The Affective Governmentality of Pornography Discourses Research proposal


Nowadays, the concealment of pornography in everyday discourses is still common place. Despite the fact that present day cultural expressions in the media have become ever more sexualised by market forces (Gilfoyle, 1999; Attwood, 2011), still the embodiment of pornography in people’s everyday lives is largely neglected. This in spite of the immense role pornography plays in the exploration and expression of sexuality at any age. Pornography largely remains a subject that cannot be spoken of in terms of sensuality and desire (Foucault, 1978/1990 ; Fine & McClelland, 2006).

Discourses, which are basically contextually situated set of ideas that constitute rules and practices that configure subjects (van der Veeke, 2013; Fairclough & Wodak, 1997), render possible what is speakable and thinkable. Foucault (1980) has not only shown how ruling discourses are able to govern people’s conduct, he has also revealed that sexuality is not a thing or characteristic in itself. Instead, it is a social construct enabling different strategies of power executed through the body, knowledge and mind. West & Zimmerman (1987) have similarly described how gender is not a biological feature of humans, but instead a social construct guiding our behaviour. Not only, are we defining ourselves according to the ideas of femininity and masculinity, from a young age onwards our bodies and minds are disciplined accordingly (Martin, 1998). Hence, discourses of sexuality are able to govern the conduct of citizens by configuring natural what is culturally constituted.


Pornography cannot only be considered the object of discourses of sexuality, it can also be considered a technology of governmentality. Governmentality concerns “the way in which one conducts the conduct of men” (Foucault, 2008, p. 186), the way through which rationalities are able to govern people’s actions. Pornography can be considered a technology of governmentality, because it also distributes certain sets of ideas about what sexuality is. This double bearing illuminates why pornography poses an intriguing theoretical case of inquiry. However, pornography is also particularly relevant because of its scale. From the 1970s onwards, the dawn of the digital age, the demand for pornography has drastically grown (McNair, 2002). This has naturally been accompanied by an enormous amount of people who consume porn. Pornhub (2016) alone has had 21.2 billion visits in 2015.

The question central in this research is: how do the discourses about pornography and discourses within pornography regulate women’s sexualities throughout their lives? The aim is to uncover how women are disciplined through sexuality within different stages of their existence. Most of the research that has been conducted focuses upon a specific age group (Attwood, 2005), thereby the evolution of people’s sexualities and their relationship with pornography can be overseen. This could give insight into how people negotiate dominant sets of ideas present in society and pornography texts and whether they are able to resist disciplinary rationalities. Moreover, the outcome of this research could also highlight the different readings people can take upon and how this contributes to a shifting language about pornography (Radway, 1983).

In the following sections, firstly the theoretical lens will be introduced. Secondly, the literature review will be presented dealing with discourses about pornography and discourses in pornography. Within the discourses about pornography, the focus will lay upon the affective research conducted by psychologists and feminists alike and how these discourses are potentially guiding people’s pornography activities. Moreover, it will be briefly investigated how people use the discourses in pornography for making their conceptions about sexuality. Thirdly, the implications of the literature for the theory will be discussed and subquestions will be presented. Fourthly, the method that is deemed most fitting will be presented. Lastly, reflections will be made regarding the possible outcomes of the research.

Theoretical Framework

The feminist tradition has frequently used notions of power in their pornography research, as they expressed that porn is a form of male domination (MacKinnon & Dworkin, 1997). Yet, the exact functioning of power and the power of their own voices were underexposed. Therefore, this research will adopt a Foucauldian lens to gain better insight into how power functions and how pornography discourses are able to govern people. Within the research the concepts of discourse and governmentality will be central, however they will be complemented by Radway’s (1983) concepts of interpretive communities. This supplementation is necessary, because it provides more room for observing contradictory logics as several readings are enabled.

