Neither Celebratory, nor Dismissive: Accessing Pornographic Media in Archives

Moving image pornography has always existed on the peripheries of dominant culture— from early twentieth century stag films that were secretly screened in brothels and frat parties, to midnight screenings of sexploitation films in the late 1960s, viewing these works was, and continues to be a person’s “dirty little secret.”[1] Today these works continue to carry this stigma and have consequently fallen into the peripheries of the archive— rarely processed, tucked away and never talked about. However, in 2002, archivist Brian Graney organized the first “Dirty Movies” panel at the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference in Boston to discuss the marginalized status of pornographic media in archives. On the panel were various archivists and scholars who addressed the numerous issues associated with preserving and providing access to these types of materials, and also marked the first time an open discussion was had about the “dirty little secrets” most archives conceal.[2]  Addressing the marginalized status of pornographic works in moving image archives, film historian Eric Schaefer notes:


In the past people ignored or dismissed films made by blacks or by women, movies made in the home, and movies made in the service of industry and education. We now recognize these dismissals as both parochial and shortsighted. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.[3]


More than a decade has passed since Schaefer’s stern warning about the dire status of these works, and current institutional attitudes towards pornographic media suggests that the trend of secrecy has finally begun to shift as archives and libraries alike, gradually become more open about their pornographic holdings, and are thus making them known and accessible to the public.[4] This newfound attitude towards these types of works stems from a realization that these movies offer a rich new field of academic study by functioning as records that shine a radical new light on our cinematic past. However, while current attitudes in the archival community suggest that these works are no longer what Linda Williams famously called “the most orphaned of all the orphan films,”[5] access to these collections is still an issue as institutions continue to enforce either restrictive archival policies, or a general indifference towards moving image pornography. In examining various institutional approaches to providing access to pornographic media, it becomes apparent that these types of works continue to be both stigmatized and marginalized within archives, and have a long way to go before they are considered vital cultural records worthy of preservation. This paper will analyze the current relationship between pornographic media and the archive with an emphasis placed on issues of access. Moreover, by examining the various approaches in which archives (in)effectively make these works accessible, I hope to posit suggestions for ways in which archives can begin to remedy issues of access to these materials in order to ensure that pornographic works are properly preserved and easily accessible for future generations to study. 


Although Eric Schaeffer and other archivists use the term “adult film” to “encompass a wide range of moving images designed to be shown to adult audiences,”[6] I will use the term “pornography” instead in order to further contextualize these types of works within the nascent field of Porn Studies, and thus further legitimize their place in the archive. Therefore for the purposes of this essay, the term “pornography” refers to moving images created for adult audiences, regardless of whether or not they are hard-core or soft-core works.


In 1989 Linda Williams released her groundbreaking study of pornographic film Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible and inaugurated what is formally know today as Porn Studies. The book provides an in-depth analysis of pornography as a genre and positions adult films as important cultural artifacts for the understanding of our complex cinematic history.[7] Hard Core was a landmark moment in the field of academia, not only because Williams’ was the first to critically engage with these types of films, but also because she was successful in proving that these films are worthy of critical examination. Consequently, Williams’ text ushered in a new era in the field of academia devoted exclusively to the study of pornographic moving images— Richard Dyer, Joseph Slade, Nina Martin and many other film scholars went on to publish texts about these types of works, successfully putting Porn Studies on the academic radar.[8]


However, while the influx of research devoted to porn scholarship has come a long way in recent years, Porn Studies continues to struggle in being legitimized within institutionalized film studies programs and within academia at large. So while many universities across the United States have recognized the immense value of teaching the critical examination of pornography in their classrooms and lecture halls, Eric Schaefer notes that “we are still at a point when general film histories continue to ignore adult films, as evident by most of the survey textbooks used in college films courses.”[9] Indeed, this aptly describes my own undergraduate film studies experience in which all of the courses I took completely neglected the long and complex history of moving image pornography, subsequently making me oblivious to the fact that these types of moving images are as old as the medium itself.[10]


Although pornography is still very much a part of the seedy undercurrent of dominant culture, the multi-billion dollar industry is here to stay. Porn is everywhere—on the Internet, on our mobile devices, televisions, in our libraries, in our archives and even in our homes; yet  pornographic artifacts from the past continue to be the most marginalized artifacts within moving image archives. How then can we begin to think critically about the role of the archive in preserving and most importantly, providing access to moving image pornography? With the shift in attitude towards this material, it is imperative that scholars and archivist alike work together in facilitating access to these works to both further legitimize their study and generate awareness about their neglected status’ in archives


