Porn in the library

At the  Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium the program session I was the most excited about was Porn in the library.  There were 3 presentations in this panel exploring this theme.

First,  Joan Beaudoin and Elaine Ménard presented  The P Project: Scope Notes and Literary Warrant Required! Their study looked at 22 websites that are aggregators of free porn clips.  Most of these sites were in English, but a few were in French.  Ménard acknowledged that it is risky and sometimes uncomfortable to study porn in the academy. They looked at the terminology used to describe porn videos, specifically the categories available to access porn  videos. They described their coding manual which outlined    various metadata facets (activity, age, cinematography, company/producers, age, ethnicity, gender, genre, illustration/cartoon, individual/stars, instruction, number of individuals, objects, physical characteristics, role, setting, sexual orientation). I learned that xhamster has scope notes for their various categories (mouseover the lightbulb icon to see).

While I appreciate that Beaudoin and Ménard  are taking a risk to look at porn, I think they made the mistake of using very clinical language to legitimize and sanitize their work. I’m curious why they are so interested in porn, but realize that it might be too risky for them to situate themselves in their research.

It didn’t seem like they understood the difference between production company websites and free aggregator sites. Production company sites  have very robust and high quality metadata and excellent information architecture. Free aggregator sites that have variable quality metadata and likely  have a business model that is based on ads or referring users to the main production company websites. Porn is, after all, a content business, and most porn companies are  invested in making their content findable, and making it easy for the user to find more content with the same performers, same genre, or by the same director.

Beaudoin and Ménard  expressed  disappointment that porn companies didn’t want to participate in their study. As these two researchers don’t seem to understand the porn industry or have relationships with individuals I don’t think it’s surprising at all. For them to successfully build on this line of inquiry I think they need to have some skin in the game and clearly articulate what they offer their research subjects in exchange for building their own academic capital.

It was awesome to have a quick Twitter conversation with Jiz Lee and Chris Lowrance, the web manager  for feminist porn company Pink and White productions,  about how sometimes the terms a consumer might be looking for is prioritized over the  performers’ own gender identity.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 4.40.34 PMUpdate: @FetishMovieBlog responded to Jiz and Chris to say that this was an unintentional error that had been corrected. Jiz’s performer entry doesn’t have a gender listed and I also noticed that their race is listed as hapa, another non-binary category.

Jiz Lee is genderqueer porn performer and uses the pronouns they/them and is sometimes misgendreed by mainstream porn and by feminist porn. I am a huge fan of their work.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 4.36.55 PMI think this is the same issue that Amber Billy, Emily Drabinski and K.R. Roberto raise in their paper What’s gender got to do with it? A critique of RDA rule 9.7. They argue that it is regressive for a cataloguer to assign a binary gender value to an author. In both these cases someone (porn company or consumer, or cataloguer) is assigning gender to someone else (porn performer or content creator). This process can be disrespectful, offensive, inaccurate and highlights a power dynamic where the consumer’s (porn viewer or researcher/student/librarian) desires/politics/needs/worldview is put above someone’s own identity.

Next, Lisa Sloniowski and Bobby Noble. presented Fisting the Library: Feminist Porn and Academic Libraries  (which is the best paper title ever).  I’ve been really excited their SSHRC funded porn archive research. This research project has become more of a conceptional project, rather than building a brick and mortar porn archive. Bobby talked about the challenging process of getting his porn studies class going at York University. Lisa talked they initially hoped to start a porn collection as part of York University Library’s main collection, not as a reading room or a marginal collection. Lisa spoke about the challenges of drafting a collection development policy and some of the labour issues, presumably about staff who were uncomfortable with porn having to order, catalogue, process and circulate porn. They also talked about the Feminist Porn Awards and second  feminist porn conference that took place before the Feminist Porn Awards last year.

Finally,  Emily Lawrence and Richard Fry presented  Pornography, Bomb Building and Good Intentions: What would it take for an internet filter to work?  They presented a philosophical argument against internet filters. They argued that for a filter to not overblock and underblock it would need to be mind reading and fortune telling. A filter would need to be able to read an individual’s mind and note factors like the person viewing, their values, their mood, etc and be fortune telling by knowing exactly what information that the user was seeking   before they looked at it. I’ve been thinking about internet filtering a lot lately, because of Vancouver Public Library’s recent policy change that forbids “sexually explicit images”. I was hoping to get a new or deeper understanding on filtering but was disappointed.

This colloquium was really exciting for me. The conversations  that people on the porn in the library panel were having are discussions I haven’t heard elsewhere in librarianship.  I look forward to talking about porn in the library more.

2 thoughts on “Porn in the library”

  1. Tara,

    Glad to see that you found the session as interesting as we did. There are a few errors in your blog and so I thought I would set the record straight. I was the one to note that there were a number of reasons why LIS researchers have avoided porn as a topic, not Dr. Menard. Having one’s research misconstrued is another item to add to the list, I suppose.

    The conceptual groupings that we used are high level concepts and therefore not going to reflect natural language usage. The “sanitization” of the language is more an attempt to get at what kinds of categories were found in common across the sites, than it is to eradicate the richness and creativity of the human language. I could see creating a word net of the various terms out of the main categories as an interesting line of research. Seeing what is at the root of how people organize things is what we were after here.

    As you and I discussed after the session, we are well aware of the different approaches to the categorization of porn based on the paid vs. free sites. We both agreed that Peter Ackworth’s kink.com site has multiple avenues of well developed categories of access. We focused on free sites since the research needs to begin somewhere, and these were freely available to us to examine. It will be interesting to see how well the categories we found on the free sites perform on the paid sites.

    Not sure why you didn’t recall our discussion of the impetus for the research during the presentation, or our conversation about why we were interested in the topic after the session. The LIS domain has avoided it like the big pink elephant in the room, even when it is clearly a legitimate research topic.

  2. Sorry for mixing you and Dr. Ménard up and attributing the ideas to the wrong person.

    Langauge is powerful. The language we chose to name things and organize things is powerful. I don’t see your antiseptic language as a value neutral choice.

    I wasn’t clear from your presentation or our conversation afterwards that you understood that there was a difference. In the Q&A after your panel, I asked if there was anything libraries could learn from the porn industry. You and Dr. Ménard replied that argued that the metadata was unstructured, vague and not useful. I would argue that the quality and structure of metadata vary a lot from free aggregator sites to production companies.

    Having one’s research misconstrued is one thing, but not clearly presenting it is another. After talking to several other people in the audience I know that I’m not alone in thinking that some of your ideas were not clearly presented. In my opinion, it is inappropriate and naive to take a traditional information studies approach that doesn’t acknowledge the nature of the content. After listening to your presentation and talking to you after I’m still unclear as to why you are interested in porn and doing this research.

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