The concept of governmentality concerns mentalities of government (van Houdt, 2014). It reveals that rationalities are a vital component of technologies of power (Lemke, 2000). Hence, not only coercion and discipline can be a means of power, but also guidance as it teaches people the boundaries of thought and practice (Rose & Miller, 2000). According to Foucault (1978/1990), power is not limited to one group or institution, instead power is “the multiplicity of force relations” (p.92). There is not a central point of power, instead power comes from everywhere and can be identified in a plurality of sites (Stoddart, 2007). This type of definition of power allows for “mobile and transitory points of resistance”, however for real change Foucault (1978/1990) argues that a “swarm of points” (p.96) is needed.

Michel Foucault

Discourses are the central means by which social power can be exercised, as they construct the knowledge claims, common sensical notions and ‘truths’ that get dispersed in society and guide people. The production and dissemination of discourses takes place everywhere ranging from the media to school to architectural structures to simply people (Foucault, 1980). These sites are able to govern through its rationalities at the location itself. Yet, discourses can also become so powerful that they can govern you at a distance (Deleuze, 1992) or through yourself (Rose, 1996). Pornography and the scholarly debates about pornography could be considered discourse-producing sites, as they too disperse common sensical ideas bout sexuality and guide people in how to think about pornography.

Yet, the research wants to complement Foucault’s (1978/1990) notions about governmentality, discourse and power by introducing Radway’s (1983) concept of interpretive communities. Although, Foucault speaks of the possibility of resistance in individuals, he does not seem to highlight how these moments of resistance are formed or could take shape. The concept of interpretive community was introduced because Radway (1983) observed how only the voices of the academics were deemed representative of reality in the works on romance novels. Thereby, the interpretations of the actual readers of the texts were neglected. According to Radway (1983), scholars didn’t take into account the social position and context the female readers were situated in and how this could result in a different interpretation than expected. Hence, the readers of texts could be a part of a different interpretive community than the scholars.

The concept of interpretive community reveals that different people can take upon different readings of texts. This could be linked to Foucault (1978/1990) by stating that these different interpretations of texts can lead to shifts in the discourses and thereby form initial moments of resistance. In the following section, the literature regarding pornography will be discussed and reflected upon.

Literature Review

Over the course of history, people's sexualities have been one of the main sites of regulation and panic (Foucault, 1978/1990). During the 18th century, panics arose about sexuality and its role in the public domain. Sex became an activity that was disgraced in the public’s eye and condemned to discourses of science and health. Although, there has been a diversification of sexual, perverse imagery, certain rules and norms came into existence of how and when to speak about sex (Foucault, 1978/1990). Those who did not follow these unspoken rules were frequently labelled deviant (e.g. perverse) (Buckingham & Strandgaard Jensen, 2012).

Pornography could be considered one of the media who has stirred moral panic, as its content and wide accessibility formed a threat to the moral order. “A moral order refers to the deep structures of moral life through which people and their community make sense of their circumstances” (Furedi, 2016, p.2). Pornography poses a threat not only due to its content which disrupts the dominant meaning by which people make sense of their sexuality, but also because it is part of media itself. Ever since the invention of writing, new mediums have been under close scrutiny, because time and again they allowed for an outlet of alternative moral knowledge and thereby the contestation of dominant discourses (Littau, 2006). This contestation is often perceived as a threat to one’s sense of meaning, this can lead to moral panics, also in academia (Furedi, 2016; McLuhan, 1994).

Protests women's rights

Anti-Pornography Scholars

The inception of online pornography and pornography in cinema theatres have stirred a moral panic about the medium’s effects. Feminists and psychologists alike have focused upon how pornography is damaging children’s sexual development and how its imagery is inciting violent behaviour (Paden, 1984; MacKinnon & Dworkin, 1997). Frequently, psychological research conducts experiments in order to establish the effects of porn exposure. In the majority of studies, the relationship of pornography with rape is central (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009). Despite the largely insignificant results of these studies, the relationship between rape and pornography is replicated time and again. Other experiments have been conducted in regard to non-violent pornography. In these types of researches, the emphasis lays upon the (possible) negative effects of porn consumption.

