Porn 101

College students learning the history of dirty pictures gain a more realistic picture of the people who make sex their business.


Susie Bright
April 10, 1998 9:54PM (UTC)

This year I shall have no fear. This year, I will see like a telepath
through the phony excuses and displays of faux remorse. Yes, this quarter,
as I begin teaching again at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I
will accept no late homework and brook no whining rationalizations. This
school year, I promise that I will not allow anyone to perform an avocado
facial on themselves during my lecture time. I'm drawing my line in the
academic compost!

Truly, my biggest vow is that this year I will concentrate and give my all
to the 95 percent of my students who are a dream come true. This majority makes me
so glad that I thought of teaching a class called "The Politics of Sexual
Representation" way
back in the summer of 1995. It's because of them, and my colleagues in the
community studies department (a major devoted to political activism and
social change), that I have had some of my best intellectual discussions
about sex and pornography ever.

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The few rotten eggs I've met -- like the administrator who said I'd only be
allowed to teach at the University of California over his "dead body," or
the handful of students who were disrespectful -- are painful reminders of
how screwed up people are about sex in the first place, but they hardly
have defined my career. Mr. Big retired, so at least his body (alive or
dead) is off the premises. Furthermore, I'm the first to admit that
studying dirty pictures isn't for everyone. Maybe that one student
slathered green pulp all over her face because she just couldn't stand to
look anymore.

My class is all about viewing and discussing "dirty pictures" -- the
explicit side of human sexual expression -- and analyzing what we think
they say about our culture, our fantasies, our prohibitions. Pornography is
surely one of the richest anthropological digs I've ever pored over. With
its underground, censored status, erotica reflects the most fascinating
nuances of our history and our image of ourselves. Porn, compared to the
more highly esteemed forms of cinema and fine art, is genuinely raw; its
typical lack of what we call "good production values" is one of the most
telling things about it. Plus, it has its own values, which frequently spit
at the hypocrisy and delusions of polite society.

I know most folks don't think of pornography from a scholar's point of view
-- I wasn't any different when I was first introduced to it. When most
young people first discover "dirty pictures," be it at the bottom of our
parents' bureau drawer or handed around the elementary school playground,
we usually react with shock or titillation, sometimes with disgust or
yearning. This is a heady emotional cocktail, not the studied distance of
an analyst speculating on what this specimen says about our world.

I must say that I personally owe a tremendous debt to all those anti-porn
feminists I now disagree with -- Diana Russell, Andrea Dworkin, et al. --
because their cadre was the first (outside the courts and the church) to
ever look at pornography with any political or urgent intentions. They had
an alternative, revolutionary point of view. Furthermore, they dared to
distribute pornography to women, showing really outrageous slides of S/M
kinkiness to college freshman just like me back in the 1970s. We sat in
classrooms watching lurid presentations by Women Against Violence Against
Women with our mouths hanging open. The anti-porn movement took porn out of
the hands of raincoaters and their prosecutors and for the first time
opened it up to general discussion. Thank you sisters, for your democratic
efforts!

While I nodded my head at those presentations along with everyone else --
"Gosh, is it true that if rape is the practice, porn is the theory?" -- I
actually had many conflicting ideas spinning in my head. Surely other young
women in the audience were similarly woozy. The questions and
contradictions we were left with after the slide show lights went out
spawned the most heated debate that ever wracked the modern feminist
movement: "What does sexual liberation mean to women's liberation -- or to
anybody who would like to see erotic enlightenment between the sexes?"

What I'm teaching these days is a fairly new field, pioneered by two other
women film studies professors also at the University of California, Linda
Williams (Irvine/Berkeley) and Constance Penley (Santa Barbara). There are
always lots of nervous questions when students come to enroll. For example:

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Favorite Parents' Question: If my son/daughter takes this class, will they be trained on how to become a porn star?

Answer: Not any more than taking an introductory biology class will turn your child
into a frog. This isn't a vocational school, despite what you've heard
about cutbacks. One caveat, however: Some of your kids already are
sex workers. By the end of the quarter, I usually realize through hints or
confession that a couple of my students are putting themselves through
college by stripping, escort services or some other high-paid form of sex
work. They are majoring in everything from biochemistry to women's studies,
and they are very secretive about how they pay their bills because they
know the shock and outrage that many people would feel if they knew the
truth.

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Whenever I lecture on pornography, I always assume that some of my audience
has work experience with the subject I'm discussing. It's my pleasure to
acknowledge them and destroy the stereotypes that people who work in porn
must be stupid, crazy or coerced.

It would be a very unusual choice if anyone in my class graduated with the
grand ambition to become a pornographer. Most of them are off to computer
companies, law school, waitressing, cab-driving and other typical post-grad
jobs. But I do think that my exiting students gain a realistic picture, and
some human respect, for the people who have made eroticism their
profession.

NEXT COLUMN: What do students want to find out before they sign up to
become scholars of pornography?

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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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