Media scholars teaching pornography
Stepping across Broadway

by Ramona Curry

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 114-118, 102
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

How can college faculty teach serious critical approaches to a branch of film and video entertainment that many university denizens consider lower than low culture — even downright vile? Quite pragmatically, how can a faculty member secure the support of her or his academic department for a course incorporating sexually explicit material and teach that course without evoking the censorious ire of Christian "family value" proponents and/or of anti-pornography feminists? Most crucially, what pedagogical aims and experiences have media faculty had in addressing film and video pornography as a complex contemporary discourse on the body?

Several presentations at the 1995 meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies (SCS) March 2-5 in New York City addressed these concerns. What emerged as a three-event series (not counting the porno films playing directly across Broadway from the mid-town Manhattan conference hotel) began the first afternoon, when Peter Lehman (University of Arizona) and Lauren Rabinovitz (University of Iowa) chaired a seven-panelist workshop entitled "Pedagogy and Porn." They and the other contributors (John Champagne, Eithne Johnson, Chuck Kleinhans, Donald Staples and Chris Straayer) provided sample syllabi and spoke briefly about their experiences teaching pornographic materials in a variety of course contexts and academic institutions, then engaged in lively discussion with the forty or so educators who packed the room. The following day Constance Penley (University of California at Santa Barbara) and Donna Cunningham (University of Southern California) shared their pedagogical experiences and views about "Sexually-Explicit Materials in the Classroom/ The Classroom in the Public Sphere," the title of their workshop, with an interested audience of about twenty-five. (A third announced panelist, Peter Feng of the University of Iowa, did not participate.)

Then, on the third day, Saturday, conferees could hear former porn star Candida Royalle speak about the challenges she faces in producing, directing and marketing "erotic films for the woman who knows what she wants and the men who love her" (to quote from publicity for her New York-based company, Femme Distribution). Royalle noted that her short films and early features (among them SENSUAL ESCAPE, THREE DAUGHTERS and CHRISTINE'S SECRET) had interested producers of the Home Box Office (HBO) program REALSEX, who encouraged her to move from video into 35mm film, their standard. But, she reported, HBO representatives rejected her first 35mm feature, REVELATIONS (1993), a distopia future story, because, they said, "It makes people think." Royalle's comments introduced a video screening of REVELATIONS, which depicts a woman's sexual awakening after she discovers pornographic videos long banned by the puritanical, authoritarian state under which she lives. Royalle seemed anxious to know what the assembled two dozen academics would think of the film's combination of erotics and anti-censorship politics and particularly of its "girl-girl" scene, given that such suggestively "lesbian" simulations are a staple in pornography targeting straight males, which Royalle consciously tries to circumvent. (The consistent absence of the so-called standard "money shot" — a close-up of the ejaculating penis — is one feature that distinguishes Royalle's films from conventional "het" porn.)

Royalle's SCS audience (about 75% male, similar to the sexual distribution at the workshops) demurred when she rather hesitantly offered to return for discussion after the film. (The attendees' decision was perhaps motivated as much by their overloaded conference schedules as by a disinclination to discuss the material). Several viewers did gather in the hall after the screening to discuss the unusual film, which integrates explicit sexual sequences into an Atwoodian vision of the near future in the U.S. (iconographically identified in a closing shot). But, some wondered, does the film really count — or work — as pornography? Would REVELATIONS warrant study within a course entitled (to draw on some syllabi distributed in the first workshop), "Pleasure and Danger" (Champagne), "Sexuality in Media Narratives" (Lehman), or "Feminist Film Theory: Pornography" (Rabinovitz)?

