Landing : Athabascau University

Porn, Sex Work, Archives learning contract: Revision

Last updated April 1, 2012 - 6:52pm by sarah beth

Pandora’s Box: Pornography, Sex Work, and Archives – Learning Contract

Sarah Mann [2997625]

MAIS 760

Supervisors: CLGA (indexing project), Mark McCutcheon (course)


This project investigates the construction of queers’ and sex workers’ history through the development of archives, specifically ones containing sexually explicit and pornographic media. The primary archives accessed for this project will be a collection of issues of the lesbian pornographic magazine On Our Backs (OOB) housed at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA). Working with this content, I will develop a searchable, open-access index of stories, photo essays, letters and advertisements in the magazine, documenting authors, intertextual references, models’ names, and themes. Because of the sometimes-clandestine nature of pornography production and the inconsistent and often inaccessible preservation of pornographic media, bibliographic information on pornography is often lost to researchers and to culture. Additional primary research on archival practice will be conducted via my assistance towards the Sex Work and Missing Women Digital Archive, housed at Mamawipawin, a University of Manitoba facility dedicated to Indigenous knowledge-sharing, research, and transformative political inquiry, and maintained by Shawna Ferris. Secondary case study research will investigate the Feminist Porn Archive: a collection “designed to generate and document the production of feminist porn” (Feminist Porn Archive), housed at York University and maintained by Bobby Noble and Lisa Sloniowski.

This project takes two types of media as representations of sex workers’ labour: pornographic media as the product of sex workers’ labour, and sex worker advocacy documents as representations of sex working conditions. Pornography has been extensively studied since the “sex wars,” but most works tackle the idea of pornography, its existence as a genre and industry, and its use as an oppressive or liberating social practice (all entries for Attwood; Jeffreys Lesbian; Kipnis; Palac), while the study of specific productions of pornographic film and literature is less common. OOB, in particular, has received very little scholarly attention. Most scholarly works that mention OOB mention the magazine in passing, noting its position in opposition to sex-negative feminism in the "sex wars" and its influence on the generation of dykes who came of age in the 80s and 90s (Bright, D; Collins "No Experts"; Fernandes; Love; Palac; Strub; Swedberg). A few sources cite specific examples of the magazine's content, but without considering the structure of a whole issue of the magazine or of the magazine as a periodical (Dean “Does a Lesbian”; Maltry). Some work considers the history of OOB’s production: by those involved in producing it (Bright, S Big Sex & "Brief History"; Queen & Comella), and also in scholarly research (both entries for Sender; Collins "Lesbian Pornographic"). Finally, some work theorizing the publication and its relationship to "the lesbian postmodern" has been done (Lamos), but there is significant space for additional scholarship here.

Like pornography, prostitution has been extensively studied, internationally and in Canada, and those taking ‘sides’ on prostitution do so along a break between radical and sex-positive feminists that features similar arguments (and often even the same authors) as the pornography “wars.” The specificity of sex worker organizing has received far less attention than questions about the idea of prostitution, its potential harms or benefits to individuals and society (Jeffreys Industrial), its relationships to feminist and queer theory (McKay), and possibilities for sex work-related law and policy (Pivot). In recent years, studies of sex workers’ activism have been undertaken in relation to Vancouver’s missing and murdered women (Dean Hauntings; Ferris), to community violence against sex workers (Ross), and at least one thorough history of the Ontario court challenge that struck down Canadian laws against prostitution-related activities has been produced (Beer). This project adds to these developments by investigating some of the ways sex workers’ history is documented and preserved, in the sex industry, in universities, and by human rights activists.

