This may not be of interest to all QRG readers but I said I would write up some notes on the recent pornified conference in London. I didn’t attend myself but I followed the event and its aftermath quite closely. I also interviewed two people (both women and who remain anonymous) who were there. This is what I found out:
1) Why did you go to Pornified? What did you do there?
I went to listen to and potentially challenge some of the existing debates going on about sexualisation, and to hear arguments from speakers (academics and activists) that aren’t heard in mainstream media (i.e. those that aren’t anti-porn/radical feminist). I presented a paper.
I went to the conference as I am a feminist and gender & sexuality scholar so it spoke directly to my interests.
2) What do you think of the name, Pornified? What does it conjur up for you?
I don’t agree with the term. It suggests a society which is saturated by porn and assumes people necessarily adopt images/representations of porn in their everyday lives. However, the question mark in the title suggested there would be debate of the term at the conference, and there certainly was.
The punctuation for me screams out interrogation, a concept that promises inclusivity and complexity. Admittedly though the icon used suggested a tone of ‘have we gone too far with notions of pornification?’ But then there was such a variety of panels that I went back to my first impression.
3) Which talks/workshops stood out for you? (as good/bad/interesting)
Good – the session on queer and feminist porn – was great. It included a queer reading of a site where couples upload their own videos and talked about desire and domesticity. The onscenity panel about their porn survey was also very good, as was Leonore Tiefer’s talk. I didn’t go to it, but I was very pleased to see there was a session on asexuality as this is something completely absent from sexualisation debates in the media.
All of them were valuable because these are the early days of interdisciplinary academic debate around the issues. On a few occasions I struggled to choose which sessions to go to as I felt spoilt for choice.
4) Was there debate about pro-porn versus anti-porn stances?
Yes. In some sessions there were heated arguments between anti porn feminists, and sex worker rights activists, and also those who view anti-porn perspectives as not engaging with the complexities of the sexualisation debate. Some anti-porn participants said they had felt it wasn’t a ‘safe’ space in which to debate as they considered most conference delegates to disagree with their views.
I am only really in a position to comment on those sessions that I did attend. There was a brief pro V anti debate at the end of one of those. In short, both presenters (the 3rd had cancelled) spoke of young peoples’ interpretations of pornified media including porn. Dare I say it I couldn’t really follow the first presenter’s arguments/conclusions, which may or may not have been because I was distracted by a claim she made re adults’ experiences with porn that were not empirically founded. Anyway, when it came to Q & A a certain group of women in the room wanted to know why nobody was picking up on the ‘harms’ of porn in the discussion. In response to that a co-author of one of the presentations said that the anti-porn, radical feminist critique was unhelpful and Gail Dines swung this around to mean that rad fems were wrongly being accused of being panicksters. I have no idea how she arrived at this conclusion. The atmosphere was tense (despite Meg Barker’s suggestion during the opening workshop that we remain mindful of respectful dialogue in light of how emotive these issues can be) and I was glad it was time for lunch!
After lunch a plenary panel presented their research agenda, which, in short, was to listen to unheard voices in relation to porn consumption. Personally, I like this idea seeing as porn research to date has been interested in such a narrow participant profile i.e., sex offenders or abuse survivors. As far as I’m concerned this research addresses a gap in the literature. But Gail Dines wanted to know why there were no anti-porn reps on the plenary. Again a tense atmosphere, no room for discussion, my way or the high way.
5) what was the split of men/women/trans or gender queer people speaking or attending the conference?
Mainly women I think.
Well many queer people I am acquainted with do not necessarily ‘look’ queer so I don’t get how I am supposed to just know who was queer or not by looking around the room! I’d say it was 3/5 women and 2/5 men on first day and maybe ¾:1/4 on the second.
6) What do you think if anything was missing from the debates?
There could have been more discussion about men as engaging with/resisting sexualisation, although there were a few presentations on this. There were discussions of class, race difference and how the debate mainly focuses on white m/c girls, but again more discussion of alternative sexualities etc. could have been good.
Would have loved to see more on masculinities and transsexualism.
An analysis of the conference from a gender perspective
Using a technique I implemented in my Phd research, which also included analysis of conferences, I examined how the conference was balanced in terms of themes and gender representation.
Of the 85 talks given 38 focussed on specific gender identities. I found that of these 32 were on the subject of women or girls or feminism, 5 were on men and masculinities and 1 talk was on trans issues.