While the two scheduled panels overlapped in the issues that arose and even in some of the persons attending, the distinct structure and style of each panel led to differing emphases and discussion outcomes. The gender diversity among the first workshop's panelists, along with geopolitical and economic distinctions among the institutions where they have taught, yielded a range of agendas and experiences. Lauren Rabinovitz, for instance, emphasized the importance of teaching close readings of pornographic texts, from a grounding in genre analysis (following Richard Dyer and Linda Williams) and in feminist film theory. Donald Staples (University of North Texas), who has served as an expert in more than a dozen legal suits about pornography, includes a historical overview of porn in an undergraduate film theory course. As part of that study, Staples and two graduate assistants each accompany small groups of class participants on outings to a porn theater; the students follow up with short in-class presentations. Eithne Johnson (Emerson College) has spoken on women's pornography to classes at many northeastern U.S. institutions. She reported her experiences of preemptive censorship when invited to lecture at places like Harvard, under the initial (unacceptable) stipulation, "Just talk; don't show us anything."

Chuck Kleinhans (Northwestern University) noted that his teaching explicit sexual representations arose out of his experimental film and video classes.[1][open notes in new window] He considers the status of pornography an important public policy and presents its relevance as such to students, in part to "provide them superego reasons to explain to others why they're taking the class." Chris Straayer (New York University), who has taught courses on sexual representation at three institutions (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Arizona, and NYU), is now integrating sexually explicit materials into other classes. Straayer noted two precepts in her teaching pornography. First, she encourages students to acknowledge their own sexualities and to be present in the class as sexual subjects. Second, she supplements conventional porn images with what she called "deviant voices," including independent gay and lesbian productions, videos depicting sadomasochistic practices, and video works by artists such as Vito Acconci.

Peter Lehman spoke with enthusiasm about the combined upper-level undergraduate and graduate course on explicit sexual representations that he was currently teaching. John Champagne, who taught his first undergraduate course on pornography at Carnegie Mellon in 1988, expressed some reservations, arguing in a short prepared statement,

"While I continue to find the debates around pornography intellectually compelling, I am now less certain that pornography is an appropriate object of study for an undergraduate class. The topic is so culturally 'loaded' that it necessarily brings with it a variety of pedagogical difficulties. For example, our cultural investment in sexuality as the locus of the truth of the individual is extremely difficult to dislodge…Because a course in pornography is always in danger of being merely symptomatic of our cultural understandings of sexuality and gender, it requires a certain critical engagement that is extremely difficult to maintain…I'm not sure that undergraduates are prepared for such a task, given the way it demands that the theorist be implicated in his/her object of study…"

Several panel participants concurred that their graduate and undergraduate students generally treated the materials distinctly. Rabinovitz found that her undergraduate students often intellectualized their reactions, whereas graduate students tended to share a camaraderie and personal openness to the material. Lehman recounted an exception that caught him unaware. Many students in a graduate seminar at the University of Arizona focusing on race were upset by the representations of gay black men in TONGUES UNTIED (Marion Riggs, 1989). The account underscored other panelists' observations about the importance of informing students what to expect, not only from the titles on the syllabus, but perhaps also in advance announcements that foster, in Kleinhans' words, an atmosphere of learning, trust and respect.

Several speakers noted gender distinctions in what material their students found most disturbing: Rabinovitz found that women generally expressed anxiety about her porn, while the men expressed anxiety about videos depicting gay male sex. Reports of student reactions at the University of Arizona generally followed that pattern. When Straayer taught a section on AIDS representations, including some gay male video art, in a large media course at Arizona, a group of young men got up and stomped out. A woman in Lehman's class reacted to a film by telling her classmates about having been gang raped. Perhaps accepting the arguments of the "Women Against Pornography" movement, she presumed a very intense causal relation between pornography and what had happened to her. Lehman noted that her comments had a chilling effect and effectively shut down further discussion of the film.

Johnson also remarked the combination of curiosity, nervous laughter, and fear of seeing real violence, which she frequently encounters among female participants in her classes, and said she almost always needs to dispel "the snuff-film myth." Johnson has found a prevalent assumption that sexual material is contagious, as has Rabinovitz, who remarked that some women "seem scared that images of het porn will do damage to them."

