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Which Side Are You On?

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This picture, taken in Newport Oregon in 2009, is a legacy of anti-pornography campaigns in the 1970s and 1980sSince you haven’t raised it yet, I will.

It isn’t uncommon that, when hearing about the research I have done on the history of anti-pornography feminism, audiences assume that I must be an anti-pornography feminist too.But do you know that? Do you even have the right to ask? Should I tell you?

My hope for this book is that you will be so compelled by my scholarship that you will never know my private views on this question. Let me explain.

Making assumptions about intellectuals based on superficial knowledge of their research interests is fairly common, but honestly? I think it happens to women, queers and people of color more often. I have a friend and colleague who is African-American, and writing a history of African-American conservative thought. That colleague is frequently assumed to be a conservative, much as I am often presumed, on the basis of nothing, to be an anti-pornography feminist. (My question: why do you care so much? Isn’t the book more the point than the author?) In my case, I think the assumption that I must be an anti-pornography feminist also has a lot to do with sex, which nearly everyone seems to have strong views about whether they are having much sex or not. But it also has to do with a certain scopophilia associated with crime, with which porn has historically been associated. Several decades ago when I was on the job market with a dog and pony show organized around bandits during the Great Depression, invariably someone would ask during the Q & A: “You don’t actually approve of these people, do you?” It is probably the stupidest question I have been asked, ever, and yet otherwise intelligent people seemed to think it was a relevant question. If you study crime, you must think crime is ok, right? Right?

It is important to point out that there are some scholars who, for whatever reasons, embrace a mingling of scholarship and politics. Dan Berger’s recent history of  political incarceration, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners and Mass Movements in the United States (PM Press, 2014) is a good example of this. Although it is an unwise assumption that all of us who work on social activism see our scholarship as an extension of that activism, there is a logic to the assumption, embedded in a long tradition of scholars studying something to which they adhere intellectually, politically, historically or romantically.  If you look at the recent history of History in the United States, this impulse has been the driving force behind the creation of entirely new fields. As the New Left began to alter university-based intellectual life, historians increasingly, and usefully, began to respond to contemporary politics by illuminating the far. Not everyone approved. The final chapters of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press: 1988) are one, long, not terribly objective, sputter on this very topic. Look at the chapter titles: “Every Group Its Own Historian;” “The Center Does Not Hold;” “There Was No King in Israel.”

These chapters can be summarized as: “GAH! Things fall apart!”

The problem with Novick’s views on thee matters is not that they are entirely wrong; rather that they dismiss the role of history in legitimizing politics, trivialize the scholarship they survey, and undervalue the generative impulse to write one’s own lost history. The first waves of what were called “the new social history” often mingled good research with advocacy positions intended to address contemporary inequalities. Furthermore, fields like women’s history were most often pushed forward in their early stages by the determined efforts of women; GLBT history is still largely dominated by people who claim those social identities. Social and cultural historians often still see their work as important advocacy, and it can be. One hopes that it is also good scholarship at the same time, scholarship that expands research findings to create a broader sense of the political issue at stake. I think scholarly advocacy is a valuable tradition, as long as you can keep both words in play.

However, not all of us study things we want to be or think we are. Some questions are important because neglecting them has left holes in, our even warped, the larger field. Dare I say that the truth matters? This is the case with my own research working on the so-called feminist “sex wars” of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s is not about me: it’s about writing a true story about them. You know — those people? Who lived in the past?  It is also not important to resist resolving theoretical disputes on which some of the most brilliant minds in radical feminism failed to reach consensus. Instead, I bring the most basic question to the table: what kind of change did the feminist struggle over pornography envision, and what change did it produce? What is the residue of that movement for our contemporary world?

Presumptions about the ubiquity of advocacy scholarship go largely undiscussed until, like a mushroom, they emerge in some dramatic, pointless, way.  For example, Routledge’s new journal Porn Studies, debuting this year, has drawn criticism from scholar Gail Dines because the editorial board is, as she has put it, “pro-porn” Perhaps this is the case: I don’t know. I also don’t care. Would you insist that The Journal of Women’s History include a misogynist on its editorial board? Why does an argument like this about porn have any traction at all? Start your own journal, I say. I’ll read it too, as long as the scholarship is sound.

The quality of such a  controversy illustrates why it is hard for many scholars (whether on the editorial board of Porn Studies or listening raptly to a Gail Dines talk) to understand why someone (myself) would undertake this research without a political agenda of some kind. Which is not to say that I don’t have politics, but I plan to keep them to myself, thank you very much, because I think that kinds of discussion is irrelevant and impedes the work of writing history. Like any historian studying any topic, I am interested in the visible and invisible legacies of this moment in feminism. As a movement, anti-pornography feminism it was more successful than any pro-pornography feminist wants to admit; and the battle between pro- and anti-pornography advocates had far more to it than whether it was ok, or not ok, to make and view sexual materials. It encompassed questions of criminal, civil and family law, as well as First Amendment law; labor and workplace regulations that, while it did not eliminate porn, actually changed the industry; the post-ERA effort to reframe gender equality; questions of consent which have shaped campus anti-rape politics; and a rapidly changing media landscape that was itself a source of great political and cultural anxiety. The “sex wars” also sparked a series of questions about, and legal efforts to contain, child sexuality that, in their high focus on adult sexual freedoms, both pro- and anti-pornography activists were often willing to back away from or ignore completely.

 


3 Comments

  1. […] latest from Tenured Radical’s Book Blog, a project of thinking and writing a book out loud, “Which Side Are You On?” sketches a few thoughts on what we assume about a researcher’s choice to explore a […]

  2. […] Claire Potter put up an interesting post on her book blog about the relationship of historians of political movements to the movements that they study.  […]

  3. […] Potter (aka Tenured Radical) has an interesting post on her book blog about the assumptions that audiences make about the politics of historians based on their subject […]

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