Pornography sparked confusion and curiosity in me as a child when boys would bring magazines like Playboy into class. It provided fodder for jokes while I watched it with friends as a teenager and provoked anger and jealousy in me as an adult when I fell upon it on a boyfriend’s computer. I worked to think through my visceral reaction to the latter experience in a graduate seminar at Rutgers University led by Professor Louisa Schein titled Feminism and Pop Cultural Theory, in which we read texts by sexuality scholars such as Linda Williams, Laura Kipnis, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu that historically situated sexually explicit visual productions and considered how the pornographic plays a significant role in the construction of race, gender, and sexuality. Ironically, it was my engrossment in the course materials that provoked me to seek out and consume pornographic works on my own computer. Images that had previously sparked emotional turmoil began to intrigue me.
In the span of my life pornography has been mysterious, laughable, disturbing, and compelling. My encounters with pornography have prompted me to alter my perceptions of relationships and myself. Although I have not been able to construct a cogent narrative about its positive or negative effects on my life, and have by now abandoned the desire to do so, I have come away from these experiences knowing that the potency of pornography cannot be ignored, no matter how difficult or frustrating it is to grapple with.
This special feature is a feminist pedagogical project, one that Films for the Feminist Classroom (FFC) is assuming as pornographic visual culture is increasingly being explored by feminist scholars in response to the proliferation of new and more accessible forms of the genre.1 A primary objective of FFC is to critically assess the value of films as pedagogical tools in the space of feminist classrooms. In the case of sexually explicit materials, the question of value takes on an increased significance, as the heated debates concerning pornography that regularly appear on the Women’s Studies listserv (WMST-L) attest.
The idea for organizing a roundtable discussion among feminist scholars concerning the ethics and pedagogy of screening sexually explicit films in the classroom came to me after having taught the Women’s Studies 101 course, Women, Culture, and Society, at Rutgers for several years. Midway through the semester we begin the unit on sexuality by viewing the PBS documentary American Experience: Kinsey (2005). My impetus for showing the documentary in class was to spark a discussion about the legacy and implications of conducting research on sex and sexualities, and in particular the political and cultural effects research on sexuality has on the lives of women. Semester after semester, my students talk about how they wish that contemporary universities offered sex education classes such as the marriage course that Kinsey taught at Indiana University in the 1930s. My young students, many of whom are 18 and 19 year old first-years, find it difficult to believe that a course as radical as Kinsey’s was offered to students in the 1930s. We talk about how such a class is relatively unimaginable today, even though the narrative of sexual liberation would have us believe that college students and professors in the 1930s were woefully repressed. Through the documentary, successive cohorts of my students became “seduced” by Kinsey’s passion for research and obsessed with learning more about him and his work. What would a contemporary college-level sex education course look like? How would feminist scholars go about designing such courses? If we know that many of our students consume online pornography that likely informs their erotic subjectivities and practices, do we have a pedagogical responsibility to critically research and teach these materials?
Scholars of sexuality and race such as Mireille Miller-Young, Carlos Decena, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu engage students in similar questions, and in this special feature they explore the pedagogical ethics of utilizing sexually explicit films in their feminist classrooms. Professor Miller-Young discusses how she examines issues of agency, representation, and political economy with students by analyzing pornographic films and documentaries about the sex industry in “The Pedagogy of Pornography: Teaching Hardcore Media in a Feminist Studies Classroom.” Miller-Young describes methodologies she employs—such as journaling, blogging, speaking during screenings, and inviting her research contacts who work in the porn industry to her class—to engage students with pornographic materials.
The experience of screening the 2006 film Shortbus in a Research and Sexualities class centers Professor Decena’s exploration of how dealing with sex and sexuality explicitly in the classroom affects relationships between teachers and students. Decena pays particular attention to understanding when and why students speak or choose to remain silent on issues of sexuality in class. Decena’s discussion of the dynamics of coming out and sexual identity formation in his undergraduate courses touches on the issue of respect for privacy that is urgently coming to the fore in the wake of the untimely death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.
Professor Shimizu articulates the concept of “intimate literacy” in “Intimate Literacies: The Ethics of Teaching Sexually Explicit Films.” Shimizu defines intimate literacy as a method of film reading that “entails the deconstruction and analysis of the structure, grammar, and vocabulary of sexual acts without judgment, especially when it gets in the way of understanding what the material is actually doing.” Teaching her students how to critically read sexually explicit materials is part of Shimizu’s larger aim of training them to become rigorous and effective scholars.
The works in this special feature thoughtfully engage with the risks and rewards of taking an “explicit” approach to teaching sexuality. The essays will likely spark even more questions concerning sexuality, ethics, and pedagogy, and they provide a fruitful opening into an area of knowledge production that is stubbornly complex.
1 As an additional resource, readers may want to consult volume 12, issue 5 (2009) of the journal Sexualities, which explores teaching sexually explicit materials.
American Experience: Kinsey. 2005. Directed by Barak Goodman and John Maggio. Twin Cities Public Television and Ark Media in association with the BBC. Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video.
Sontag, Susan. 1969. “The Pornographic Imagination.” Styles of Radical Will. New York; Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 35-73.
I would like to thank the roundtable authors, Karen Alexander, and Louisa Schein for their inspiration and guidance. Meghana Joshi and Kartikeya Saboo provided valuable feedback.