Straayer reported a student performance in an NYU course that evoked issues of gender in relation to nudity and the camera. A male student stood nude with a camera and asked each class member for a five-second on-camera response. Some feminist friends whom Straayer told of the performance, which embodied the male prerogative to control the camera, thought it might constitute sexual harassment, especially to any members of the class who might be victims of rape. Upholding her policy of letting the class as a whole judge a situation, Straayer surveyed students anonymously after the performance, and found they were more concerned that their voices not be censored than that they would be exposed to something they could not handle. Straayer noted that generally, should a vocal complaint arise, silent students are usually supporters. She recommended giving any written protest anonymously to all students and asking in class for everyone's opinion on the matter. Proceeding in this manner defined material in class as a joint matter of all students' concern, she said, rather than as "a discussion between five boys and the university president."

The session scarcely began to address the complexities implicit in the panelists' many observations about gender and class standing. By this I mean not only the evident academic class standing (and its general correlations with age and social status) but also, implicitly, how conditions of economic class may have inflected the students' responses at various institutions. One audience member volunteered that at a school which attracts predominantly working class and lower-middle-class suburban students, he shows such sexually charged experimental films as SCORPIO RISING (Kenneth Anger, 1962-63) and FUSES (Carolee Schneeman, 1964-67) only in courses which have an introductory film course as a prerequisite. Panelists commented that courses incorporating more conventional narrative pornography also ran more smoothly when they were not the students' first film course.

Of the panelists, Champagne most directly addressed students' social class in relation to teaching pornography. He reported that a female student at Carnegie Mellon had arrived for the last class late, under cover of darkness for the film. When the lights came on, others saw that she was nude, but except for a few giggles and gasps, everyone ignored her state as they drew their chairs in a circle and began to discuss the film. Finally Champagne asked his students, "Are you so privileged that it means nothing to you that one of your classmates is naked?" The class then turned to discussing "the privilege involved in studying pornography at an elite undergraduate institution."

The student explained that she was protesting the course's having insufficiently considered "real bodies," an attitude which Champagne understood as powerfully resisting his attempt "to problematize such an account of the body." He argued that the "phony objectivity" of the classroom viewing situation also flattens the study of sexual representation, particularly when courses emphasize close textual readings:

"At the very least, close analysis must be supplanted with a theorized investigation of the cultural construction of sexuality and gender, as well as an investigation of the historically varying modes of reception and exhibition of pornography."

Rabinovitz argued that "close readings can introduce larger questions" such as the "extent to which one needs to foreground the cinematographic apparatus as always an attempt to excite the body through its appeals to 'watching." She finds that Linda Williams' Hard Core,[2] which recurred on most panelists' syllabi, deals well with that issue in Williams' chapter on Muybridge. The panelists agreed that it is important to teach all pornographic films in historical context. Kleinhans noted that just as he would not show THE BIRTH OF A NATION without tracing its historical production and reception, he would not teach a film like FLAMING CREATURES (Jack Smith, 1963) without situating it within practices of sexual representation in the avant-garde.

The question arose as to how panelists teach specifically gay and lesbian pornography. Straayer first shows het porn and discusses it as such. Her goal is for students to explore their viewing reactions and in discussion to break down the boundedness of such categorization of films and sexualities. Champagne included sexually explicit lesbian and gay films in his course, but he doesn't wish as a teacher "to be in the position of compelling students to produce the truth of their sexuality." Kleinhans requires that students see, on their own, "two het tapes and one gay male tape," and provides a sampling available for check-out, which he finds useful especially for single female international students, for whom publicly seeking and renting any porn video is culturally virtually unthinkable. He has also approved student requests to watch an entire video on fast forward!

