Studying Ethics and Researching Porn

By Mona Malacane

How do the media shape, influence, and affect our social and cultural values? How do the media reshape our social standards? How do we create meaning from media messages? These sound like research questions but they are actually the topics of a year-long seminar hosted by The Poynter Center that Yanyan Zhou is enrolled in.


The Poynter Center is an interdisciplinary research center that supports both theoretical and empirical studies, seminars, symposia, and a publication series related to the broader study of ethics. On July 1st, 2014, TPC became part of the Media School and in the spirit of the merger created the seminar “Meaning and Media” to foster multidisciplinary informed discussions related to media, ethics, and culture. This seminar is just one of the many diverse offerings from TPC for the 2014-2015 academic year, which also include an Ethics Bowl  and a monthly roundtable presentation for IUB faculty engaged in ethics-related research.

Some of the topics discussed last semester included healthcare reform and how it has affected young adults; the Pulitzer-nominated story of the difficult choices one family had to make for their micro-premature infant; and a presentation from Telecom’s own Nicole Martins on how popular television shows portray teen pregnancy.

Yanyan’s interests, however, are on the more explicit side … It doesn’t take an advanced degree to know that discussions of pornography effects are often controversial, which is a large part of why Yanyan is so invested in the seminar. In fact, in Yanyan’s view, it is because pornography is often viewed as ethically debatable that porn and its effects must be studied, especially in China where pornography is illegal. She plans to conduct several studies, both in China and America, investigating effects of pornography for her dissertation and expects that many Chinese participants will feel uneasy about the topic. She said sarcastically, “My long term career goal is to ‘corrupt’ Chinese people.”


Research doesn’t have feelings, just results.

But sarcasm aside, Yanyan points to Alfred Kinsey as an analog for her research goals. “I’m really doing something that is on the borderline and I really wish to actually cross the border and make people feel uncomfortable and get myself into trouble … Even Kinsey got himself into trouble. ”

Yanyan and Pumpkin: A Story of a New Forever Home

When Yanyan Zhou told me she wanted to get a cat, I was skeptical. As a previous cat owner, I know cats can be hard work, often in unexpected, sometimes annoying and frequently destructive ways. (I lost countless vases, pots and picture frames due to frisky cats.) But Yanyan was determined; she wanted a forever friend.

“I moved to a new apartment and I was lonely. I needed something to talk to,” Yanyan explained about her desire to get a pet.

Yanyan didn’t have any previous experience with her own cats and was unsure if, as an intentional student, she would be allowed to adopt a pet. She had heard stories of international students in other states being denied the opportunity to adopt.  Yanyan asked me to join her for a trip to PetSmart, where she could check out some of the featured cats from the shelter and gather all the supplies she would need.

As soon as we got to PetSmart, Yanyan saw a big, orange, Garfield-looking kitten/cat and knew she found her something to talk to, her new best friend. As the handler pulled mini-Garfield out of his cage, we realized how much bigger he actually was once he wasn’t napping in a corner. His credentials said he was three months old, but it was clear this orange tabby was either a GIANT kitten or at least six months old.

The big boy stretches in his new home

The big boy stretches in his new home.

Either way, Yanyan was in love. Reluctantly she put her almost-kitten/cat back in his cage so she could fill out the paperwork and get all the supplies she would need to make room for her new love.

In the past, Yanyan has owned only had a rabbit and a few chipmunks for pets.

“I had chipmunks but they really weren’t good pets. They have to be in the cage or they destroy your house,” Yanyan said. She didn’t really know what things she would need to make her studio cat-friendly. Luckily, there was a very nice and VERY patient employee who went around the store with Yanyan explaining the benefits of wet versus dry food, clay versus organic litter.

To be honest, going over the details of pet ownership was a little too much for me. I ducked out partially out of boredom but also because there was this little grey kitten for adoption who kept giving me the “take me home” look.

When I came back half an hour later, Yanyan was almost done buying all the supplies and finishing up the paperwork. She was at the register with her yet-to-be-named giant kitten, who was shockingly not in a cage. Yanyan was holding him as she attempted to fill out paperwork.

