Screening Sex (A John Hope Franklin Center Book) BY Linda Williams. Duke University Press. Paperback, 424 pages. $24.

The cover of Screening Sex (A John Hope Franklin Center Book)

For those who object to the rise of pornography studies as an academic subfield or balk at paying astronomical tuition so their kids can watch people boink on-screen for course credit, Linda Williams is the one to blame. Her landmark 1989 study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” was the first book to take porn seriously as a film genre, treating the subject with scholarly and theoretical sophistication while deftly evading the tedious pro-porn versus anti-porn arguments of the day. Now the canonical text in the field it initiated, Hard Core propelled a generation of porn scholars—a contradictory achievement, since incorporating porn into the curriculum has largely eliminated the interest it once had as a topic. In happier times, this was virgin terrain, theoretically speaking, and a little outré, thus all sorts of fun to read and write about. Today, we have the mainstreaming of porn: Academic conferences abound, institutionally funded yet suffused with the aura of a brave crusade, as if delivering a paper on porn makes you an honorary subversive. Censorship is loudly decried as actual instances of it have waned—even anti-porn feminists are hard to find anymore. The irony, of course, is that obscenity needs its censors; they’re dialectical twins: Without censors, obscenity loses its raison d’être, which is to offend someone’s sensibilities.

Still, censorship isn’t limited to the forms deployed by the state and officialdom; it can be internal as well, a function of the superego, manifesting as shame or embarrassment. But here, too, it’s a new ball game, because these days, porn is chic, and porn stars are our latest antiheroes. Whatever threat sexual explicitness may have posed to the bourgeois psyche has been eliminated, and we’re (mostly) safe from the taunts and frissons that run-of-the-mill obscenity once carried. In other words, we won, all of us erstwhile theorists of cultural inhibition. The person who predicted the current state of things was Herbert Marcuse, whose oxymoronic, if not exactly lilting, phrase “repressive desublimation” describes the way advanced industrial societies liquidate all social opposition, transforming antagonistic elements, including sexual protest, into instruments of social cohesion. Back in 1964, when he was writing, this seemed counterintuitive—also a major downer, since unconstrained sex was supposed to be the template for every other form of social disruption. But it turns out that even sexual rebellion can be transformed into the backbone of social harmony.

So this is the climate the pornography scholar finds herself in nowadays: Porn isn’t just culturally ascendant, it’s triumphal. In response, Williams has written a book that tries to reimagine the terms of sexual explicitness, moving from porn to a larger—though contiguous—playing field. Screening Sex is a wide-ranging history of sex in the movies, a vast enough subject, but Williams also wants to link the progression of cinematic images to shifting conditions of sexuality and gender over the past century. And she’s devised a multilayered theoretical model to describe how moviegoers learn about sex from movies, which in turn conditions sexuality and changes the kinds of sexual experiences people have, which in turn influences the commercial production of sexual images. This is, needless to say, an ambitious project. Organized both thematically and into a loose chronology, the book opens with the first filmed kiss, shot by Thomas Edison in 1896, and takes us up through cybersex, tracking sexual images from big screens and public spaces back into the private venues (homes and offices) where they’re now mostly consumed.

Williams doesn’t exactly argue that sexual explicitness is progressive and liberation is finally ours: She’s dialectical about the trade-offs between concealment and exposure, attentive to the ways the sexual revolution removed some strictures while increasing the monitoring of the body, and mindful that what looks like freedom is often a more subtle form of social control. Yet she does have an agenda, and what she’s rooting for is the use of explicitness to promote new kinds of sexual sophistication. Critical of traditional porn for segregating sex from emotion, she champions filmmakers, such as Catherine Breillat and Patrice Chéreau, who integrate hard-core images into their narratives, using explicitness to reveal the full range of sexual experience. In other words, Williams is interested in the pedagogical opportunities—the “carnal knowledge”—that watching sex on-screen offers, and in the possibility that intelligent use of such images will educate us about our sexuality. At the same time, she admits that even the most brilliant hard-core art films aren’t going to cure American culture of its vast dishonesty about anything having to do with sex. Despite the agenda, some of the book’s most interesting discussions are staged with opponents of sexual explicitness, like film theorist André Bazin, a champion of cinematic realism who drew the line at hard-core sex, arguing that if there’s going to be actual consummation in movies, then you’ll have to really kill the victim in a crime film, too.

Williams is a smooth writer, and even her most scholarly arguments feel lively, though far more engrossing are the vignettes about her own coming-of-age as a movie-sex spectator and especially about what it felt like to be confronted by explicit images before the culture was so saturated with them: to be alternately turned on and confused by rape scenes in Bergman and De Sica, to drive forty miles to watch Deep Throat in the theater in 1973, and, more recently, to have virtual sex with Jenna Jameson via a digital avatar. The desire to know more—and everything!—about sex propels the proliferation of hard-core images on screens large and small, yet such knowledge eludes every attempt to acquire it, which is why the images proliferate. Williams, however, is shrewd enough about the existential nature of the dilemma to explicate it without pretending to have solved it.

Laura Kipnis is the author, most recently, of Against Love: A Polemic (2003) and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (2006; both Pantheon).