A consensus emerged that faculty should emphasize that they are teaching from their expertise as film scholars, to inquire how and to what degree explicit sexual representations may appeal and contribute to perceived sexual self-identities — and decidedly not running a therapy group. But teachers should be prepared for exceptional student affect and know where to refer students who might come to office hours in some sense of personal confusion. Lehman finds that requiring the students to write weekly journals registering their reactions to the readings, screenings, and discussions, helps counter any impersonal, over-intellectualized approach to class material and gives a forum for expressing their concerns. While he thinks "being disturbed can be a mode of learning," he encourages students to leave a screening they find too difficult and to request an alternative assignment. Kleinhans also allows students to leave screenings at any time but requests they return for discussion; throughout the course, he emphasizes that students should let him know if they do not feel "comfortable." Straayer said that students must understand they are responsible for themselves, and reported that on course evaluations her students often expressed appreciation for her treating them as adults. Both Kleinhans and Straayer use numerous clips of longer works, in part, in Straayer's words, because

"the use of excerpts rather than complete works, especially in the hard-core section, can foreground a scholarly stance when students might otherwise feel overwhelmed."[3]

All panelists stressed the importance of integrating extensive critical readings with screenings; besides Williams, syllabi required at least excerpts from Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality volumes and numerous essays by authors including Richard Dyer, Martha Gever, Dennis Giles, Judith Butler, John Ellis, Annette Kuhn, and Carole Vance, as well as writings and video by several of the panelists. Rabinovitz has seen how well-chosen early readings, prior to screenings, can help students pass from fearful to curious, during the course's necessary "adjustment period."

The choice of initial films seems critical. Several syllabi started with films that foreground voyeurism like MARNIE (Hitchcock, 1964) or VARIETY (Bette Gordon, 1984). Straayer begins some courses on sexual representations with a study of horror films such as CAT PEOPLE (Paul Schrader, 1982).[4] The first hardcore film that Kleinhans usually shows is a medical film showing sex between a wheelchair-bound man and an able-bodied woman.[5] Kleinhans thinks the film successfully introduces students to more explicit depictions of sex (including rimming) than most have ever seen, because it communicates that the couple are giving each other oral and anal pleasure within an established, loving relationship.

The audience queried the panel about administrative and community reactions to their courses. Lehman and Rabinovitz felt they had both received nothing but support from their university departments and administrations. When a Tucson copy shop refused to reproduce an academic article for his course packet that included a picture on an erect penis, Lehman's department supported him in boycotting the shop. Lehman also reported that a "Take Back the Night" group asked to give a slide lecture to his class; he refused, but offered to announce to his students any public lecture the group scheduled.

Straayer commented that, while administrations have always backed her, she thinks concern increases if courses become visible beyond the university. Kleinhans suggested that even in institutions that allow courses on sexual representation, individual administrators may ridicule course proposals or related grant applications and effectively keep people in fear. Staples said that he had experienced no problems with administration, but later acknowledged that he had not listed the workshop's title when applying for travel funding from his state university. Texas law also prohibits students from using his department's equipment to make pornographic films, he observed.

The suggestion arose that one might wisely wait to teach classes on pornography until after achieving tenure. Yet the panelists' own experiences belied that admonition, for the majority had taught pornographic material without encountering any difficulties, prior to receiving tenure or even completing graduate school. Still, given several recent challenges to graduate students who taught pornographic films in non-film classes, a consensus emerged that such a professionally unprotected group might be particularly vulnerable to institutional criticism. And despite the chorus of reassurances about administrative backing, a few panelists cautioned that gay and lesbian faculty, even with tenure, remained particularly at risk. Presumed heterosexual faculty who teach gay and lesbian, as well as straight, sexual representations, without criticism, may be enjoying cultural privilege. Gay and lesbian faculty cannot afford a false sense of security, several speakers warned, for homophobia in Canada as well as the U.S. always makes their teaching sexually explicit materials highly politically charged.

While the second workshop also offered pragmatic advice about teaching sexually explicit materials, the de facto focus on two southern California universities yielded at once a narrower and more detailed picture. Constance Penley spoke at length about her experiences and policies in teaching a course on pornography in 1993 at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Penley recognized that she has an exceptional opportunity to teach film porn thoroughly as a historical genre, since she has managed to discover and gain free access to a large library of pornographic materials ranging from some early stag and arcade films, to animated shorts (including one called SNOW WHITE privately produced by Disney workers) to 1970s features (including DEEP THROAT).[6] Her course also diverged from those described at the prior workshop in generating widespread controversy and in attracting students whose backgrounds may have prepared them for her analysis of pornography as both a legitimate film genre and a lucrative branch of the industry.