Porn in archives: Neither celebratory nor dismissive

As it stands, institutions that have collections of pornographic materials do not necessarily keep their holdings a secret anymore, but they seldom advertise their existence. In speaking with archivists from various institutions, it becomes apparent that processing pornographic material often takes a back seat to more “important” collections, leaving vast quantities of pornographic material unprocessed. Furthermore, as pornography often stretches across formal and genre boundaries, many institutions omit the term “pornography” all together in lieu of less controversial terms such as erotica, exploitation films, experimental film, or simply art cinema. Eric Schaefer has observed that catalogs such as the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-1971 often omit designations that would distinguish films as containing pornographic content, and instead use categories such as “romantic drama” or “melodrama,” which ultimately prove to be extremely detrimental to the access of pornographic works.[11]

The issues with the Kinsey Institute


My initial inquiry into the issues of access surrounding pornographic collections occurred when I researched the access policies at the Kinsey Institute, the most notable non-profit institution that actively collects pornographic material. The moving image archive at the Kinsey Institute consists of approximately 8,000 film titles dating as far back as 1915 and extending into the 1970s. The films housed in the collection come in a variety of different formats such as Super 8, 8mm, 16mm and 35mm and are categorized into subgenres such as Historical Stag films, Peepshow, Sexual Education, Swedish Erotica and Exploitation films. The Film Archive at Kinsey is also home to a collection of over 4,000 pornographic videos from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and contains a variety of different magnetic tape formats such as betamax and videocassette.[12]


When Dr. Kinsey began collecting pornographic films in the 40s and 50s he distinctly made a separation between  “pornography” and “film,” and was not interested in preserving pornographic films as important artifacts of our cinematic heritage, but rather, he was interested first and foremost in utilizing these objects as case studies on human sexuality.[13] And Currently, from what I’ve gathered by talking to various archivists about this archive, the Kinsey Institute continues to maintain this same (problematic) attitude about their large pornographic media collection. For example, in Lauren Ashley Kusnierz thesis on the American Genre Film Archive, “Rebels, Nudie-Cuties, and Hipsters: A Study of the American Genre Film Archive,” Kusnierz presents a case study on AGFA’s acquisition of the Kinsey collection, detailing how AGFA “felt the siren call of the savior mantra for these neglected films” and through the acquisition from Kinsey, were determined to provide access to films primarily through exhibition.[14] She notes:


The Kinsey Institute views its collection as significant because these objects, texts, and materials are critical contributions to the research of scholars and scientists in furthering understanding of human sexuality… but The Kinsey Institute has no desire to hold onto films on 35mm if the Institute can make it available through other formats.[15]


In talking to various archivists interested in the preservation and access of pornography, it becomes evident that the Kinsey Institute functions more as a research center on human sexuality and less like a moving image archive. Furthermore, over the years they have garnered the notorious reputation of being extremely selective in providing access to their material. This of course is problematic because it goes against The Kinsey Institute’s mission statement, which states the following:


The mission of The Kinsey Institute is to advance sexual health and knowledge worldwide. The Kinsey Institute accomplishes its mission by promoting interdisciplinary research and scholarship in the fields of human sex, gender, and reproduction. The work of the institute includes: Conducting high-impact research; Collecting, preserving and providing access to research archives and collections; Disseminating knowledge about sex and sexual health to the public; Training a new generation of researchers in the fields of sex, gender and reproduction. [16]


While the Kinsey Institute’s mission statement clearly situates their interest in the study of sexuality, it nonetheless lists access as one its priorities. So while the moving image archive at the Kinsey Institute may be a sort of institutional burden, they nonetheless must abide by their own mission statement. Moreover, The Kinsey Institute’s access policies, while restrictive, are similar to other archives’ policies. For example, access is only made available to qualified individuals conducting research or with specific permission by access services, which require notice well in advance of the visit to secure an appointment. A researcher is never allowed to view an original film print and will view a video access copy instead. However, what is striking about this access policy is the Institution’s refusal to loan out or license material to patrons; so even if a patron pays to create an access copy of a (often orphaned, one of a kind) film, the access copy is not allowed to leave the premise of the archive, prohibiting researchers from utilizing the footage in either a class or conference setting.[17]