For instance, Zillman (2000) argues that frequent exposure of young adults to various types of pornography fosters the normalisation of pornography in people’s lives without negative feelings such as guilt or disgust. The prolonged exposure to these explicit texts in the end habituates the consumer leading to the need for new, unorthodox materials connected to "sexual deviancy.” (Zillman, 2000, p.69). The next conclusion Zillman (2000) draws is that pornography is reinforcing cynical attitudes about love, sexual pleasure and the institution of marriage. Within Zillman’s (2000) research the negative effects of pornography on morality are made abundantly clear. Similarly, Mohr & Zanna (1990) discovered that exposure to nonviolent pornography influences the way men view and act towards women in task-oriented settings. According to the research men’s conduct after porn consumption could both be deemed cognitively and behaviourally sexist.

There are also more implicit negative evaluations of pornography in the literature. For instance, Wallmyr & Welin (2006) researched the consumption of pornography among adolescents and states in their implications that parents and adults who work with adolescents should give proper factual knowledge about sex which counters the unrealistic expectations created in porn. Here the assumption is made that pornography is enforcing a type of ‘false consciousness’ regarding sexuality in the students.

These type of conceptions could also be identified in the feminist anti-pornography movements which gained momentum in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Thompson, 2015). These feminists considered pornography one of the tools of the patriarchy, because it reproduced images of female degradation and male domination (MacKinnon & Dworkin, 1997). The feminist works were especially situated in emotional appeal, as they often illustrated how appalled they were by the materials they have seen or how scared they were for the direction society was headed towards. The emphasis did not only lay upon the objectification of women in these texts, the feminists also used the role of children and how they would be affected by the pornification of society (Mulholland, 2011). This kind of tendency could still be identified today:

“The mainstreaming of pornography is transforming the sexual politics of intimate and public life, popularising new forms of anti-women attitudes and contributing to the sexualisation of children. The pornification of culture is leading to a form of hypersexism that entails an increase in physical, sexual, mental, economic and emotional cruelty towards women and children.” (Tankard-Reist & Bray, 2011, xiv)

Reparative reading

Nevertheless, some feminists and psychologists started to see the potential pornography could have or the positive sensations that come along with it. Linda Williams (1989) risked her scholarly authority by discussing not only the negative feelings pornography could incite, but also the pleasures and arousal that can be derived from pornography. Her personal enjoyment and feminist critique was often considered an impossible union (Paasonen, 2007). In line with this work, Sedgwick (2003) proposed that the discourse of negative effect was part of a paranoid reading. Paranoid reading can be identified as the “the compulsive will to knowledge through uncovering and revealing the hidden workings of power which have been known from the start” (Paasonen, 2007, p. 45). Basically, the feminists scholars already assumed that pornography would be a tool for dominating women. In their research they would highlight every aspect in light of their own view and thereby prove their own assumptions by showing one’s own assumptions (Sedgwick, 2003). Sedgwick (2003) proposes that scholars should take upon a reparative stance, in which the outcomes are not unequivocal and more geared towards positivity.

In more recent years, the positive aspects of pornography are increasingly highlighted in both feminist studies and psychology. In the psychological domain, the emphasis has partially shifted towards how pornography could be utilised for sex education (Albury, 2014). In the feminist tradition, the opportunities of the porno films for the liberation of female sexuality are emphasised, as these texts are not only powerful in creating images in line with the ruling discourse, but also in line with the resisting discourse (Butler, 1997). Porno films could give way to a different imaginary of female sexuality in which the female as subject becomes central. Moreover, it could mean a shift in the pornography industry as these sites offer pornography for women’s pleasure instead of men’s (Schauer, 2005).

Scholarly discourse as affective governmentality

Although, these reparative readings are trying to compensate for the negative affect that dominated the pornography debates for a long time, still the tradition remains stuck in affective research. This is a logical consequence when considering both the emotional and bodily responses porn instigates (Paasonen, 2007), but the emotional assumptions are also hindering how scholars can study porn and how other women with differing opinions can read the texts. As Radway (1983) once established, people can be part of different interpretive communities and therefore the meanings scholars draw from the texts aren’t the only ‘truths’ available. Instead of reading pornography reparatively alone, the reading of pornography texts should be accompanied by a multitude of voices to make sense of the plurality of opportunities and limitations it offers.

