Pornography on campus

More colleges are offering courses on the effect of porn on our lives.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards
March 29, 2006 1:16AM (UTC)

Speaking of skipping school, here's one class students won't want to miss. Time Magazine reports that colleges across the country are now offering more classes on pornography. Granted, the courses have less-than-titillating titles like "Cyberporn and Society" (offered at the State University of New York at Buffalo) and "Pornography in Popular Culture" (at the University of Iowa) -- but they're still about porn! At school!

The so-called porn curriculum, which aims to look at the impact of the industry's explosion on our lives, is actually a welcome trend. (Broadsheet recently wrote about how porn can color relationships and how idealized images of women's "down there" are driving some to get vaginal makeovers.) Different courses tackle the psychology and philosophy of the genre in literature, film, law, technology, anthropology and, of course, women's studies. (One class on obscenity at Northwestern by media studies professor Laura Kipnis looks at class stratification through the magazine Hustler.) "I'm quite critical of pornography," Linda Williams, a film professor at UC-Berkeley, tells Time. "I'm not trying to teach people to accept the existence of it. As with any tradition of moving-image culture, we need to take it seriously. We need to try and come at it with some theoretical tools."


Of course, there's a big debate on how much skin professors should show in class. While Williams apparently shows plenty, her reading list -- which includes selections from Sigmund Freud and French philosopher Michel Foucault -- is decidedly less arousing. (Not everyone is so open-minded, though, especially at schools with state funding. A politician wanted to withdraw support for the Iowa class until he learned that it wouldn't be showing the hardcore stuff.)

Whether we like it or not, porn is everywhere -- so why shouldn't it be probed and questioned and studied? Just consider what sex scenes featuring a transgendered man and showing female ejaculation did for New York University senior Lindsey Reich in a class on sexuality and gender. "I realized I do have my biases about what is a man and what is a woman -- I mean, I grew up in the Midwest -- and it made me want to explore these stereotypes and get past them," she tells the magazine. "Those films did that better than any academic book." If transgendered men and female ejaculation can help teach Reich about the world, then bring on the smut. Maybe porn can be just as fun and educational as it is damaging and degrading. And by dissecting it in a thoughtful way, we can take back its power.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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