During the 5th Orphan Film Symposium at the University of South Carolina in March of 2006, Linda Williams delivered an essay entitled “Porn Films in the Kinsey Institute and Elsewhere” wherein she recounts her troubling experiences with the Kinsey Institute and stresses the importance of restructuring their very ineffective and exclusionary access policies. She begins her talk by discussing how in 2003, The Kinsey Institute invited her as keynote speaker to the institute’s 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. Kinsey’s 1953 controversial volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Her talk followed the screening of four stag films from the Institute’s archive, which was a huge moment for the Kinsey Institute because it was the first time they had ever publicly screened anything from their hardcore stag film collection.[18] However, Williams goes on to detail how the selection of stags was underwhelmingly “palatable.” In the following years Williams attempted to gain an access copy of a stag film entitled KKK Night Riders to show as part of her presentation for the Orphan Film Symposium. When she made the request, The Kinsey Institute provided this response:


The library and special collections of the Kinsey Institute make up a private research collection intended for scholarly use. And while this symposium is scholarly in nature, we do not feel that the requested film is an appropriate representation of our collection.[19]


To which Williams replied, “Well what is?”[20]


By restricting a leading scholar in the field access to the Archive’s material, the Kinsey Institute cemented their notorious reputation as an Institute with highly restrictive access policies. Unfortunately not much has changed at the Institute due largely in part to the rampant political conservatism in Bloomington, the archive’s perpetual budget constraints and lack of funding. However, it appears as though the Kinsey Institute is now extending access where it can— for example Russell Sheaffer, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington was recently awarded The John Money Fellowship for Scholars of Sexology and is now the first person ever to be granted unrestricted access to the Archive’s pornographic media collection.[21]


Pro-porn…sort of: The UCLA Film and Television Archive

The issues and constraints experienced at the Kinsey Institute are also prevalent in archives that do not actively collect pornographic material and whose collection policy does not exclusively extend to the preservation of these works. For example, the UCLA Film and Television Archive houses an extensive collection of Pornographic films from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and unlike the Kinsey Institute, believes that moving images are vital cultural artifacts worthy of preservation. The Archive’s mission statement is the following:


Moving images constitute an integral part of our diverse national culture as works of fiction, art, social document or historical record providing knowledge, inspiration and enjoyment to audiences. UCLA Film & Television Archive advocates the robust circulation of all moving images in all formats by collecting, preserving, curating and making accessible these media for research, education and entertainment.[22]


It is clear with this mission statement that the UCLA Film and Television Archive advocates for the preservation and access of all types of cinematic works, no matter the subject manner. But being part of a public-facing institution like the University of California, Los Angeles, the Archive must report to several levels of bureaucratic overhead and more or less ignores problematic works such as pornography in order to avoid issues with conservative institutional leaders. Todd Wiener, one of the Archive’s motion picture archivists agrees that while the archival community as a whole is now less dismissive of pornographic materials in the archive, these works continue to be a very sensitive issue.  For example, if an institution such as the UCLA Film and Television Archive ever advocates for the preservation and access of these types of works, the Archive runs the risk of jeopardizing relationships between the Archive, UC leaders, and (potential) donors.[23] Furthermore, Todd assured me that that while the Archive as a whole works hard to adheres to their mission statement by being pro-porn preservation and access, these works have sort of become the Archive’s “bastard stepchild” and are often stashed away as to not upset or offend more conservative institutional leaders.[24] When asked about the ways in which he balances the preservation and access of these problematic works while remaining sensitive to the concerns of his more conservative colleagues and institutional leader, he replied:


My colleagues and I have always been sensitive to the fact that our pornographic collections can be viewed in an extremely negative context by some of our potential co-workers, clients and senior institutional leaders and funders.  When transferring content for research and study, this content is usually transferred… when there was minimal contact with staff…with monitors turned off, and/or viewed in a private research cubicle at ARSC away from the main media lab. [25]


Furthermore, when I inquired about potential concerns over HR, Todd noted that there has never been a formal HR position at UCLA specifically pertaining to this type of content since the processing and access is handled in a behind the scenes context: “It is not that we are hiding, we just have workflows and an internal notification chain in place that does not call attention to the type of content.” [26]

When I asked about how often these types of works get accessed, I was surprised to discover that pornographic media is actually accessed quite often at the Archive, despite the seemingly lack of archival attention devoted to these works. However, when providing access to this type of material, the viewing stations set up in the Archive’s Research & Study Center (ARSC) are not suitable, as other researchers working on non-pornographic material are easily distracted, if not offended by the material. This requires ARSC to enable special procedures to accommodate researchers interested in viewing pornographic materials, which involves sanctioning off an exclusive space where the material can be viewed in private.[27] While UCLA’s Film and Television Archive takes on a low-key attitude towards the handling of these types of works, the Archive tries it’s best to balance the institutional concerns associated with pornography with providing relatively easy access to these works.