Otherwise, feminist scholars are running the risk of being the constraining force they wish to defeat. Ashworth (2016) has proposed the notion of affective governmentality. In his study, he researched the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda and how this was only made possible by enabling discourses in which homosexuality is considered disgusting. Similarly, the affective pornography researches of scholars are prescribing norms and values regarding sexuality. Affective governmentality could already be identified in the consumption of porn by women today.

The negative anti-pornography views have strongly impacted women’s perspectives, leading to “contradictions between their beliefs, feelings and actions” (Ciclitira, 2004, 293). The women who consumed pornography often felt immense guilt about their sexuality. Ciclitira (2004) related this guilt to the psychological inconsistencies the women have to account for. On the one hand, they are against the objectification of women in porn. On the other hand, they derive great pleasure from the consumption of pornography. The ruling discourses of the negative morality of mainstream porn are thereby regulating what the women ought to feel or do.

Furthermore, the restraints upon pornography consumption also become apparent when considering what type of porn people are allowed to watch and for whom pornography is meant. Despite the mainstreaming of pornography for spicing up one’s sex life, still a stigma remains present which only normalises a specific subset of pornography, such as ‘informative’ erotica (Attwood, 2006; Sabo, 2009; Wilkinson, 2009; Wilson-Kovacs, 2004). Mainstream porn and the renting of porn by men or women for oneself is still considered deviant behaviour (Sabo, 2009). This is particularly deviant for women, as pornography is generally considered a masculine domain from which women should stay away (Wilson-Kovacs, 2004). Moreover, the female porno is posed as liberating, thereby implicitly mainstream porn is not.

In adolescence, pornography consumption is not only regulated by the idea that pornography is mainly for men, but also by the views of one’s peers. Scarcelli (2015) researched the porn consumption of adolescent boys and girls and found differences between them. Whereas pornography for arousal is viewed typical for boys, pornography for exploration is affiliated with girls. Moreover, girls play an important role in disciplining each other. They discourage other girls from watching porn alone and occasionally watch in group settings (Scarcelli, 2015). There they define normality together by laughing at ‘weird’ porn. Indirectly, the girls reject that women can use pornography for arousal by themselves. This is in line with the early anti-pornography movement.

Generally, the consumption of porn is a very gendered practice when considering what type of content is watched and how it is watched (Attwood, 2005). According to Attwood (2005), cultural blind spots are present which render certain discourses natural. Men can still not be considered erotically and for women the explicit discussion of pornography and their enjoyment of the medium is taboo. Yet, one communality can be found in women, men and young adults. All have experienced very contradictory emotions when watching porn: being repulsed and attracted simultaneously.

Pornography as education

Besides the scholarly discourses about pornography, pornography itself is also a discourse able to govern how people should consider sexuality. Häggström-Nordin, Sandberg, Hanson and Tydên (2006) found that young Swedish people derive certain expectations about sexuality and sexual behaviour from the pornography texts. Not only does the porn content inspire the young adults to do certain sexual acts, it also poses these acts as the norm. Similarly, Scarceli (2015) found that boys consume pornography in two different ways: the teaching mode and the goliardic mode. In the teaching mode boys share pornography with girls in order to inform them about sex techniques. In the goliardic mode, the sharing of pornography is for the sake of pranks. On ther other hand, the latter mode does suggest that not every type of porn is taken educational.

Moreover, pornography does not only inform women and men about the ‘proper’ sex techniques, it also recreates aesthetic norms for women. Boynton (1999) discovered that women mainly judged pornographic material upon the attractiveness of the woman in question and how they relate to her. One of the main concerns was whether men look at the women in a similar fashion as to the porn stars. And if so, whether they deemed the porn models more beautiful or sexually attractive. In contrast to men, women themselves considered graphic material ‘disguting’ and ‘distasteful’. Nevertheless, women do wonder about men’s beauty standards and thereby are partially governed.

Research focussing upon the interpretations of audiences of pornographic material is relatively scarce. Consequently, the discourses of pornography itself and its impact upon the audience are understudied.