In percentage terms this works out as:
Women and girls and feminism : 84%
Men and masculinities: 13%
Transgender identities: 3%
Imagine if 84% of the talks about gender at a conference were on men? What would feminists say to that? This finding really supports the claim made recently by Tom Martin that gender studies is biased against men.
Looking at the gender balance of speakers, which is never an accurate science just based on names, I found the breakdown of men and women (I don’t know about trans/gender queer speakers) to be as follows:
Porn talks (9)
7 women, 2 men
4 men, 2 women
32 women, no men.
12 women, 6 men
Young people (15)
13 women, 2 men
2 men, 1 woman
1 man, 1 don’t know
Again imagine if this was the other way round, and men were giving talks on women and girls but no women were giving talks on men and masculinities, or if twice as many men were speaking about sexualisation than women. This confirms my belief that the ‘sexualisation’ debate is dominated by feminist women, in academia at least.
The remaining 47 talks, on subjects around sexualisation, I broke down into topics. 15 were on young people, 18 on sexualisation in general, 9 were on pornography, 3 on sex the act itself, and 2 on asexuality.
As percentages this is:
Young people: 31%
Sexualisation in general: 39%
The fact the majority of the talks were on young people, and sexualisation in general, suggests that the conference was following the lead of the media, and focussing on the effects of ‘sexualisation’ on young people and children. It would have been nice to have seen more discussion of sex, sexualities in general, and from the perspective of adults, including a critical perspective on the discourse of ‘sexualisation’ itself. You know, as Foucault might frame it.
Papers and people from Pornified getting media coverage:
The only media coverage I have seen come out of the conference has been from anti-porn feminists and their supporters. I spoke to Petra Boynton about this (she was not in attendance), and she said the media ‘misrepresented’ the conference. But I think anti porn feminists are very good at getting airplay for their stance in the media, and at linking their academic work with their activism. Partly because they are more like ‘activists’ in the political sense than many people who are pro-porn, or just not anti-porn.
The anti-porn articles which appeared in the media during and following the conference included:
Gail Dines in The Guardian on ‘pornified’ culture:
Peter Hegarty’s paper at the conference on lads mags/rape discourse got media coverage in The Guardian and Jezebel the American feminist site:
Rosie Mockett wrote about the Muff March and used the term ‘pornified culture’:
My view of the Pornified conference hasn’t really changed from my initial reservations about it. I think the use of the title ‘Pornified’ and the focus on discourses of ‘sexualisation’ means the academic/practitioner work in this area is led by the media and feminism’s agendas, rather than setting its own questions and perspectives.
The domination of the conference by women speakers, and papers about women and girls meant it could never be a balanced discussion of sex/sexuality/media/discourse. And, the attendance of high-profile anti porn feminists such as Gail Dines and Anna H from Object further skewed the conversation.
When women complain about lack of representation at events, sometimes the organisers say -‘ but not enough women applied’. This excuse has been used at Pornified too, to explain the lack of papers on/by men. But I think the organisers could have tried harder to find some men researching the subject and looking into sexualisation from the perspective of boys and men. If academic research in this area is dominated by women, the organisers could still have sought out men speakers, either in other related subjects, or from the wider world including journalism, and public and sexual health services.
I also think the conference could have considered why people focus on girls and women in this debate? Isn’t that a question worth asking instead of just producing lots of papers about… girls and women? The conference included researchers who claim to be ‘critical’ in their approach to discourse, but there did not seem to be a critique of the basic premises of this ‘discourse’ of sexualisation, or more specifically, of the language used by the media, feminism and academia within it. The Jezebel Headline ‘what’s the difference between lads’ mags and a rapist?’ based on one of the papers showed just how ‘uncritical’ some of the research was, and how easily it played to dominant media and dominant feminist agendas.
What’s Happening To Our Girls? was the title of one of the sessions at Pornified and I think it sums up well the general theme of the event. It presents girls and women as ‘victims’ of ‘sexualisation’ and leaves boys and men as shadowy figures in the background, and as potential ‘perpetrators’ of whatever harmful effects this ‘sexualisation’ is supposed to produce.
UPDATE: Petra Boynton corrected me to say that she didn’t say I was unqualified to comment on the conference, due to not being there. She just pointed out that neither she nor I were there and it would be good to get some views from people who were in attendance. Which I then did! QRG