How to begin?

I’m certain every student who’s ever started a PhD struggles to find their entry-point, their starting block. I should start by chronicling how this project has ended up being the one I have — possibly foolhardily — committed to carrying out for the next three years.

Why on earth would you want to write about disgust?, I’m often asked. Isn’t it, well, disgusting? Doesn’t it involve looking at disgusting things?

In answer, yes. Yes, it does. But in truth, disgust and the abject have been part of my various brain garglings for a number of years. I wrote about abject women as an undergrad in the cosy context of the British Romantics, de Sade and Edmund Burke’s pontifications on the difference between the sublime and the beautiful. I wrote about decadence and degeneration. I quoted the particularly filthy bits from James Joyce’s famous letters to his lover Nora when I wrote about Ulysses. I loved Jonathan Swift’s scatological poems. My first MA essay, two years later, ended up being about neo-burlesque and followed the same formula as the now-familiar critique of burlesque as no longer having much subversive potential. I read Mary Rosso’s excellent book, The Female Grotesque , and took away from it the incoherence disgust can grant the body, particularly the sexual body, and particularly the female sexual body, if it is not normatively constituted or adapted to appear normative.

Biographically, I have always been drawn to certain things that many people consider disgusting, As a kid who loved her ability to not ‘get grossed out’ by much, I suppose that has stuck. I am not squeamish. I have a few fears, but very few squicks. I acknowledge that feelings of fear, discomfort and disgust can be desirable, if not exactly pleasurable. The best example I can give is the horror film (about which much more later). Film critics have spent decades trying to assess why gorefest horror movies can easily draw an audience, some arguing that the audience enjoys taking the position of sadist, relishing the suffering of whoever the film’s victims are. Others argue that they are accessing masochism — identifying with the film’s sufferers and desiring to be pushed to a place of such discomfort that it is close to unbearable. The experience of wincing, hiding behind one’s hands, moaning and whimpering; that is all part of the horror movie’s pleasure.

When it came to writing a PhD proposal, again I found myself drawn to ideas and concepts around disgust. But meanwhile, in the year I completed my MA, I was working with Backlash and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill became an Act, outlawing the possession of ‘extreme’ pornography.

There are three elements to the offence. An image must come within the terms of all three elements before it will fall foul of the offence.

Those elements are:

1. That the image is pornographic;

2. That the image is grossly offensive, disgusting, or otherwise of an obscene character, and

3. That the image portrays in an explicit and realistic way, one of the following extreme acts:

a. An act which threatens a person’s life;
b. An act which results in or is likely to result in serious injury to a person’s anus, breast or genitals;
c. An act involving sexual interference with a human corpse,
d. A person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive),

and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that the people and animals portrayed were real.

Among the debates raging over whether pornography incites violence or incites attitudes that legitimise violence, there was far less discussion about the part of the clause I am most interested in: the issue of moral protectionism, or protection simply from merely feeling disgust that other adults might find pleasure in activities that are not to one’s taste, and began to question the intersection of disgust and law, particularly when applied to sexuality. How much are our moral parameters affected by our emotional responses? Do these emotional responses have a legitimate social function or convey a particular kind of wisdom? Are they important enough that legislation should take them into account? If — as has been the case with homosexuality — moral parameters are subject to change, should what is considered disgusting be subject to regular scrutiny? And finally, if we do not want to do away with the legal role of disgust altogether, what part could it play in constructing contemporary ideas of morality?

So my proposal started coming together. And now, roughly a year later, this particular piece of lawmaking is the basis for my first case study.

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4 Responses to How to begin?

  1. Alison Young says:

    Good luck with your project…. I’ve spent a number of years thinking about disgust too (I wrote about it in Judging the Image, and elsewhere), and I think it’s a very important topic. All the best, Alison.

  2. Pingback: Abject Intimacies at

  3. alex says:

    Hi Alison,

    Thanks so much for the kind comments (and eek, I’ve just noticed the colour of the font in the comments for the first time — must fix that!). I’m definitely going to investigate your work in this area. Steve S has given me a recommendation of where I might start so I’ll be pillaging a library tomorrow!

  4. Absolute says:

    Very interesting. I have also just started my PhD – my subject being Chastity and no sexua gratication servitude…. My Masters was on deviant behaviour which may be of interest to you. Perhaps we should meet up for coffee at some point?

    P.S. Where are you doing your study?

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