Restoring porn: Joe Rubin and Vinegar Syndrome

Although the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s approach to the preservation of pornographic works is mostly addressed with respect to proper housing conditions (such as climate controlled vaults), moving image archivist Joe Rubin and the co-founder of Vinegar Syndrome “a film distribution company and archive with a focus on preserving rare and unique cinema”[28] is one of the few individuals actively restoring and distributing pornographic films. Alongside his partner Ryan Emerson, Joe conducts high-resolution 2K and 4K scans of pornographic elements, which he then restores digitally and distributes commercially through Vinegar Syndrome. Joe states that the impetus behind the creation Vinegar Syndrome was “to introduce a new generation to lost and forgotten films from what’s considered the golden age of American hard-core filmmaking, roughly 1969 to 1986.”[29]


 Joe spoke to me about the strides he and his partner have accomplished in preserving pornographic films over the past few years and more importantly, how difficult it’s been for them to establish relationships with various archives. Moreover, Joe has experienced time and time again the difficulties associated with accessing pornographic materials, whether it is due to outdated, incorrect catalog records or highly restrictive institutional access policies.[30] His many interactions with various archives over the years have lead him to believe that many of these institutions consider their pornographic works as “other,” and not a part of cinema’s history. According to Joe, pornographic works in archives “end up being dismissed outright or often forgotten.”[31]


Archives and gay pornography

In “Archives and Access in the 21st Century” Rick Prelinger begins his essay by stating “many institutions sequester their holdings behind walls of copyright, policy, or indifference, rendering them inaccessible to many.”[32] Indeed, this statement seems especially fitting in regards to the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University. This collection primarily houses works dealing with gay and lesbian sexuality and includes films, videos and DVDS.[33] Some information about The Gay Male Pornographic Video Collection at Cornell University is available online through the University’s website,[34] but it is vague and not helpful. The main concerns over access with this collection seem to stem from institutional anxieties over copyright, given the bootleg nature of this collection. Moreover, due to the lack of a catalog or finding aid, only serious researchers with lots of time and commitment will likely access these works. But ultimately, researchers may only access the ephemera associated with the works as the “Videotapes are temporarily restricted.”[35] This is especially disappointing as gay male pornography from the ‘80s provides a crucial insight into the ways the gay community addressed the aids crisis through pornography.


While the case of The Gay Male Pornographic Video Collection at Cornell University is disappointing, it is a common occurrence among archives nation wide.  Fortunately though, archives can look to institutions such as the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) in Toronto, to see how an archive can proactively integrate moving image pornography as part of its core collection and thus provide greater access to these materials. From its inception, the CLGA has actively collected and preserved gay male erotica and pornography and currently houses over 600 works, in 8mm, 16mm and in both Beta and VHS formats—making the archive one the largest repositories for “gay male erotica and pornography in the world.”[36] Pornographic film began to arrive soon after the creation of the CLGA in 1973, and the Institution quickly recognized the informational nature and cultural value these documents poses and consequently chose to preserve and provide access to these artifacts. In this manner, institutions such as CLGA due their part in bringing these marginalized objects into the larger archival discussion, establishing them as cultural artifacts worthy of critical study and preservation. Perhaps the CLGA is successful in providing access to these works because they advocate for their research as crucial records of a community whose other records were either suppressed or destroyed, and not necessarily as a part of cinematic history.


XFR Collective: Access to pornographic media outside of the traditional archival model

So what is the status on access to pornographic media outside of the traditional archival model?  I was fortunate enough to speak to Lorena Ramírez-López at this year’s AMIA conference in Portland, Oregon about XFR Collective and their community approach to preservation and access of video works. XFR Collective is an all-volunteer non-profit organization that partners with artist, activists, individuals, and groups to “lower the barriers to preserving at-risk audiovisual media.”[37] The collective works specifically with magnetic media and offers free video transfer services to the community. The formation of XFR Collective was created to address “the wider need in the community of artists for access to media capture and migration services as a means to preserve creative productions stored in aging and obsolete audiovisual and digital formats.”[38]


Currently, Lorena is XFR Collective’s social media and outreach coordinator, however she is involved in all aspects of the organization. When I asked Lorena about XFR Collective’s approach to preserving and providing access to pornographic works, she assured me that pornographic media receives the same two-part treatment all other works receive: the Collective first identifies whether or not the patron with the material owns the copyright/intellectual property of the work, and if so, the material is then digitized and uploaded onto the Internet Archive for others to access.[39] XFR Collective follows this same procedure with all the works they receive and has not encountered any issues with uploading pornography onto the Internet Archive thus far.[40] Furthermore, I asked Lorena whether this model of preservation and access has ever proven to be problematic, particularly when dealing with pornographic works, which may have been intended for private viewings only. She told me that patrons utilizing their services are aware of XFR Collective’s procedures and that “most people that we work with are pretty conscious of their content and who owns it,” so uploading works onto a site like the Internet Archive has never been an issue.[41] It is refreshing to see that organizations such as XFR Collective’s who are actively thinking outside traditional modes of archival access and that material like pornography is given they same treatment as other works.