One possible reason that so little scholarship on OOB has been done may be that the magazine has not yet been digitized. While a print archive of the magazine exists at Brown University ( and the CLGA has a near-complete collection, an index like the one I propose to develop, listing the individual stories and photographs in each issue, is not available to researchers or to the public. As an open-access research tool, the index will allow researchers to search the magazine’s content, making the magazine more accessible by limiting the issues a researcher has to track down. For documents related to sex workers’ labour advocacy, the criminalization of sex work and working-class activism, the uneven distribution of research and archival skills among academic, activist, and sex working communities, and the funding challenges faced by feminist and sex workers’ organizations make sex workers’ history an under-documented area of history, and one that is particularly vulnerable to the limitations of pre-digital storage noted above. The archival projects I will participate in as a part of this research project are moves to document and preserve queers’ and sex workers’ history in technological and social contexts that make it important to do so. My own research communications – blog posts, an online seminar presentation, and a scholarly paper to be submitted for open-access publication – will also be donated to the Sex Work Archive. The index, to be housed on the CLGA website, will acknowledge AU as the site of the research.


Resources and Learning Objectives

This project investigates the porn and sex work archives and their contents through the lenses of archival theory, transgression theory, and postcolonial literary theory, in particular theory related to the interactions between individual and collective (or collected) “truths.” For my reading list, I have chosen foundational texts on archival theory and practice (Agamben; Derrida; Foucault Archaeology; Steedman) as well as on archiving in relation to gender and sexuality, affect, and pornography (Buss & Kadar; Cvetkovitch; Kendrick). A selection of texts has been chosen to provide broad coverage of transgression theory (Foucault “Preface”; Jenks; Stallybrass & White), with emphasis on its Canadian (Waugh) and queer (Foucault Sexuality v. 1 & 2; Halberstam) contexts. Finally, a group of postcolonial works theorizing truth, affect, and cultural domination are included (Beverley; Clough & Halley; Gordon; Viswanathan).

Using these resources and theoretical premises, this project considers the following questions:

▪          how does archival structure manage, refuse to manage, or fail to manage affect, and especially sexual arousal, in the construction of history?

▪          how do sexually explicit media document and/or obscure sex working conditions?

▪          in what ways are issues of access and ownership negotiated in the different environments housing the archives (a volunteer-run community archive, an academic library, a human rights research centre), especially with regard to copyright law, data storage, and community participation?

▪          when and how can sexually explicit media be taken as “testimony” on the political status of its producers and consumers?



Participation and scholarly blogging – 20%

Seminar presentation* – 20%

Research paper – 50%

Bibliography – 10%


*I have contacted Alice Tieulie in the Research Centre to ask to arrange an Arts & Science seminar for late 2012.



Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Attwood, Feona. “Dirty Work: Researching Women and Sexual Representation.” Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process. Ed. Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill. London: Routledge, 2010.

— and I.Q. Hunter. “Not Safe for Work: Researching and Teaching the Sexually Explicit.” Sexualities 12.5 (2009): 547-57.

—. “Reading Porn: The Paradign Shift in Pornography Research.” Sexualities 5.1 (2002): 91-105.

Beer, Sarah. The Sex Worker Rights Movement in Canada: Challenging the ‘Prostitution Laws.’ Diss. U of Windsor, 2010.

Beverley, John. Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.

Bright, Deborah. “Pictures, Perverts, and Politics.” The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. Ed. Deborah Bright. New York: Routledge, 1998. Rpt at Bright Publications. n.d. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. <>

Bright, Susie. “A Brief History of On Our Backs, 1984-1991.” Susie Bright’s Journal. 15 Nov. 2011. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. <>

— and Jill Posener, eds. Nothing But the Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image: A Portfolio and Exploration of Lesbian Erotic Photography. New York: Freedom Editions, 1996.

Buss, Helen M. and Marlene Kadar, eds. Working in Women's Archives: Researching Women's Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001.

Cage, Diana, ed. On Our Backs Guide to Lesbian Sex. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004.

Childs, Mary et al. Beyond Decriminalization: Sex Work, Human Rights and a New Framework for Law Reform. Vancouver: Pivot Legal Society, 2006. Web. <>

Clough, Patricia Ticineto and Jean Halley, eds. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke UP, 2007.

