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By Vikas Datta

Title: The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know; Author: Shira Tarrant; Publisher: Oxford University Press; Pages: 208; Price: Rs 499


No other word raises as much controversy as pornography and none is as difficult to delineate with even a US Supreme Court judge confessing he could identify it when he saw it but could never precisely define it. Technology now has ensured it may be only a click away, but its shape, nature and effects remain as secretive as its viewing, thus contributing to many myths and misinformation - which may mean more problems.

Trying to provide an informative but balanced approach to various aspects of pornography, including its burgeoning industry, is US academician Shira Tarrant, who contends that pornography deserves discussion "like any issue reshaping our cultural landscape" while its "ubiquity and easy access make the subject timely and important".

The Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Tarrant takes the question-answer approach as her method, while dividing her approach in ten sections, which among others, deal with pornography's history, legal issues such as whether it can claim protection of free speech, medical research as to its effect on performers, social affairs, and political debates, as well as the industry itself. She also raises key and universal issues including the extent of children's access to porn, reactions and responses to teens watching porn, its capacity to be addictive and its responsibility for unwholesome outcomes in the real world.

Beginning with seeking to define pornography, the vexed question of how - and if - it can be differentiated from erotica, the more vexed question how and why it matters - with Tarrant holding it is wrong to dismiss it as "mere jack-off material" for its "ubiquitous presence in so many aspects of our lives" makes it a "rich source for studying the ways in which ideas about gender, race, class, beauty, and sex are constructed, conveyed, and maintained" - and the most vexed one of whether we should treat it as "a crime, a sin, a vice, or a choice?"

The answers, which depend on culture, religion and context, may seem obvious but still be unexpected as far as reasons are concerned.

Tarrant hits new ground when she deals with the pornography industry and performers, the different forms of porn videos and movies, what happens on the set, the cost incurred and revenue earned, the pay of performers, the reasons they join, what it is like to work in porn (it may come as a disappointment to many but it is not exactly a fantasy come true) and the health issues that may rise.

Subsequently the social context takes her focus with data on porn use by both sexes, as well as children and teens and the challenges in collecting meaningful figures, before moving to more burning questions like whether it causes leads to sexism and violence against women, its relation with sex trafficking, what it tells us about the viewers, and if it has any positive benefits.

Finally dealing with the future of pornography, she here also dwells on the slowly increasing amount of porn made for women, and those with alternate sexual orientations.

Tarrant's answers, which she terms "research-based and avoid moral and political judgment to provide a trustworthy source for rational information" with the objective of "making sense of the provocative, contentious and, sometime high-stakes issues", are sometimes counter-intuitive and often surprising, demonstrate power of emotion and "moral panic" to cloud issues and advance vested interests, and the ever present danger of misrepresenting data, particularly confusing "correlation with causation".

The author herself may seem somewhat inclined in favour of pornography, though not oblivious of its negative aspects. But valid is her point that pornography needs to be acknowledged and discussed to curb its evils which can only rise in a climate where it is sought to be brushed away or ignored as an aberration. And it is this sentiment, which despite an overwhelmingly US context, makes this a useful read on the subject. It may even clear some misconceptions.

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