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 As governments and tech companies and social consensus seems to be turning against pornography, what’s it like to be an academic working in porn right now? We asked Caroline West

Currently in the UK and US we’re seeing a worrying shift towards more conservative values when it comes to legislating and regulating adult content online. If my Google alerts serve me correctly, every week there seems to be a new debate and moral panic about whether pornography is damaging to society. The SESTA/FOSTA bills in the United States have meant that more and more sites and social media platforms are cracking down on adult content. On top of that we see anti-porn activists given columns in major national newspapers.

But fortunately there are some bright spots. More and more people are opting to go into the field of Sexuality Studies. Some are even researching the modern porn industry in an effort to tackle the junk studies that have been done in the past. One of those people is Caroline West, a researcher at Dublin City University. We recently chatted about her work in the area of porn performers and how they are stigmatised.

Give us a quick introduction about your PhD

My research looks at the experiences of women working in the American porn industry, and how those experiences are discussed within feminist discussions on pornography. I specifically look at the areas of stigma and violence, and the relationship between power, sex and knowledge. I look at violence through research, violence in the feminist discussion, and violence on set and how these combine to contribute to stigma against actresses.

How does academic research of porn affect the industry? Are there benefits to it?Some academic research can impact the real lives of sex workers, by contributing to stigma and stereotypes. Researchers have a responsibility to conduct ethical research that does not contribute to harm, and sometimes this does not happen. Research can also affect how people think about porn, and can continue to paint the industry as monolithic, which ignores different genres such as camming, queer porn, gay porn, feminist porn etc. We need more porn research that looks at many different aspects of porn, such as working conditions, differences between different genres, and we also need to focus on learning how to conduct ethical, inclusive research that is methodologically sound.

What do you find most exciting about researching porn in 2019?

There is finally more ethical research being produced, and there is a recognition that the industry is multifaceted, and so are the experiences of it’s workers. Porn is also a fast changing industry so it is interesting to see new research on cam girls, VR porn and so on, and it’s also great to see more research that takes sex workers views into account at last.

Most exhausting?

Its exhausting to see people clinging on to ideology that harms sex workers, and the insistence of “knowing” that “porn is bad and it’s workers are exploited”, and seeing them refuse to listen to alternative viewpoints. It’s tired and outdated, and a harmful approach that would not be tolerated in other areas of study. Its a preference for ideology rather than listened to a variety of lived experiences.

This PhD has given you the opportunity to travel and meet tons of people in the industry. What has been your favourite experience?

Going to the AVN awards in Vegas to do my research was pretty cool, and a great experience to have. I met so many people with different viewpoints and had so many great conversations. I also loved going to the Berlin Porn Film Festival and seeing so many different interpretations of what porn is and can be.

What would you like everyday porn viewers to take away from your research?

To think beyond the headlines- so much porn research is squished into a short headline, and it doesn’t do the work any favours. I would love people to use critical thinking when reading about porn research and ask- what are the demographics of the study, what kind of material did they look at, what language/terminology is used, who funded the study etc. There are many different kinds of porn, and many different ways to watch it, so stay away from simplistic approaches and recognise there are many truths to porn, not just one singular truth.

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