As she handed the cat to me in order to pay, I knew disaster was about to strike. This is PetSmart! Land of excitable dogs! And here I was holding a giant kitten who spent his life so far in the safety of a cage. Of course, 30 seconds into holding the orange fluff, a big dog came through the doors, freaking out baby Garfield and sending him climbing up my shoulder and onto my back as he attempted to put distance between himself and the dog. Unbeknownst to me, the collar for big-little kitty was a break-away collar that had been attached incorrectly to the leash so that as soon as the cat bolted, the collar broke away and skinny Garfield dashed under the shelves in the store.

I was exasperated and bleeding, Yanyan was on the floor attempting to soothe her new friend out from under the store shelf, and the PetSmart employees looked like they just really wanted it to be closing time. Eventually, the team got the cat back into Yanyan’s arms and then promptly into a cage; a new condition I demanded if the cat was going to be traveling in my car. There was no way was I having an excitable kitten roaming the backseat of my geo prism.

He kind of does look like a big pumpkin in this picture!

He kind of does look like a big pumpkin in this picture!

As we loaded all the litter, food and toys into the car, I asked Yanyan what she was going to name her new little orange cat. “It has to be a food name,” Yanyan explained, since her previous rabbit and chipmunks had been named Marshmallow and Bacon 1 and 2.

Naming an orange cat Orange was too generic and obvious. Carrot sounded too feminine to Yanyan. Pumpkin she decided. Pumpkins were orange and big and obviously awesome. Newly-named Pumpkin meowed from the back at this decision; I’m going to infer in agreement and not because he was terrified of the moving car.

Although it’s only been a few weeks, Pumpkin is settling in nicely with Yanyan.

“He is just so adorable; a really sweet kid,” Yanyan gushed to me. “He only has two modes: Sleeping and crazily jumping here to there.”

He also is a big cuddler, always wanting Yanyan’s attention. She says that Pumpkin can tell when she is not actually doing work on the computer, when she is just playing games, because Pumpkin will come over and want to play, occasionally barricading the computer keyboard with his body.

Even though adjusting to Pumpkin’s time schedule has been a bit challenging for Yanyan, she says he is worth it. Pumpkin is home forever.

Pumpkin and Yanyan = Best Friends Forever

Pumpkin and Yanyan = Best Friends Forever



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 . . .  ;)

Therapy Embroidery

by Teresa Lynch

In graduate school, you’ll often find your fellow students and faculty with an array of hobbies that help them relax and get away from the stress of academic life. Many people take up therapy baking or jogging.

Yanyan Zhou embroiders – and she’s been doing it for over ten years.

Embroidery by Yanyan.

Embroidery by Yanyan.

Embroidery was a craft passed down in her family. Yanyan’s grandfather was a talented embroiderer and taught Yanyan’s mother when she was young. At the time that Yanyan learned the craft, she was living in Beijing recovering from a surgical procedure that didn’t allow her to go into the sun. “I just sat [inside] and it was really, really boring. There was TV…but that was also very boring. So my mom thought I could try [embroidery] and since she was really bored too, we did it together,” said Yanyan with a laugh.

Xiangsiu embroiderers often depict lions and tigers in their work.

Xiangxiu embroiderers often depict lions and tigers in their work.

Although mostly considered a European tradition, cross-stitch and embroidery are found in Chinese tradition, as well. Yanyan says that in her region of China generations of people have done Hunan embroidery – otherwise known as Xiangxiu (湘绣) embroidery. It is primarily the style and the subjects of the work that distinguish Hunan embroidery. In particular, Yanyan says that the style is “famous for the embroidery of tigers and lions.”

She began to practice to pass the time initially and stave off boredom, but eventually Yanyan found that she really enjoyed the art. In her spare time, she creates pieces such as wallets, pillowcases, and wall art. Smaller pieces of embroidery are completed entirely in her hands, using only the cloth, thread, and needles. Larger pieces require an embroidery hoop. Some of the pieces of art Yanyan has created take only a few hours of work. Others may take up to a month of dedication.

