce discourse. For Williams, pornography holds the vexed position of being “on/scene,” where “a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies, and pleasures that have heretofore been designated obscene and kept literally off-scene.”5 The tension of on/scenity positions pornography as an open secret, one that its scholars would need to negotiate carefully, often from the starting position of defensiveness. On/scenity also reveals the arbitrary line between the unacceptable and acceptable, signaling the importance of context. A medical diagram of the naked body in the doctor’s office isn’t pornography, but in a different space it could be. That slipperiness is something to which queer theory was no stranger.

In the essentialist versus constructivist debates surrounding homosexual origins, queer theory faced a debate with no positive outcome, a dilemma that resonates with the media-effects debates in porn studies—the ones that go something like, “Does pornography cause X?”6 Eve Sedgwick speculated that the political desire to locate an etiology for homosexuality, regardless of one’s position, distressingly revealed the desire for the eradication of homosexuality, and not the attempt to understand it better.7 Rather than engage ad nauseam with the question of adult cinema’s presumed causal effects—which similarly reveal the desire for eradication rather than understanding—porn studies chose a different set of questions to consider, starting with complications to visuality. Williams famously articulated the latter in the expansion of Jean-Louis Comolli’s concept of the “frenzy of the visible,” where tropes like the “money shot” [End Page 171] stand in as constructions of desire’s so-called truth.8 The political stakes for porn studies have, then, largely centered on obscenity and censorship. For queer theory, they have concerned contestations of heteronormativity, a validation of socially illegible subjects, and an aspiration for alternative social structures.9

Although there are resonances between porn studies and queer theory, the two do not always map onto each other neatly. When the term “queer” travels within porn studies, it often fails to denote queer theory’s inaugural desire to evade culturally legible sexual-identity categories. In her 1993 essay “Queer and Now,” Eve Sedgwick wrote that “same-sex sexual...


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pp. 170-175
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