Alon Lischinsky's research and teaching



Conference paper: Lischinsky, A. (2015, July 23). Doing the naughty or having it done to you: agent roles in erotic writing [Paper presentation]. 2015 Corpus Linguistics International Conference, Lancaster, UK

Once imprisoned in “secret museums” and hidden from the view of the general public (Kendrick, 1997), pornography has become an increasingly visible and important part of cultural life over the past 50 years. Visual and written representations of sexual activity, formally banned as obscene in most Western countries since the mid-19th century, entered the mass market in the 1960s and their circulation grew very significantly with the proliferation of special-interest magazines in the 1970s, the launch of home video systems in the 1980s, and the commercial internet in the 1990s (Hardy, 2009). Online pornography in particular has disrupted the various barriers historically erected to regulate access to erotic materials, giving rise to heated discussions about acceptable forms of sexual knowledge, sexual freedom and sexual representations (Atwood, 2010).

This newfound visibility has resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount and range of scholarly work on porn. While academic research on the subject until the 1990s tended to focus on alleged undesirable effects of porn consumption —such as undermining traditional values of monogamy and emotional attachment (Zillmann, 1986), or enticing men to sexual violence against women (Mackinnon 1989)— current work adopts a much more nuanced view of the various forms in which porn is consumed, of its psychological and social functions, and of its aesthetic and cultural significance (Wicke 1991). But while this scholarship has led to increasing awareness of the various forms of pornographic expression, it has largely focused on the visual genres of photography and film, and exploration of the language of contemporary porn remains limited and uneven (Wicke 1991:75).

Certain corners of this broad field have received a certain degree of attention; analyses of erotic writing belonging to the canonical genres of high literature are not rare, and there has been considerable interest in specific forms of amateur erotica, such as slash fiction, a genre of fan writing that introduces romantic or erotic elements between fictional characters that are not so paired in the original work (e.g., Dhaenens et al., 2008). However, these strands of research have rarely concerned themselves with the linguistic and semiotic substance of erotic writing. The field of “pornolinguistics” imagined by McCawley (Zwicky et al., 1992) remains almost entirely unpopulated, and few systematic empirical descriptions of the language of porn are available (among the few exceptions, see Dwyer, 2007; Johnsdotter, 2011).

Such an absence is especially unfortunate because the analysis of the language used to depict sexuality and sexual activity is uniquely positioned to contribute evidence of the popular understanding of these issues. Unlike literary forms of erotica —in which issues of aesthetics, stylistics and narrative form are likely to be an important concern— and commercially-produced erotica such as that published in magazines like Forum —in which both obscenity laws and target market considerations contribute to shaping the content and form of the stories— amateur erotic writing provides relatively direct access to the cognitive scripts according to which the wider public conceives of sexual activity. This is not to say, of course, that this kind of narratives provides an accurate representation of the sexual lives of their authors, but rather that these narratives reflect the forms of sexual practice that their authors find exciting, desirable or alluring without gatekeeping by editors or producers.

My particular focus in this study is on the linguistic representation of sexual agency in amateur online erotic writing. Traditional conceptions of pornography have claimed that it is characterised by a male-centric perspective in which females play a predominantly passive role (e.g., Mackinnon 1989). From a functional linguistic point of view, these claims can be investigated through an analysis of transitivity structures, where the participant roles linked to specific processes can be seen as the authors' encoding of their experiential reality (Halliday 1973:134). Transitivity analysis focuses on how an author represents who undertakes an action, and who is acted upon or affected. This form of analysis has long been used in critical discourse studies to investigate which social groups or roles are represented as having power over others (Trew 1979). Carter (1997:13), for example, shows that stories in women's magazines tend to cast males as agents of transitive verbs of which females are the goal.

In this paper, I apply these notions to investigate the syntax of verbs representing sexual activity in a large corpus of online erotica., one of the oldest and largest erotic fiction repositories online, was used to collect a sample of the most read 500 individual stories; items from the “How To”, “Novels and Novellas” and “Reviews & Essays” categories were excluded to ensure genre uniformity. The resulting corpus comprised just under 1.5 million words. Using both standalone tools and the online Sketch Engine, the syntactic patterns in which the lemma fuck and its synonyms were investigated.

agency, transitivity, gender studies, erotica, pornography, online fiction, porn studies, corpus linguistics, corpus stylistics, corpus-assisted discourse analysis