Porn studies

A few years ago, the media were in an uproar over the proliferation of porn studies courses at U.S. universities.*

By October, 2001, Wesleyan University, the University of California-Berkeley, New York University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Northwestern University were among those featuring porn classes, generally within the departments of film studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, English, or psychology.

The story has died down stateside, but recently two British professors made tabloid headlines after they showed 20 minutes of a porn video to students in an English class also devoted to the study of the works of Burroughs, Blyton and Joyce. In a column for The Guardian, they argue:

Watching pornography in a classroom becomes a Brechtian experience, causing discomfort and alienation. Porn then reveals not just flesh, but also its formal conventions, its repetitive narratives, its tableaux of power, its cold ideologies, its descent into bathos.

In marked contrast to the occasionally sepulchral seminar experience, teaching pornography in this way galvanises the class. In the past we – like, we are sure, many others in higher education – have taught pornography without the use of communally viewed sources. We found that these discussions were abstract and anecdotal, as thin on informed comment as they were evasive of certain key issues. To debate sexual objectification without examining a specific instance of it seems, in retrospect, ludicrous. Even cowardly.

Commercial porn is on our English course not because we are trying to canonise it. Or because we think that all culture is equally valuable. Pornography is there because it has become a naturalised part of our environment.

Comments are welcome.

* See, e.g., Atlas, James, “The Loose Canon,” The New Yorker, 3/29/1999. The article, or a portion of it, is reproduced here.


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