Talking about Pornography in the Classroom: Part 1

Found while volunteering at the Food Bank -- this was as pornographic as I was willing to get today.

Found while volunteering at the Food Bank — this was as pornographic as I was willing to get today.

I suppose I should start with a little background. I’ve been teaching Media Ethics for 3 semesters now, and I’ve been avoiding the subject of pornography. Don’t get me wrong, we talk about cyber bulling and revenge porn in some detail in my class – especially as I move more and more towards internet ethics and away from topics that focus on Hollywood and traditional advertising. But I just haven’t felt comfortable talking about the porn industry within the context of that course.

There are multiple layers to my discomfort. That nagging feeling that at worst, I’m going to be reported to the dean for inappropriate content, and at best, offend a large number of students. This is totally ridiculous, since I have no intention of actually showing pornography in the classroom – something which would indeed be much more problematic. My job is to educate students about their mediascape, and porn is part of the new media reality. But fears are seldom rational, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Also, as someone who has neither the time nor the inclination to consume pornography (something that is either sad or virtuous, depending on your point of view), I also feel like I’m not the right person to take this topic on. Again, my unease is rather silly, as all of us in higher education teach things that we have no business teaching all the time. For example, when I was teaching at large, research institutions, I always ended up with survey courses that took me well outside my comfort zone. I didn’t seize up and run away from material then! And yet something about the idea of having to stand up and talk about pornography is different, and I am genuinely uncomfortable at the prospect of doing so.

Finally, porn obviously fits into the purview of a Media Ethics course; however, it doesn’t actually work very well with my current content. My Media Ethics focuses on debate and peer-to-peer exchange, and I don’t want to force 17- and 18-year-old students to publicly debate the issues surrounding pornography. If some of them would be comfortable talking about it, that’s great; but creating a scenario where they would feel obliged to speak doesn’t feel right to me. The power dynamics and identity politics involved are simply too complicated, especially in a room that includes both men and women, and students from a variety of different regional and religious backgrounds.

I am planning to redesign my course as “Internet Ethics” sometime in the near future, and which point I think pornography will become an unavoidable subject. But I’m going to need access to “clicker” technology in order to facilitate anonymous interactions if I’m going to teach it in a responsible way – at least in a class that fundamentally revolves around dialogue and debate. And so, until my redesign is complete, and I know that I have the right tech, I think I’m going to continue to avoid the subject in Media Ethics.

That having been said, I’m now teaching a Gendered World Views course, and the issue of pornography reared its ugly head once again. Again, I agonized about whether or not to put porn on the syllabus. Again, at a personal level, I really didn’t think that I wanted to go there. But this time I decided that I really had to do it, especially because there is less of a focus on learning to debate in World Views courses. I have more freedom to lecture (while experimenting with anonymous surveys and responses), and students aren’t conditioned to try to argue things out in a public forum. In short, I can more easily create a safe space in which to have the conversation than I can in an Ethics class.

My decision to take on the topic of pornography resulted in a full-fledged obsession with the nature and function of porn in our society that lasted for roughly 3 weeks. Porn, and especially feminist arguments about porn, was all I wanted to read about. I relentlessly raised the issue in conversations – both on- and offline – and I even took some time to familiarize myself with mainstream and feminist pornographic content.

I’ve never been an avid fan of pornography, but I have always identified as a sex-positivist, so I have no inherent problem with it either. My main issue has always been that mainstream porn is clearly produced for male audiences, so as a woman, I really didn’t see the point of watching it myself. But I also have no illusions about exactly how much pornography a lot of people consume, so the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like something worth talking about. Feminism has always had a fraught relationship with pornography, and the feminist take on depictions of sexuality seemed absolutely central if I was going to teach my students about the feminist world view in any meaningful way.

Furthermore, the moment I started to dig more deeply into the feminist sex wars (which have re-emerged with a vengeance during the past decade or so), the more complicated the issue became. I found myself thinking about violence, narrativity, the globalization of the porn industry and the sex trade more broadly, internet technology, the issue of consent, the best ways of facing these problems, individual choice vs. systemic oppression, the possibility of a truly pleasurable feminist pornography, and more. I had so much to say and yet none of it was easy to talk about. Hell, a good deal of it seemed impossible to discuss in a classroom setting and I started to wonder how I would say anything at all.

And then things got really interesting. What shocked me even more than seeing my general levels of over-confidence crumble into a heap of self-doubt was that my temporary obsession with pornography had garnered some highly gendered responses outside the classroom too. In the end, my lecture about porn became as much a lesson in gendered speech and authority for me, as it was a lesson about the feminist approach to sexuality for my students. More than one male colleague said that they would never talk about pornography in the classroom – they didn’t want to get sued – and several of them wondered why I would be talking about it in a world views class at all.

On Facebook (see my post about how I use it as a work tool here), something truly bizarre happened. Usually, when I post something controversial on Facebook, I end up fighting a flame war with a bunch of men, while my female contacts quietly observe the insanity. At most, 1 woman will join the fray and a number of them will send private messages, conveying their opinions or support. Talking about porn in a public forum elicited the polar opposite response. None of my male friends of colleagues wanted to touch that with a 10-foot pole – at least not publicly. This time, I got a few private comments from the men, and the women went hog-wild, posting links and adding comments to the discussion.

Randomly, talking about porn reversed the usual laws governing public speech and the women ruled the roost. The assumption that all men watch porn and that they were thus speaking from personal experience (and that women never did so, and so were approaching this from a purely theoretical perspective), delegitimized male speech and created a female-dominated conversation. Never mind the fact that plenty of women watch porn and plenty of men do not, the widespread cultural assumptions about gendered consumption of sexually explicit material turned my world upside down as I prepared to give this talk.

The end result was that I felt both more confident and more nervous at the same time when I walked into that room to give the first of my 3 sections of Gendered World Views “the talk.” I knew that my voice as a female intellectual would protect me from a lot of criticism; however, I worried about how my male students would react.

The course is, after all, mandatory. Students don’t have to take my World Views class, but they do have to take a World Views – and we’re well past the add-drop deadline. Many of the students I teach had no idea what the theme of the course was when they came in the first day, and they had picked my class because it worked with their schedule. Talking about gender and sexuality is new, and most importantly hard. And so, while I really do believe that a certain level of discomfort and confusion is necessary if people are going to learn, I also know that there is a line between productive and destructive unease. I’m still trying to find out where that line is when it comes to teaching pornography.