She considers the type of cross-stitch that she does to be a much simpler technique than the type of elaborate and intricate Hunan embroidery her grandfather and other embroiderers from her hometown of Changsha create. Eventually Yanyan aspires to master the style herself, but admits that it takes a tremendous amount of time and practice to perfect the delicate and intricate stitches. Still, she enjoys embroidering and will certainly continue to do it because of how relaxing it is when she’s busy with classes and research. “It’s very repetitive and so you don’t have to use your brain. It’s still hard work…but, it’s distracting. You have no time to think about something else. If you do, you’ll do something wrong, so you have to just forget about everything else for a while.”

Bryant’s Advice

by Ken Rosenberg

After Harmeet’s annual beginning-of-the-year party at the end of orientation week, many of the grad students – and a few of the more adventurous professors – ventured to a bar to continue socializing. Over a couple of drinks and amidst the roar of the collective chatter, Bryant Paul helped second-year M.A. student Yanyan Zhou understand the role she is beginning to adopt as a researcher of “Boys Love” stories and as a future teacher of sex in media. In an interview last week, Bryant elaborated on his advice … on how to deal with the extracurricular activity of giving advice to students.

Professor Bryant Paul is easygoing and sociable. His area of study is at the interaction of sex and media, which means he often has to speak plainly about oft-stigmatized topics. For these reasons, students often see Bryant as a knowledgeable and safe advisor for many of their personal issues. Some are directly related to discussion points from class, though many are not. They are usually beyond the purview of the average professor, but Bryant’s open and empathetic demeanor compels him to help as much as possible.

First piece of advice: Embrace the research – it’s scholarly and important.

After initially being dissuaded from pursuing his ideal course of study, Bryant went to University of California, Santa Barbara, with adamant intent to study sex in media. His mentor, Professor Dan Linz, inspired Bryant to never again doubt his academic lot in life. Bryant says “He doesn’t run from it at all …  he absolutely embraces the notion. What you come to realize … is that you’re really studying the most fundamental human social behavior. Before people could talk, sex was still part of the equation. It’s something that is not only okay to study; it definitely needs to be studied. You have to start thinking about it in those terms, in a more clinical sense. Otherwise, there is a tendency for it to become a bit of a joke – at least to other people.”

Second piece of advice: Let people vent, but stand your legitimized ground.

“It’s okay for them to think it’s hilarious,” Bryant explained, “because it makes them a little uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons they act that way – but there’s a point where you have to let them know that you’re a serious person, as serious as anyone else about what they do.” It is easy to “get away from that,” something Bryant attributes to his joking nature, but “you have to be careful,” he warns, “because there is the tendency to want to marginalize in their minds, at least, what we’re doing.”

“Because of the topic that I teach,” Bryant said, “which is stigmatized by a lot of people, what I think ends up happening is a carryover. We’re discussing things that aren’t commonly discussed, in class and personal meetings about class, and it’s not uncommon for someone to let their guard down. They feel that since we’re already talking about things most people talk about behind closed doors, it’s alright to bring these problems to this guy. I’ve found out a lot about people and I’ve been – not shocked, this is what happens – but, at least early on, I’ve been taken aback by how willing people are to disclose their personal backgrounds, particularly issues of a sexual nature.”

Third piece of advice: Empathize and advise whenever possible.

Bryant has heard about abuse and relationship issues; he’s had people come out to him and discuss their sexual preferences – and he knows it’s not for everyone. “There are times when some people would advise you to step back,” he said, “but that’s not who I am. I see someone hurting, and I want to try and help them feel better.” He knows that Yanyan has a similar caring nature and that she will face these issues, too, especially given their teaching topics.

“I want to work with people who would already by doing this sort of thing,” Bryant said. “Yanyan, I have to say, is very much that person. She’s nurturing, a person who tries to help other people.” So, Bryant would never say “go out and do it,” but he would tell those inclined, “don’t be afraid to do it. Follow that inclination; it’s okay. If that’s something that gets in the way of your productivity sometimes, so be it. I think it’s more important that people are healthy and happy.”

