I Teach a College Class on How to Think and Talk About Pornography

Some answers to the question, "What goes on in a college porn class?"
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Flickr / jason.l.ryan

"What do you study in a 'porn class'?" I've gotten that question almost daily since "Navigating Pornography"—a humanities course I offer at Pasadena City College—received national attention in the aftermath of a controversial classroom visit in February by adult superstar James Deen. The queries have grown even more frequent since last week's widely covered announcement that Porn Studies, a new periodical devoted to the study of "cultural products and services designated as pornographic" will make its debut in 2014.

Though the press coverage of my course and the launch of the Porn Studies journal suggest that the academic study of adult entertainment is a very recent innovation, scholars have been writing and teaching about porn for more than two decades. University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Constance Penley has taught "Topics in Film Genre: Pornographic Film" since 1993, while Linda Williams, a professor now at UC Berkeley, wrote what is widely regarded as the first modern scholarly study of porn, 1989's Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible. Today, dozens of courses on pornography are offered on college campuses across the country, taught by instructors from a wide variety of disciplines including film, women's studies, art, sociology, psychology, English, and history. These classes attract periodic media attention, either when a speaker like Deen comes to campus, or when student complaints about pornography being shown in the classroom lead to a professor being disciplined, as happened last year at both Fresno State and Appalachian State universities.

My "Navigating Pornography" course, like many taught across the nation, takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the erotic "cultural products and services." We examine the history of sexualized imagery in art, exploring the often-murky, frequently false distinction between what was created to arouse and what was designed to inspire worship. We explore the 18th-century origins of modern pornography (lots of time with the Marquis de Sade) and we focus on the history of several centuries of legal sanctions on "obscenity." We look at the development of the modern mainstream porn business (based in the nearby San Fernando Valley), and analyze the way it has adapted and transformed over the four decades since the Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v California (1973) essentially legitimized the adult industry.

My goal isn't just to give my students an historical and cultural overview of pornography. It's to give them tools "to navigate the sexually mediated world we live in," as Long Beach State professor Shira Tarrant puts it. Most of my students were born in the early-to-mid-1990s; they hit puberty under the influence of two conflicting social realities: the widespread availability of broadband and the Bush-era abstinence-only sex education policies. The latter deprived far too many of them of accurate, comprehensive, pleasure-based information about sex; increasing access to the former meant that Internet pornography became the primary and ubiquitous source of information about the birds and the bees. What was designed to arouse and entertain now is expected to educate as well. As Deen put it when he spoke to my students, "It's as if instead of offering driver's ed, we taught you how to operate a car by showing you a James Bond movie."

Presented by

Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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