Obscenity Crimes on Campus
This morning, I noticed several "hits" to my own blogsite coming from Obscenity Crimes, the anti-pornography arm of the conservative Morality in Media organization. Specifically, an article by Sharon Secor entitled New Lows in Higher Education linked to this March post of mine where I debated whether or not to offer a course on pornography.
Secor, in breathless prose, reports that American college campuses are filled with the decadent young who produce their own pornography, mentioning in particular Boink Magazine (link may offend some readers) which has just seen its second issue produced by students at Boston University. Secor suggests that the students are only following their professors' encouragement:
"That students are willing to participate in the production of pornography shouldn’t be too surprising in light of both our culture and the types of accredited college courses that have sprung up on campuses from coast to coast. Recent years have seen such offerings as the Wesleyan University class –discontinued after a public outcry – in which the final project, according to a May 8, 1999, Hartford Courant story by Eric Rich, required students to create their own work of pornography. An October 2001, Accuracy in Academia article by Joe Jablonski described a San Francisco State University course “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.”
What Secor doesn't mention is that most college classes that focus on pornography and erotica don't focus on viewing and creating explicit material. Rather, they focus on critical analyses of the historic and contemporary role of pornography in human culture, focusing on (depending on the instructor) a variety of different perspectives (feminist, Marxist, film studies, etcetera.) Lots of folks who teach these classes use texts like Lynn Hunt's magisterial The Invention of Pornography, 1500-1800: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity. The human libido expresses itself in many and varied ways, but I've read Hunt cover to cover and I challenge anyone to find anything remotely arousing within its 400 pages. Yes, it fits Secor's agenda to pretend that these courses are taught by the irresponsible, the libertine, and the lecherous to the immature, the impressionable, and the horny. Alas, Ms. Secor, a review of the syllabi of most courses on pornography at the college and university levels will reveal oodles of theory and precious few "dirty pictures"!
Secor's article also touches on the growing number of sex columns appearing in college newspapers nationwide. She decries columns like Heather Grantham's "Cornellingus" (not hard to guess the Ivy League university in whose paper that appears), and points out that dozens of other colleges have had explicit "sex columns" for years. I'm told that UCSB, where my father taught for more than three decades, was the pioneer in this field with its "Wednesday Hump" column. (If any readers have contrary information, please provide.) My own Pasadena City College has entered the sex advice world as well this semester, with our new "Sexpert". (This week's topic: straight men and anal sex; some readers of this blog may not wish to click the link.)
By mixing together three only marginally related developments (the academic study of porn, student involvement in producing amateur pornography, and graphic advice columns in campus newspapers), Secor is failing to make some vital distinctions. There's a difference between teaching courses to educate, producing porn to titillate, and writing columns to infuriate! Though I am not, for the reasons I've given before, ready at this time to teach a class on pornography, I do think it a subject very much worth the time and attention of the academy, particularly from those of us who teach and write from a feminist perspective. As far as the student production of porn (e.g. Boink Magazine) is concerned, I think there's an enormous difference between erotica that is student-produced and distributed and porn that is produced by off-campus commercial entities using students as actors and performers. Agency matters a great deal, and students are, I think, far less likely to be the victims of commercial exploitation when they are in charge of all the artistic and production decisions. Of course, I see no reason why those students who do not wish to subsidize the creation of campus erotica ought to have to subsidize it with their fees.
As for the columns themselves, from what I can tell, they are a mixed bag. Few are genuinely educational. Most, and I think this certainly describes our own rather feeble effort at PCC, seem to be written more to infuriate conservative readers than to enlighten curious members of the student body! Given the ubiquitousness of thoughtful, sound advice on the Internet about sex, it's not as if many of today's college students are likely to become better lovers as a consequence of reading these columns. The raison d'etre in all of this seems to be the delight in tweaking the blue noses of the likes of Sharon Secor and Morality in Media. Developmentally, that makes sense; I expect 20 year-olds to take genuine pleasure in horrifying their elders.
I'm convinced that porn studies, as a field, will continue to grow. As pornography, in all its many and varied forms, continues to exert a powerful influence upon our culture, examining it is worth our professional time and our intellectual energy. As we continue to talk more and more about the subject, some students might well be inspired to produce their own pornography; others might just as well be inspired to campaign against the commercial sex industry. If I ever do teach a course on porn, I'll be scrupulous about attempting to observe the distinction between education and titillation, recognizing that different folks will perceive different material in different ways. But if some students do seek to produce their own erotic material, as an amateur and authentic counterbalance to the glut of commercialized pornography, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. And if some want to infuriate and exasperate their elders with graphic columns in campus papers, those of us old enough to know a little better ought not to take the bait.
But the hits they keep on coming.
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Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2005
While it's true that most college courses which admit to studying pornography do it from a critical standpoint, there are disciplines which seem to promote it from an uncritical standpoint. Both the film and "creative" writing programs, at most schools I'm familiar with, have fixations with sex and violence which is uncritically "edgy" and frankly obscene.
Full disclosure: I was, for a term, a member of the staff of my college literary magazine (a friend got me involved), and after reading the stuff that was in the slush pile, and hearing the reactions of my english-department colleagues, one of my other friends wrote and entered a short piece featuring a graphic demonic homosexual encounter. It was passed around the table, and finally one of the English majors looked up and said "what is this?" to which my friend replied, "it's a submission." It didn't make the cut, but it was better writing then average for what we were reading; I think the journal staff were concerned, being at a Catholic institution, about being accused of advocating not pornography (the stuff they did publish...) but demonism....
Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2005
I hate to break this to Adam Kotsko's mom, but I suspect that his mind would have filled with sexual thoughts in spite of reading Freud.
Adam Kotsko - 5/21/2005
My mom was worried that my mind would be filled with sexual thoughts when I started reading Freud in high school (because it's "all about sex"). My reaction was similar to Oscar's -- I defy anyone to find anything at all arousing in Freud.
Greg James Robinson - 5/21/2005
Is it just me, or does this sound eerily like the debates over sex education or safe-sex instruction, and the oposition's position "if you teach people the perversions, they will practice them"?
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