“I’m sure that everybody gets talked to about this, at least some of this stuff,” Bryant said, “but I can’t help but feeling like, since teaching about sex and media at an undergraduate level, I’ve really had a lot of people come and talk to me about things that I don’t think most people talk to most of their professors about – which I think is awesome, by the way. I love it. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I am perfectly happy to have that happen. I’m glad, because I want to help people if I can. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes people expect that you are, at some level. That’s difficult.”

When it first starting happening, “I was freaked out,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know how to handle it. Somebody comes in and says, ‘my girlfriend just had a miscarriage.’ How do you handle that, if you’ve never had to think about it?”

Fourth piece of advice: Share what you know; listen and don’t judge.

One option is to draw from personal experience. “I consider my students my equals, on most levels,” Bryant said. However, he is confident that he has much more experience. Bryant often tells his grad students: “the only thing I have on you is years.” He also encourages his mentees to “divorce yourself of your cultural predispositions. You’ve got to keep your moral compass, of course, but you can’t judge through your own eyes. You have to realize that maybe, in this person’s culture, what they’re doing is perfectly reasonable.”

Many students are connected to their professors via social networks, and Bryant has found this link to be a handy way to monitor emerging crises. “Usually, you just stay out of that sort of thing. But, if they starting making what seems to be “a really obvious mistake,” he is not beyond – or above – offering help. “The worst they can say is ‘no.’ You don’t want them to feel like you’re trying to meddle, but you’re lending a hand if they want to take it.”

Fifth piece of advice: Don’t sweat the role, but give referrals when necessary.

What about the risk of giving advice that could make things worse? What about interfering? “You have to worry about that,” Bryant said. Still, it’s not as anomalous a risk as some might think. “You run that risk bumping into a stranger in public,” he said, and “it’s the same risk when you’re in a classroom, talking about something to which you’re personally attached. You have a theory about it, and you’re pushing your theory as though it’s truth. You’re running the same risk.” However, at the first signs – even a subconscious inkling – that a student is seriously depressed or has a mental health issue, “my first inclination is always to make them aware of our university’s counseling services.”

“It takes a special breed to go into graduate school,” Bryant said. “We’re not average, and sometimes that quirkiness makes students more sensitive to issues. I worry about that.” Regardless of what degree one is pursuing, college is often a turbulent phase in one’s life. “There are a lot of students that come here in the process of turning into an adult,” Bryant said. “Some are even quite immature. They’re very inexperienced, very naïve. We can say ‘you’re so immature, you’re so inexperienced, you’re so naïve – grow up.’ Or, we can help them do it. The better way is to at least offer the opportunity, to offer a little help.”

So, if you have a student approach you during your next teaching opportunity, keep this advice in mind. If you feel up to it, try to lend a hand. After all, we’re all in this together.

“I think that’s what we’re obligated to do, because we’re educators,” Bryant said. “While it’s not included in our contracts, an educator is a citizen-maker. You’re helping them become better citizens. That’s what media literacy is all about. We’re here to give them the tools to handle themselves later in life.” Besides, on a more pragmatic note, it’s difficult to absorb class lectures if they’re worried about more serious issues.

Assistance Abroad

— Ken Rosenberg

Trite, but true: often, in life, it’s not simply what you know—it’s who you know. It is our connections that reveal opportunities; it is our relationships that secure them. Poised at a metaphorical crossroads, having a friendly source of inside information can make all the difference. Fortunately, for any incoming Chinese students, there is Yanyan Zhou, our department’s unofficial ambassador. A somewhat recent admit herself, Yanyan is a second-year master’s student. After less than a year in Bloomington, she has taken it upon herself to assist any Chinese student looking at graduate programs in the United States. A bold spirit and a fierce friend, Yanyan has illuminated the halls of Telecom with her academic fervor and quirky research interests. By reaching out on chat groups and message boards, she has given us even more than all of her efforts—she has given us new friends, the promise of potential in others.

Yanyan has been contributing to online groups oriented towards helping college-age Chinese students become scholars abroad. Tough decisions plague every student, choices that are likely to shape the rest of their lives. For international students, these choices are substantially compounded by distance, cost, and effort—though the reward is worthwhile, the risk is high. Educated decisions reduce risk, which is why current, incoming, and potential students pool knowledge and resources. Everything is shared—from books, admission notices, and advice about applications—spanning from which major to pick to relatively mundane tips on what sorts of blankets are worth bringing Stateside. Yanyan had used these collaborative tools to help make her way toward ultimately becoming an IU grad student and Bloomington resident. She decided to stay active, joining the most recently formed online group.