Collins, Dana. “Lesbian Pornographic Production: Creating Social/Cultural Space for Subverting Representations of Sexuality.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 43 “Sexuality” (1998-99): 31-62.

—. “‘No Experts: Guaranteed!’:  Do-It-Yourself Sex Radicalism and the Production of the Lesbian Sex Zine ‘Brat Attack.’” Signs 25.1 (1999): 65-89.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Dean, Amber. “Does a Lesbian Need a Vagina Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle? or, Would the ‘Real’ Lesbian Please Stand Up!” Canadian Women’s Studies 24.2-3 (2005): 93-101.

—. Hauntings: Representations of Vancouver's Disappeared Women. Diss. U of Alberta, 2009. Web. <>

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.

Feminist Porn Archive. “About the Archive.” n.d. 1 Mar. 2012. Web. <>

Fernandes, Joyce. “Sex into Sexuality: A Feminist Agenda for the 90s.” Art Journal 50.2 (1991): 35-38.

Ferris, Shawna. Dangerous Order: Globalization, Canadian Cities, and Street-Involved Sex Work. Diss. McMaster University, 2007. Web. <>

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

—. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

—. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 2. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

—. “A Preface to Transgression.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. and Trans. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1977. 29-52. Rpt at “foucault/bataille.” luctor et emergo. 23 Feb. 2011. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. <>

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Jeffreys, Sheila. The Lesbian Heresy: A Feminist Perspective on the Lesbian Sexual Revolution. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 1993.

—.  The Industrial Vagina. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Jenks, Chris. Transgression. London: Routledge, 2003.

Kendrick, Walter. The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: U California P, 1987.

Kipnis, Laura. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Kleinhans, Chuck. “Introduction: Prior Constraints.” Cinema Journal 46.4 (2007): 96-101.

Lamos, Colleen. “The Lesbian Postmodern Position: On Our Backs.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura L. Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 85-103.

Love, Heather. “A Gentle Angry People: The Lesbian Culture Wars.” Review of L. Hart, Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism and J. Halberstam Female Masculinity.  Transition 84 (2000): 98-113.

Maltry, Melanie and Kristin Tucker. “Female Fem(me)ininities.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 6.2 (2002): 89-102.

Martindale, Kathleen. Unpopular Culture: Lesbian Writing After the Sex Wars. Albany: SUNY P, 1997.

McKay, Corina. “Is Sex Work Queer?” Social Alternatives 18.3 (1999): 48-53.

Noble, J Bobby. “Refusing to Make Sense.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 11.1-2 (2007): 167-75.

Palac, Lisa. “How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life.” Debating Sexual Correctness: Pornography, Sexual Harassment, Date Rape and the Politics of Sexual Equality. Ed. Adele Stan. New York: Delta, 1995. 236-52. Rpt at WMST100: Introduction to Women’s Studies (course website). Michelle Polak. n.d. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. <>

Queen, Carol and Lynn Comella. “The Necessary Revolution: Sex-Positive Feminism in the Post-Barnard Era.” The Communication Review 11.3 (2008): 274-91.

Ross, Becki L.. "Sex and (Evacuation From) the City: The Moral and Legal Regulation of Sex Workers in Vancouver's West End, 1975-1985." Sexualities 13.2 (2010): 197-218.

Sender, Katherine. “Neither Fish nor Fowl: Feminism, Desire, and the Lesbian Consumer Market.” The Communication Review 7.4 (2004): 407-32.

—. “Sex Sells: Sex, Class, and Taste in Commercial Gay and Lesbian Media.” GLQ 9.3 (2003): 331-65.

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithica, NY: Cornell UP, 1986.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002.

Strub, Whitney. “Lavender Menaced: Lesbianism, Obscenity Law, and the Feminist Antipornography Movement.” Journal of Women’s History 22.2 (2010): 83-107.

Swedberg, Deborah. “What Do We See When We See Woman/Woman Sex in Pornographic Movies.” NWSA Journal 1.4 (1989): 602-16.

Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998.

Waugh, Thomas. The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2006.