In examining the various institutional approaches to providing access to pornographic moving images, it becomes evident that these works still hold a very problematic position within archives. Therefore archivists and scholars alike must lead in efforts to subvert stigmas about our pornographic cinematic heritage in order to better provide access to these works— we must advocate access to all pornographic materials, regardless of the subject matter, to whoever is interested. It is our job as archivists to share and not hide what we have in our collections and our fundamental duty to facilitate access to these kinds of works, even if it means going against the established norm.

Works Cited:


[1] Schaefer, Eric. "Dirty Little Secrets: Scholars, Archivists, and Dirty Movies." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 5.2 (2005) Web. 10 Oct. 2015


[2] Ibid., 104.


[3] Ibid., 105.


[4] Erdman, Dan. Personal Interview. 20 November 2015. Moving image archivist interested in the preservation of pornographic works and the head of the Pornography Interest Group.


[5] Williams, Linda. “”White Slavery” Versus the Ethnography of “Sex Workers”: Women in Stag Films at the Kinsey Archive,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 5.2 (2005): 109. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.


[6] Schaefer, Eric. "Dirty Little Secrets: Scholars, Archivists, and Dirty Movies." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 5.2 (2005): 81. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.


[7] Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible"  Berkeley: U of California, 1989. Print.


[8] Jablonski, Joe. “Porn Studies Latest Academic Fad,” Accuracy in Academia (October 2001),



[9] Schaefer, Eric. "Dirty Little Secrets: Scholars, Archivists, and Dirty Movies." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 5.2 (2005): 88. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.


[10] Slade, Joseph W. “Eroticism and Technological Recession: The Stag Film.” History and Technology 22.1 (2006): 48-50. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.


[11] Schaefer, Eric. "Dirty Little Secrets: Scholars, Archivists, and Dirty Movies." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 5.2 (2005): 96. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.


[12] "The Kinsey Institute - [Library & Special Collections]." The Kinsey Institute - [Library & Special Collections]. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <>.


[13] Rubin, Joe. Personal Interview. 21 November 2015.


[14] Kusnierz, Lauren Ashley. “Rebels, Nudie-Cuties, and Hipsters: A Study of the American Genre Film Archive” Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2014.


[15] Ibid., 30.


[16] "The Kinsey Institute - Mission - Statement [About the Institute]." N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <>.


[17] "The Kinsey Institute - [Library & Special Collections]." The Kinsey Institute - [Library & Special Collections]. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <>.


[18] Williams, Linda. "Porn Films in the Kinsey Institute and Elsewhere." The 5th Orphan Film Symposium. University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina. 22-25 March 2006. Available Online at:


[19] Ibid.


[20] Ibid.


[21] "Kinsey Today." Kinsey Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <>.


[22] "Letter from the Archive Director | UCLA Film & Television Archive.” N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. <>.


[23] Wiener, Todd. Personal Interview. 30 November 2015.


[24] Ibid.


[25] Wiener, Todd. Personal Interview. 05 December 2015.


[26] Ibid.


[27] Wiener, Todd. Personal Interview. 30 November 2015.


[28] "Vinegar Syndrome | About VS." N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. <>.


[29] Piepenburg, Erik. "Smut, Refreshed for a New Generation." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <>.


[30] Joe has reached out to the Kinsey Institute many times over the years and has always been denied access to their collection.


[31] Rubin, Joe. Personal Interview. 21 November 2015.


[32] Prelinger, Rick. "Archives and Access in the 21st Century." Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007): 114.


[33] "Guide to the Gay Male Pornographic Video Collection,1978-1992." N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <>.


[34] Ibid.


[35] "Guide to the Gay Male Pornographic Video Collection,1978-1992." N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <>.


[36] "Moving Images." N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. <>.


[37] "Page Info." XFR Collective. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2015. <>.


[38] "XFR STN."New Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015. <>.


[39] Ramírez-López, Lorena. Personal Interview. 06 December 2015.


[40] Ibid.


[41] Ibid.


©Michael Pazmino 2017