What began as an interview about the course, which Penley gave to the campus student newspaper, mushroomed into a pitched community debate involving local "Citizens against Pornography" groups, and it culminated in Penley's being denounced by right wing evangelist Pat Robertson on his television program, THE 700 CLUB. Robertson condemned the course as an example of "godlessness in the public schools" and "a new low in humanist excess."

The university maintained its support for Penley, however, an outcome which Penley traces to the course's addressing pornography as a popular U.S. film genre, and as such, as worthy an object of study as the Western. Consequently, Penley argued, the course couldn't be put to political or religious tests, but challenged only on the basis of its scholarly terrain. Teaching porn film as a popular U.S. genre makes the film scholar the authority over what is taught. That the film genre exists and is popular (which no one could deny) provides sufficient justification for teaching it as a film historical phenomenon.

As the controversy grew, she and colleagues focused, successfully, on casting the issue as an attempt to undermine academic freedom and to exercise preemptive censorship. Penley, who has a half-time appointment in UC Santa Barbara's Women's Studies Program, did take the precaution of teaching the course under the film studies' rubric, rather than as her women's studies course that term. And she admits to having "cooked the list" of the approximately 65 undergraduate students who took the course, giving those she knew from other film courses priority among the many who wished to enroll. Penley also noted that, in part given her university's geographic location, her students may have exceptional interest in the history and economics of pornographic film, for many of them come from Northridge and North Hollywood, the center of the porn industry.

"About three-quarters of the way through the course, some came to me offering to get guest lecturers — family members and neighbors of their friends who made or acted in porn films."

Penley asserted that an announcement at the outset making clear that the course would show many hardcore images, along with a listing of film titles like SPERMINATOR, should give students sufficient notice about the material covered; she observed no need to excuse those who chose to enroll. Donna Cunningham, who taught sexually explicit material in a small interdisciplinary freshman seminar at the University of Southern California, agreed with Penley's policy, noting that her students appreciated being treated like adults. Cunningham added that while she recognized that a course including pornography was not entirely "just a course," she avoided treating the scheduled sexually explicit materials as a potential trauma. Peter Lehman countered from the audience that as a male teacher he needed to attend carefully to students' potential discomfort, in part to avoid any perception of sexual harassment from arising.

Penley recounted that when her colleagues and women studies' students first heard of her proposed course, many expected it would demonstrate correlations between pornography and violence. Their prevalent view was that any academic, "scientifically researched" course on porn must show its harmful effects, which Penley does not accept. She found an important effect of teaching a large body of hardcore films the opportunity to expose as unfounded the assumption that pornography involves "a vast practice of violent subjugation and degradation of women." Penley instead sees most porn, like television, as answerable to women's interests:

"In the porn industry, every year is the Year of the Woman. Every film opens with a woman; women's names sell on the boxes; a high percentage of the people behind the scenes are women."

While no one in the audience directly contested those claims, listeners questioned the panelists closely and shared their own experiences. A man and woman from the University of Michigan explained that as dwellers in the "Land of MacKinnon," they would find it impossible currently to teach pornography even as a section of a genre course. A woman who teaches filmmaking at the University of Montreal spoke of the difficult balance she had to maintain between supporting student's personal creative explorations and upholding the university's legally-binding policy against students' producing anything arguably pornographic. Southern California again emerged as offering a different set of circumstances, when Richard Jewell noted during discussion of antipornography movements and censorship that the Playboy Foundation funds an annual USC course on censorship.[7]

Like participants in the first workshop, Penley and Cunningham emphasized the importance of assigning extensive and diverse course readings. Cunningham's freshman seminar at USC, entitled "Sexual Anxiety at the Fin de Siecle," was a writing-intensive course. Penley required 50-60 pages of writing in a 10-week course, including a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of two books (Williams' Hardcore and Dirty Looks)[8] and of every article assigned, two 8-10 page papers, and writers' notebooks. Penley has since taught the course a second time, when, instead of provoking renewed scandal, it was treated as "old hat." Still, Penley cautioned, generally she'd advise, "Don't do it [teach a course on pornography] without tenure!"