In the previous sections, it has been established that the early porn research that has been conducted is often in a feminist or psychological tradition. In the former, there has been a focus upon the messages of the pornography texts and the harmful effects it is causing. In the latter, the focus was upon violent and deviant behaviours that pornography is inducing. The more recent pornography scholars are acknowledging that these researches are highly emotionally charged. Consequently, they are trying to read the pornography text reparatively by emphasising the more positive effects and opportunities pornography advances.

However, this study argued that this type of affective research is not conducive for observations about pornography, because still the interpretive lens of the feminist scholar is dominant and thereby other readings are neglected. Moreover, this type of research is also able to govern women’s sexualities. The feminist discourses are mostly negatively charged, emphasising the degradation of women. These kind of judgements are regulating how women are ought to experience their sexuality. The discourse is posing limitations upon what can and what cannot be practiced. Lastly, it has been briefly touched upon how pornography texts also contain discourses about sexuality. However, more research is needed about how the audience interprets the pornography texts to draw conclusions about the texts’ governing capabilities.

The literature has inspired the research question: how do the discourses about pornography and discourses within pornography regulate women’s sexualities throughout their lives? In order to make the research project more orderly, several subquestions have been developed: (1) What kind of discourses about pornography are dominant in society according to the participants?, (2) How do people interpret the messages present in pornography texts?, (3) Which discourses about pornography are used in people’s construction of their sexuality?, (4) Can the discourses about pornography be considered technologies of governmentality?, (5) Can the discourses in pornography be considered technologies of governmentality?, (6) Do the discourses about pornography change over time?, (7) Do the discourses about pornography regulate women differently in different stadia of their lives?

The expectations are that women will feel that the dominant discourse in society consists of the following notions: (1) pornography is for men and consequently not for women (Attwood, 2005), (2) mainstream pornography is degrading to women (MacKinnon & Dworkin, 1997) and (3) women who watch porn themselves are sexually deviant (Zillman, 2000). Secondly, the discourse in pornography itself is one of the more surprising features in the research, because the audience interpretation of the pornography texts has been rather limited. Radway (1983) once found that the interpretations of romance readers differed significantly from the readings of scholars. This could be similar in this research. Thirdly, the discourses are likely to affect women differently over time, as there are different norms attached to women’s sexuality dependent on age. The possibility exists that when women turn older, they become less central in the debate and therefore also have more opportunities for reading pornography differently. The questions regarding governmentality and a change in the discourses over time for the participants have not been researched before, consequently these questions will generate new outcomes.


The research will conduct qualitative research with a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967/2009). Qualitative research is preferred over quantitative research because it allows for the description of individual experiences and the inclusion of the specific contexts of the participants, this in turn allows for tracing not only the dominant discourse, but also alternative readings (Mack, Woodsong, MacQueen, Guest, & Namey, 2005). The grounded theory approach has been selected because the research on pornography is very limited outside the domain of affective research (Attwood, 2007). Consequently, literature derived codes about pornography are limited. Hence, the data of the research should take centre-stage for the analysis process and theory development (Boeije, 2010).


The target group of the research is women who will be sampled purposively. As young adolescent women are more insecure about their pornography consumption (Scarcelli, 2015) and they have had little life experience, the focus will lay upon women aged between 25 and 40. This particular age group has also been selected, because they were born at the time that online pornography and pornography films became widely distributed (Thompson, 2015). Moreover, to include a broad amount of variety in the sample, women with diverse ethnic backgrounds, varying levels of education and different social economic positions will be interviewed. This is of importance, because these characteristics could lead to another interpretive framework. The participants are recruited by snowball sampling, specifically chain referral sampling (Mack, et al. 2005). Hence, after suitable candidates have been selected, their networks will be utilised to recruit more participants. This technique is deemed especially useful when studying taboo topics (Boeije, 2010).

Data collection

The research will conduct interviews in contrast to focus groups, because this will ensure that women will feel safe to talk about their pornography consumption, experiences and beliefs. Wilson-Kovacs (2004) found in her focus groups with women that many fiercely rejected pornography consumption by women. These prior judgements are diminishing openness in the participants. Moreover, discourse analysis has not been selected, because the focus of the research lays upon the interpretations of female porn consumers of the discourses of porn. The interviews aim to cover the participants’ interpretations of the pornography discourses, women’s porn biographies and the way these discourses are able to regulate the women. Semi-structured interviews will be used, because these will allow for a set of standard questions to be asked regarding people’s biographies, but also for in-depth questions when certain experiences are shared (Boeije, 2010).