Year after year, most people in the chat group end up coming to America—but, according to Yanyan, many of them complain when they get here. Their issues are varied; some campuses are difficult to navigate without a car—and some programs are difficult to navigate without a North American background. Not every professor is keen to read about Chinese issues, framed in terms of Chinese culture.  “I think IUB is very friendly to international students,” says Yanyan. “The academic environment is really good here. I have friends in other universities and they tell me that they are discouraged from writing about China.” As she explained, it is difficult to write about another media industry, another entertainment culture. Advanced scholarship is such an intrinsically-driven pursuit; it is discomforting and illogical to eschew one’s background when picking research topics. “I think I am so lucky that I can still do research about China here.” While other international students go online to warn people about their experiences, Yanyan has a professed desire to celebrate IU and the Telecom department. “Sometimes,” she admitted, “I just want to tell them and make them jealous. ‘I have a better university than you!’ The professors here are really helpful, generous. I just like to share my experience here, because it’s really sweet,” said Yanyan.

In sharing, she attracted Yijie Wu—known here as Camille—to our department, and to the MA program in particular. Camille did plenty of research on her own, proactively emailing professors Annie Lang and Rob Potter. When Rob sent an article for her to read, she read it five times. When Tamera sent out an article to respond to, she didn’t take the whole summer—in fact, she sent her response just three days later. Not only is this impressive in its own right, it is more so because it was the very first paper she had ever written in English. “I couldn’t sleep until it was done,” Camille said, “until it was perfect.”

Camille and Yanyan, at the orientation after-party.

Although Camille did a whole lot of research herself , she enjoyed help from Yanyan, who would send her articles and give her advice on how to prepare her application. They eventually began to forge a friendship. “Yanyan is a nice person, very open,” Camille said. “She just shared anything with me.” They would chat for a couple of hours each day, about all sorts of things: life in Bloomington, opinions about Chinese policies, personal stuff—and, of course, some academic talk, too. Yanyan even asked for Camille’s help when creating a snowball sample for a class project. Conveniently, Camille shares similar interests in media psychology.

One of the most important, pragmatic talks they had was about what to bring—like a good knife for chopping through bone, a slightly more ubiquitous (and affordable) tool in China—and what not to bring—like pots and pans. Lots of Chinese students believe that a snowy winter in Bloomington requires the thickest blanket money can buy, but Yanyan quells their concerns; Bloomington is no frozen tundra. Yanyan tries to impress upon her online friends that they will be able to find most things when they arrive. Still, stuff like medicine and glasses are much cheaper in China, so some supplies are still worth bringing. Her most important suggestion? “Beautiful clothes and small-sized shoes,” she said. Traditional Chinese dress is nigh impossible to acquire in Indiana.

Yanyan is a member of three groups, including one for the parents of students (who she says are “more worried than their kids”). More than a dozen students can thank Yanyan for making their transition easier. She has recommended apartments; Fountain Park should owe her a finder’s fee, as almost a dozen people live there now. Yanyan even offered temporary lodging for several Chinese students, to bridge the gap between arriving in Bloomington and their schedule move-in date. As far as IU Telecom students are concerned, Yanyan has given assistance to Camille—as well as another of our newest cohort members, Feiran Liu. “I really appreciate what Yanyan has done for me,” Feiran said, “and I am trying my best to introduce IU and especially our program to my friends in China. I’m doing exactly the same thing Yanyan did, and I hope that Telecom will gain more repute in Chinese academia.” Camille is also committed to following Yanyan’s example. Yanyan has, as a host, surpassed all expectations; she has even added her new friends to the family plan on her phone service. This additional act of generosity is poignantly symbolic, as it frames what Yanyan has done perfectly: she has created a family.

We are all very fortunate to have Yanyan, Camille, and Feiran as members of our larger Telecom family, too.