During the first SCS workshop, Eithne Johnson remarked that in her experience, students and fellow faculty tended toward one of two opinions: either "all of mass culture is pornographic" or "porn's a specific genre." The workshops both generally communicated the latter view, and emphasized strategies for successfully teaching porn as such. But that model did not go unchallenged. John Champagne concluded his prepared remarks with the observation,

"My fear is that the study and teaching of pornography will not in any way disrupt business as usual for the discipline of Film Studies. Instead of calling into crisis the way the discipline constructs its object of study, for example, pornography might become just another set of texts to be included in the curriculum…"

"[While] the debates around pornography are undoubtedly one of the most exciting and intellectually engaging areas of recent film and video scholarship…as teachers…we must find a way to use pornography as a tool to intervene in social constructions of sexuality and gender, without at the same time either merely celebrating or denying our own powerful erotic investments in such constructions."[9]

As a participant/ observer at all three events, and as someone who occasionally teaches sexually explicit materials in a range of courses, I found both workshops instructive, if somewhat uncritical of our own premises about pornography. For example, most of the distributed syllabi addressed implications of racial difference in pornography, if primarily through the range of titles listed. But except for short mention in the first workshop of TONGUES UNTIED and reference to a porn tape UP MY BUN-ZAI, which features ethnically Asian actors, the overwhelmingly white participants in both workshops discussed pornography — whether as a genre or a complex spectatorial mode — as if race were no issue in its teaching or cultural circulation. However, just as anyone planning to show pornography must consider how gender and probably social class inflects the production and reception of sexually explicit images, so must s/he take into account the range of cultural meanings embedded in the unavoidable portrayal of racial/ ethnic similarity and difference.

Another gap I observed in the conference's treatment of pornography was an apparent mismatch between personal theory and praxis. Imagine that SCS had offered two workshops on teaching the Western — and that, simultaneously, a triple-bill of Western films few had seen was running in the cinema across the street. Probably, many people interested in the workshops would make time to see the films, and perhaps refer to one or another in the discussion. In my experience, this was not the case for the porn triple-bill playing across Broadway from the conference hotel. Several times in my hearing at the conference, speakers did mention the porn program, especially the catchiest of the three titles, ANAL SEX ALIEN. But no one at the workshops on pornography seemed to find the almost immediate physical juxtaposition of polite academic exchange and low status popular cultural practice a striking paradox or, to my knowledge, even a phenomenon worth investigating. Still, SCS allowed the first panels considering television scarcely more than a decade ago, and presented the first panel on gender and film only two decades ago, in 1975. The mere scheduling, in 1995, of three participatory events addressing pornography and pedagogy at SCS may, for better or worse, signal a big step across Broadway.


1. Straayer and other speakers made reference to her essay "Sexual Representation in Film and Video," in Multiple Voices in Feminist Criticism, eds. Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice Welch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) 503-12, which gives a detailed course overview and extensive bibliographic suggestions.

2. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

3. Straayer, 504.

4. See Straayer, 504-5.

5. Laird Sutton, dir., TOUCHING.

6. Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality, San Francisco.

7. The Playboy Foundation has provided $150,000 to cover the cost of instructors and materials for the course, which reportedly runs without any interference from the funding source. In principle, Jewell asserted, the course could criticize Playboy's practices or philosophy. Jewell said that USC's film department also offers a second sponsored course: the Cecil B. DeMille estate provides funds earmarked for teaching and research on that film director.

8. Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography and Power, eds. Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson (London: British Film Institute, 1993).

9. I cite here the written statement Champagne had prepared for the workshop, entitled, "The Perils of Porn." To cut his opening contribution back to the required 5-minute time limit, he did not read the last section of his three-page paper, but he kindly gave me the entire statement.