Yanyan’s Secret

By Mona Malacane

Yanyan  Zhou is from China, she enjoys embroidery, she is the unofficial ambassador for our department, and she studies porn. If you already know Yanyan, this is old news. But what you may not know is that pornographic and erotic material is illegal in China unless it is for medial or research purposes. And not just a slap on the wrist illegal. In 2009, Chinese police arrested over 5,000 people associated with Internet pornography. According to Yanyan, one male graduate student was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for uploading 79 explicit images. Even the marbled genitalia of the statue of David are blurred on Chinese television.

Yanyan’s parents, like many other parents in China, are anti-porn. Yanyan shared with me the story of her mother finding porn on her 19 year old cousin’s computer after he failed one of his courses and scolded him for three days straight. At the time, she says, Yanyan kind of agreed with her mother’s reaction; however, after coming to the US, she believes that it is natural that he would be curious about sex. (Her mother’s opinion has not changed.)

Yanyan’s thesis is a study of Chinese homosexual literature called Boys Love Stories.  Currently, she is working with Bryant Paul and Michelle Funk on a content analysis of sexually explicit videos on the web’s top three porn sites examining sexual acts, aggression, and many other variables. Their goal is to be able to describe the current landscape of pornographic content, which is a huge undertaking. Last semester, 28 undergraduate coders coded about 3,500 videos. Depending on the content, coders record anywhere from 100-300 variables per video.

Because of the multitude of variables, the massive sample to code, and the manpower required to do so, they required a sophisticated program that could keep the data organized and minimize coder error. One local company Bryant consulted with to design such a program quoted him thousands of dollars and required at least two months to complete it. Yanyan’s mother finished the first version of it within a week and a half.

Yes, Yanyan’s mother. The same woman who scolded Yanyan’s younger cousin wrote the program to record data of what he was probably watching. Thankfully for the project, Yanyan’s mother does not speak or read English. If she did… let’s just say they would probably be hand coding or still looking for funding.

Like any good daughter who comes from a conservative country and studies sexually explicit material, Yanyan eased her mother into the subject little by little. Initially, she described her research interests to her mother as media psychology. Then she said it was more about gender studies and how women are depicted in the media. She progressed to telling her mother about her interest in studying Boys Love Stories, which she says her mother was still fine with because the stories are about homosexual males, not sex. She then mentioned the great opportunity she had to work on a project with her adviser about pornography, adding the caveat that she did not think that this would become her career. Still hesitant, Yanyan explained that they were studying the subject from a sexual health perspective which softened her mother slightly.  Finally, Yanyan told her mother that she wanted to study pornography and explicit material as an academic. Yanyan and her mother consider this to be their secret and have not told Yanyan’s father. (Do not worry, they don’t read the blog!)

Snapshot of the code sheet

Snapshot of the code sheet

Yanyan says that her mother probably has a vague idea about what porn is like but she has never seen it. When they communicate about it, Yanyan says they refer to the variables by question number rather than saying, “about the question regarding condom use during penetration… can you move that to go after the question about ejaculation?” In fact, she specifically warned her mother not to Google translate any of the words.

Sample questions

Sample questions

It took Yanyan two years to gently acclimate her mother to the idea of possibly, maybe taking a step towards having slightly less conservative ideas about pornography. Coming from a country that strictly regulates material that is remotely sexual could however give her an advantage. She says, “When American people look at [pornography], they can take it for granted . . . Because I am from a totally different country, I have a different perspective and I can find details that they may not think about.” Advantage or not, both Yanyan and her mother have been instrumental to the project. Perhaps her mother can travel here when they present their findings at a conference . . .  ;)

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