Academic Minute Podcast

Kathleen Lubey, St. John’s University – What Does Pornography Tell Us?

What does pornography tell us?

Kathleen Lubey, professor of English at St. John’s University, examines this from a historical standpoint.

Kathleen Lubey is a literary scholar and writer at work on piecing together the complex history of pornography. A professor at St. John’s University and specialist in eighteenth-century literature, her teaching and research spans British literature, the history of sexuality, and gender studies. What Pornography Knows: Sex and Social Protest since the Eighteenth Century, traces currents of feminism and social justice in British pornography from the 1740s to the present.

What Does Pornography Tell Us?

Two teenage girls examine a dildo together, marveling that its unwavering erectness makes it superior to a penis. A philosopher interrupts the consummation of a marriage to explain various theories of insemination. A man ponders the ethics of sexual violence before raping a sleeping woman. All of these scenes appear in British pornographic novels written in the eighteenth century. And they all defy our common assumptions that pornography lacks a conscience, that it deactivates intellect, that it is patently anti-feminist. These scenes make readers pause and think.

Since the anti-porn feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s, it has become commonplace to assume that pornography does damage to people and especially to women, encouraging men to regard them as sexual property. One reason for this indictment is visual pornography’s transactional treatment of real, embodied women. But another reason it appears so harmful traces back to what happened to those complex printed texts from the eighteenth century. Editors and book collectors across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–all men—selectively reprinted and republished works from the past. They ignored texts that didn’t prop up masculinity, and they strategically abridged others, making them less feminist and more focused on unimpeded sex. Knowing that pornography once regarded women as thinking, feeling people, how can we learn to perceive the feminist content of porn today?


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