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."

Part of equipping students to navigate porn means giving them the tools of feminist analysis. Pornography traditionally revolves around the production of images of women for the pleasure of heterosexual men. Feminist critics like Andrea Dworkin, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen help my students to see the ways in which porn can construct and reinforce misogyny. At the same time, my students examine the limitations of familiar feminist anti-porn critiques. Research suggests that nearly as many young women as men watch (or, if you prefer, "use") porn for masturbation fodder, making it increasingly difficult to characterize porn watching as a primarily male pastime.

Women aren't just swelling the ranks of porn consumers—they're also increasingly directing and producing erotic entertainment that reflects a decidedly feminist vision. Penley and her UCSB colleagues Mireille Miller-Young and Celine Parreñas Shimizu edited the recently published The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. The book's co-editor was perhaps America's best-known feminist pornographer, Tristan Taormino; the text reflects the growing collaboration between feminists devoted to the academic study of pornography and those working to transform the adult industry from within. Teaching students to navigate pornography means encouraging them to look beyond the handful of free "tube" sites that dominate the X-rated corners of the Internet to find the subversive, playful, erotic work that Taormino and other feminist pornographers are producing.

Even more than history lessons and an introduction to feminist debates, my students need and deserve the tools to combat sexual shame. I never ask how many of my students use pornography, nor do I inquire about any of their other sexual habits. A safe classroom environment hinges on respect for students' right to privacy. I don't need to pry, however, to hear stories—as I invariably do—about confusion, guilt, and fears of "addiction" to porn. Millennials may be more tolerant of sexual diversity than earlier generations, but many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful. Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the "wrong kind," while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.

Students need more than history and theory. They need safe spaces to think through—and in some instances, talk through—their fears, desires, and uncertainties. When it comes to a subject like porn, a safe space means a place where they won't be judged, mocked, or sexualized regardless of what they reveal. Of course my classroom is not a therapist's office and I am not a therapist. The safe space they choose to talk through those fears, desires, and uncertainties probably won't be in class, in front of me and their fellow students. What I want them to take from my class is a vocabulary with which to initiate the conversations so many people find impossible to start. For better or worse, we live in a world seemingly permeated by the pornographic. In such a culture, there are few more valuable skills than the capacity to talk with candor and insight about what turns us on, gets us off, shapes and shames us.