Talking about Pornography in the Classroom: Part 2

These ancient pornographic jugs from Peru were on display in Montreal last year - unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to work them into my lecture.

These ancient pornographic jugs from Peru were on display in Montreal last year – unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to work them into my lecture.

As of today, I have given “the talk” in two out of three of my Gendered World Views classes. I’m not going to lie, it’s not been a comfortable conversation, but the experience of teaching students what feminists have said about pornography (and why), has been surprisingly rewarding. While I do not show any provocative images, my lecture does include reference to Catherine MacKinnon’s famous claim that: “Man fucks woman. Subject, verb, object.” Moreover, students get to listen to Andrea Dworkin’s very passionate and explicit testimony to the Attorney General on Pornography, so it’s not exactly PG either.

So, how have I decided to navigate this treacherous territory, and has it been working so far? Well, as you know from last week’s blog post, I really and truly believe that it’s important to discuss this material, but I was pretty panicked about whether or not I would be able to pull it off in a respectful and productive way. My main goal was to explain the feminist sex wars, then and now, and to make students reflect on the pornographic content that I was pretty sure they were all watching – and which, if I had to guess, they had been watching for quite some time.

Originally, I was going to take a strictly chronological approach, and start with the second wave, bringing it forward to the current controversy in roughly an hour and a half. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that doing it that way might alienate students, who tend to be uncomfortable with the second wave. A strictly chronological approach also didn’t afford me any opportunity to get a sense of their familiarity with – or thoughts about – pornography.

In the end, then, I decided to start with a modern case study, then go back to the beginning and work my way forward again. I showed 8 minutes of the Belle Knox interview on CNN – where the so-called “Duke Porn Star” defends her choice to become a sex worker and reiterates the initial arguments she made on xoJane. While my students were watching this, I asked them to complete an anonymous paper survey that I had handed out as they walked in. It asked:
1) Do you watch porn?
2) If you answered yes, do you like it?
3) Do you feel guilty after watching porn?

Why the paper survey, you ask? First and foremost, I wanted to get of sense of whether or not my students do indeed watch pornography. The answer to the first question would determine if I could move right into feminist responses to porn, or if I had to explain a little about what porn looked like first. All three questions taken together were designed to provide me with evidence that there was no one single experience that defined people’s relationship to porn. Expressions of guilt also signaled that there might be something to feel guilty about (well, that, and the fact that our society remains generally uncomfortable with sex).

As I handed out those paper surveys, students reacted in a number of ways. Unsurprisingly, many of my male students laughed and asked if I really believed that anyone in the room didn’t watch porn. I cautioned them not to rush to judgment, especially as other students (both male and female) recoiled or expressed shock when I handed them that little 3”x3” survey.

After the Belle Knox interview was over, I collected the surveys, and asked students to get into groups of 3 or 4, so that they’d have a little more privacy. I encouraged them to move around the room to find the other people that they felt most comfortable with, and assured them that they could get into all-male or all-female groups if they wanted. Then I asked them to figure out if doing pornography could ever be a feminist act. Silence.

Eventually, conversation picked up, and students in both my classes started asking each other the hard questions. What matters more, the individual choice or the system in which the person is making that choice? What type of porn are we talking about? Has anyone decided on what feminism “is” yet anyway? And so on, and so forth… I was both relieved and impressed.

When we came back into the large group, I explained to students that this would be the one class where I didn’t expect anyone to talk. The material that I had planned to pair with the porn lecture was much more interactive, and they could relax until then if they so desired. There was absolutely no pressure to comment throughout my lecture on pornography, but I would open the floor from time to time and they could comment if they wanted to.

In my first class, no one wanted to go there, not even some of my more outgoing male students who wanted to discuss their thoughts about the survey very loudly before class began. Small-group discussions had made everyone aware of the diversity of opinion in the room, and students seemed to sense that perhaps this was treacherous terrain. My second group, however, was less interested in small group and more interested in speaking as a class. The discussion was dominated by men, who felt more secure speaking about sexuality, but all of them – even the comedians – were serious, respectful, and reflective.

In order to fill the silence in the first class, and to augment the conversation in the second, I informed students that between one quarter and one third of their peers didn’t watch porn (at least not regularly enough to answer “yes”). More importantly, I told them, between one quarter and one third of those who did watch, felt guilty after consuming it. “Why might that be,” I mused, as I segued into the fraught female relationship with pornographic content.

From there it was pretty smooth sailing. Second-wave sex wars and the concept of rape culture. Dworkin and MacKinnon’s battle with, and eventual loss to, the sex-positive feminists. The rise of new technologies and new debates about the globalization of the sex trade. The issue of consent and the alleged growth in violent content. And the question of structure versus independent choice. To make the modern section a little less heavy, I included some less jargon-ridden and more pop-culture focused material, like a nod to the Good For Her Feminist Porn Awards, and a brief explanations of the anti-porn concern about porn addiction and erectile dysfunction among young men.

That brought us to the break (I currently teach night school in 3-hour blocks), and I closed off discussion by asking if anyone wanted to take a stab at deciding which group of feminists had it right. By that point, no one in either class wanted to attempt answering such a question, and they all needed a little time to process. So off they went.

After the break I talked about rape culture in the mainstream media as a way of tying things back to the same arguments without continuing on with a conversation about pornography that made many students feel uncomfortable. No one likes to think about rape, but at least everyone felt they could be more objective and retain a healthier distance from the subject… well, at least for the first 15 minutes or so. The more we brainstormed about ads, music, and video games, the more everyone started to feel a little more caught up in the system once again.

What really impressed me was that at the end of what was an undeniably exhausting class, one of my students put up his hand and said that he had decided that society needs to hear more about sex-positive feminism and feminist porn. The reason, he explained, was that he agreed with Andrea Dworkin and fundamentally believed that men were learning about sexuality from porn. From there, he moved to the sex positive position and claimed that people are always going to watch porn, probably from a young age. If porn is unhealthy, then male sexuality becomes unhealthy as well. Thus, if we want men and women to have healthier sexual experiences, we need to show them a healthier spectrum of what sexuality is so that they become healthier adults.

Other students told me that they never imagined that they would be talking about pornography in a classroom, but that it was a really important topic. And for the first time, I felt like I had managed to make a reluctant group of students interested in what are usually very unpopular feminist debates. I’m sure I didn’t reach them all, but I still feel like all my work and anxiety has been worthwhile. If even 10% of those students start to think more critically about sexuality and the sexually explicit material they consume, then I’ve done something valuable. I think we were all uncomfortable last week, but discomfort is the starting point of so much important intellectual work.

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.