As the research deals with a sensitive topic and people’s porn biographies are not always readily available, the interviewees will be informed a week prior to the interview about the intention of tracing their porn biographies. In the interviews themselves, the interviewer will start with more general questions about pornography (What do you consider pornography? What do you think of pornography? How do you feel society thinks about pornography? How do you feel about people who consume porn?). After this more general introduction into the topic, the questions will be directed toward the porn biographies of the participants (When was the first time you encountered porn? What was the experience like? What kind of emotions did the consumption of porn stimulate? Did you feel comfortable watching porn? Have you continued watching porn? Did you notice shifting patterns in your porn consumption over time? Do you have a different opinion about porn now than you had in the past? Does pornography inspire your sense of sexuality?). After the biography has been traced, the emphasis will be shifted towards how women interpret the pornography texts (What kind of image of sex do you feel pornography creates? How are the roles of men and women portrayed in pornography according to you?). After the opinions, interpretations, experiences and biographies have been investigated, the research will end with more provocative questions (How do you evaluate pornography morally? Do you feel pornography is creating expectations of what you need to do sexually? Would you feel comfortable to admit watching porn to friends and peers? Do you feel limited in your porn consumption by public opinion about pornography?). The amount of interviews that will be conducted will be based upon the level of saturation, meaning that the interview process will stop when no new findings are presented. The first aim is to research 20 participants, as this type of amount will most likely result in different perspectives.

Data analysis

All the interviews will be audio recorded and transcribed for the sake of accuracy. The data that results from this process will be transformed through thematic coding (Boeije, 2010). A code is “a word or string of words used as a name for a category generated during analysis” (Boeije, 2010, p.95). In the first stage of analysis, initial statements that sparked the researchers’ interest will be selected. These will be generated into the initial codes, which can also be identified as subcategories. In the second stage of analysis, the connections between the open codes will be researched. This will result in main categories. Lastly, selective coding will take place in which the conceptual model is created. Here, the relationships between the main categories and their overarching themes are theorised about. During the research process, the codes will be continuously re-evaluated in terms of the new findings. This is especially necessary, because there is limited theoretical knowledge available regarding the topic.

Within the coding process, the biography will be traced by labelling the life stage to which the statement/code refers. Moreover, distinctions will be made between discourses in pornography and discourses about pornography.

During the analysis process, attention will be paid to how women respond to pornography discourses or how they tap into pornography discourses to legitimate their stance or behaviour. How the porn discourses regulate women’s sexuality is not a directly measurable phenomenon, therefore it has to be derived indirectly from the women’s experiences and feelings.


Qualitative research allows for the individual experiences of women to be central, thereby the scholar is forced to take several interpretive lenses into account. This is academically relevant, because it enriches the one-sided affective interpretations of the researchers. Moreover, the focus will no longer lay upon one specific moment in time. Instead, the porn biographies will reveal how women have experienced pornography throughout their lives and whether they have acquired new readings over time. This especially supplements the quantitative research, because effects studies are mostly experiments conducted at one particular moment. This is not representative of reality, because pornography is present almost everywhere (Häggström-Nordin et al., 2006). Lastly, the attentiveness to individual readings of the pornography texts will allow for more knowledge of what people actually get from these texts. Pornography induces a highly affective and bodily experience, therefore the question remains whether people consciously read these texts.

Besides the academic relevance, the societal relevance is also captured in the design and theoretical framework. The governing of women’s sexualities through discourses in and about pornography highlights the unequal power distribution between scholars and women. The regulation of women’s sexualities is one of the ways in which women are controlled. By gaining insight into how this process occurs, women can become more aware of the constraints they face and whether they want to form points of resistance. Moreover, the dominant discourse is partially countered, by the illumination of more deviant interpretations of the discourses. This again could instigate a discursive shift.


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