In my last column I talked about some of the reactions I get when people hear I'm teaching a class about pornography to the tender undergraduates at the University of California at Santa Cruz. One common fear is that the class is at best frivolous, and yet at its core must surely be an indoctrination.
I remember, when I was an undergrad in the late 1970s, taking one class on rock 'n' roll and another on the history of the Black Panthers -- academic issues as controversial in their time as pornography is today. There seems to be a general allergy among traditionalists to the idea of studying any kind of popular culture that's not at least 50 years old.
I got plenty of flack back then from the Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic crowd who said that these classes were some sort of crass commie plot designed to get middle-class naifs to strap on an ax and wear a beret. I do think I look rather fetching in a beret -- but that's beside the point. Students in classes about Marxism debate Marxism, and in classes about erotic films students debate blue movies just as fiercely as they would wrestle with "Das Kapital." Yes, they might have their minds opened to something they never talked about in high school -- but isn't that the point at this time in their lives?
My students have their own set of apprehensions when they enter our classroom on the first day of the course. Urgent questions have ranged from, "Can a straight white man be in this class?" (I should hope so, since in the real world you represent the largest single group by far of erotica consumers!) to, "Will we be watching any porn that features people of color?" (Yes, although it won't be labeled as such -- pornography makers are actually more inclusive of every sort of ethnicity and body type than their elitist cousins in Hollywood).
But the most provocative demand that I've heard so far was the time a young woman introduced herself to the rest of the class on the first day by making a small speech:
"I am a rape survivor, and I see in your syllabus that we are to spend two weeks discussing and viewing examples of sex and violence. Given my background as a victim of violence, I want to be excused from those two weeks, or any other screenings that would graphically depict violent sex."
She threw down her gauntlet with such precision that the rest of the class hung in suspense at the end of her declaration. Would I insist on holding her hand in the fire?
I guess I would. "Actually, you can't skip the sex and violence portion of the class," I said. "It's a bit like med school, where even if you're sincerely interested in the human body, you can't duck out of the autopsy lab because the sight of flesh and blood makes you ill. "
"Think about it," I told her. "The single most contentious argument about erotic expression today is the debate over whether it is a catalyst for antisocial behavior. For me to exclude violence from a study of pornography would be irresponsible and absurd. The whole nature of the pornography-equals-violence schtick is to warn people that something is dangerous without ever actually showing them the goods -- as if that would turn them into a pillar of salt. In this class, you're going to look at the variety of what gets called "violent" -- from high-class films that Pauline Kael drooled over to banal little bondage loops -- and you can decide for yourself whether it's dangerous, exquisite or ridiculous."
I could tell she was unhappy with my reply -- the look on her face was, dare I say it, violently pissed. So I handed her the only olive branch I could.
"I think you have every right to judge what is the right time and manner for you to study a subject, and certainly my class is not the only way to learn about porn. You've already figured out that you don't want to see certain things that are right up front in this class -- and that's why you should call up the registrar and drop now with no regrets."
She did drop, and a few others left as well. I never got to add that I thought there were faulty and treacherous premises at work in her objections.
People who have been raped or sexually abused do not have a uniform reaction in their sexual fantasies. Some people certainly do have an aversion to any literal representation of their experience, whether realistic or farce. But other survivors find that they have rapelike fantasies, some of which were "regulars" from before their attack, and some which are reinterpretations of their assault. Some are really turned on by their fantasies, but are repelled by films or pictures that show the same thing. Others just can't stay away from the most graphic B-movie horror flicks. All of these reactions are realistic and very human responses to coping with a trauma after the fact.
Men and women constantly take our most intense life experiences and tell the story differently to ourselves, over and over, creating a new outcome, turning powerlessness to release, pain to pleasure. Rape victims or not, we would surely all go mad if we could not use our imagination to cope with life's dark side as well as the light.
When we view someone else's taboo "art" -- be it X-rated or Oscar night material -- we may be surprised when we see that we're not the only ones thinking about the shadowy side of the human character, or, on the other hand, shocked to see that someone has gone in a direction that we would prefer to deny.
When I first started watching porno, I soon found scenes that embarrassed me or made me want get out a 10-foot pole with a press release attached reading, "This is DISGUSTING." I also felt like a big hypocrite for feeling aroused at the same time. That was when I formed my Pink Elephant Theory of Porn: What turns you on may not match your artistic values, your romantic choices in real life or your political views, but it is just as much a part of you, just as real and substantial as any other aspect. It's not a defect or weakness, it's our intuitive ability to take all that is unbearable and crazy and unspeakable about life and turn it into the juice of eroticism.
You can't afford to be a snob or hide out as a victim claiming that someone else's fantasies are sleazy or degrading -- because without the spirit that created that imagination, you wouldn't be alive, you wouldn't be able to discriminate, you'd be a stranger to both your potential and your boundaries. Don't tell me that your pain means that you have to be blind, that it's a noble reason for ignorance -- because there are too many of us who've been through the same suffering and found out that embracing our sexual depths was the most precious recovery of all.