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The Crux Project Archives: Academia

SEX ON THE SYLLABUS

Are porn studies the latest academic fad?

by Joe Jablonski

"That's what kids do these days; they make porn at school," said a Wesleyan University student who earned an "A" for filming a fellow student masturbating. Indeed, watching pornographic films, viewing pornographic magazine images, reading pornographic writing, and even making homemade porn flicks appears to be a growing trend in American academia.

Experts in higher education argue that the trend toward porn in the classroom reflects the broader trend in sexual libertinism/exhibitionism fueled by the internet and the growing obsession with sex by the American public. But why are professors who require their students to make their own porn films, and/or who show porn films to students, teaching in academic programs at accredited colleges and universities in America?

Universities such as Wesleyan University, San Francisco State University, the University of California-Berkeley, New York University, the University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Chapman University, and Northwestern University have all made their own contributions toward this trend. Departments of film studies, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, English, and psychology, having overwhelming numbers of representatives of a new breed of pro-pornography feminism, appear to be the most likely to offer courses on porn.

  1. Controversy over porn in the classroom erupted last month at Arizona State University. "Sexuality in the Media," a class taught by Peter Lehman, requires the viewing of X-rated movies, such as Dirty Debutantes 86, Deep Throat, and Insatiable. The course has already sparked the resignation of a disgusted university employee who was ordered to serve as the course's audio/visual provider and calls by lawmakers for an investigation into how tax dollars are spent at ASU. The school stands by Lehman, and the instructor defends his course as highly relevant.

  2. "I feel like a feminist freedom fighter contributing something wonderful to women's liberation and sex education," says X-rated performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who is often invited to tour campuses, bringing samples of her trade for students to view. Professor Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor in the Department of Film Studies at Northwestern University, has shown films containing "fat porn" and "transvestite porn" in her film studies course. "Administering shocks to the bourgeois sensibility, in historical perspective at least, looks like an important cultural project," she remarks. "Savor those shocks," she noted of her teaching methods.

  3. At Wesleyan University, Professor Hope Weissman teaches a seminar called "Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes" that requires students to do their own pornography projects, which can take the form of video, essay, or live performance. It has been cross-listed in women's studies and the interdisciplinary College of Letters. "I don't put any constraints on it," said Professor Weissman. It's supposed to be: 'Just create your own work of pornography.'"

  4. San Francisco State University boasts that it is "the first institution to add the stimulating subject of cybersex to its curriculum." Students at the school can now take "Exploring Cybersexualities," a course in the school's Multimedia Studies Program, which seeks to introduce them to the world of the internet's sexual underground. Students actually learn how to navigate the underworld of cybersex and get a guided tour through the world of porn sites. The professor in charge of this course is Mary Madden, the self-proclaimed "multimedia program webmistress"; she holds a M.A. degree in social psychology with a concentration in female sexuality from San Francisco State University.

  5. At the University of California at Berkeley, students can view pornographic films and material with Professor Linda Williams of the film studies and rhetoric department. Williams teaches "Advanced Rhetorical Studies of Genre in Media and Literature," subtitled "Topics in Film: Moving Image Pornographies." The course description states, "Some of the images to be studied in this seminar will be offensive, or arousing, or both." Students view porn films such as Deep Throat, John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut, and others, and read such works as Laura Kipnis' Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.

  6. The University of California at Santa Barbara offers "Topics in Film Genre," subtitled "Pornographic Film," with Dr. Constance Penley, chairman of the UCSB film studies department and professor of women's studies. Classes in past years have had as many as 75 male and female students. Students view the cartoon "Buried Treasure," a series of 1970s pornographic films, Opening of Misty Beethoven, Behind the Green Door, 1999's Buttman Confidential, and gay porn videos like Shootin'. To make her class even more attractive to students seeking adult entertainment in college, Penley follows the model of other scholars of porn by inviting prominent representatives and actors in the porn film industry to be guest lecturers. Penley also takes students in his class on a field trip to a local adult video store.

  7. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, students have taken courses offered by Susie Bright, a well-known '60s radical, pro-pornography feminist, and author and editor of numerous books and articles on pornography and the gay lifestyle. Bright has taught a class on pornographic film in the Department of Community Studies, "Politics of Sexual Representation," as recently as a few years ago. "My class is all about viewing and discussing 'dirty pictures'—the explicit side of human sexual expression—and analyzing what we think they say about our culture, our fantasies, our prohibitions," Bright states. She dismisses all opposition to her porn class as objections lodged by people who are "screwed up . . . about sex in the first place."

  8. At Southern California's Chapman University, students can currently take "Sexual Literacy and Society" with sociology department professor Barney McGrane. His course features a "wide range of personal exploriments (sic) and a number of graphic sex education videos and controversial international films, journals, and essays." Sixties radical Marxist-feminist Susan Sontag's essay "The Pornographic Imagination" is a central and required text in the class. The course bibliography lists works by Susie Bright, porn-star Annie Sprinkle, ACLU President Nadine Strossen (a defender of pornography on First Amendment grounds), Linda Williams, and numerous Kinsey Institute publications. •

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