The Pedagogy of Pornography
By Mireille Miller-Young

Intimate Literacies
By Celine Parreñas Shimizu

Risky Lessons
By Carlos Decena


Still from Shortbus featuring actors Sook Yin Lee and Justin Bond. Image courtesy of ThinkFilm, used with permission.

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Risky Lessons: Thinking/Viewing/Talking Sex in the Feminist Classroom

By Carlos Ulises Decena

The question prompting the essays in this roundtable centers on the repercussions of the display of sexually explicit content in the feminist classroom. My answer is to link the implications of the visual displays of sex to the pedagogical and ethical “troubles” of taking sex seriously in our teaching. Addressing sex in the classroom demands the reconceptualization of the rules of engagement between teachers and students. Sex also implicates us (and often our identities) in wanted and unwanted ways as teachers and mentors, challenging us to grapple with the consequences of our pedagogical choices in the lives of students. “Thinking sex” in the classroom includes negotiating the glimpses of its thick density, its power to alter socialities in unpredictable ways, its ability to surprise us as we encounter boundaries that crumble and boundaries that emerge in our teaching and mentorship. Despite how much “sex positivity” may appear to be a laudable goal to feminist educators, “going there” in our classrooms has consequences we cannot always anticipate.

Taking sex seriously requires listening for those boundaries negotiated around it. One of our jobs as educators is often to provoke, but it is also to create the conditions for students to grapple with issues on their own. Silence can sometimes be a sign of respect and consideration for students as they engage the issues they are encountering in the classroom.
    The course was called Research on Sexualities. It was part of the Critical Sexualities minor in my department, and it was my first time teaching it. Despite my having made clear on the first and second day of class (and in the syllabus) that sexually explicit materials would be shown and discussed, showing Shortbus (2006), a film about the vicissitudes of a woman’s search for an orgasm in New York City, happened late in the semester. My main objective in showing this film was to illustrate how we could entertain questions about race, class, and gender relations once we got over the “shock” value of viewing sex itself as shown in the film. Nevertheless, I was freaking out.
      I sought the advice of my department’s undergraduate director, who recommended that I offer students the possibility of being excused from watching this film, doing an alternative assignment, or having both options. I advised the students they could be excused if they so wished.
    The viewing and discussion were productive. It would have never occurred to me beforehand to think I had accomplished something when I did not hear nervous giggles as we watched together. But the utter seriousness and commitment of my students reassured me that we had reached a level of trust and rapport that allowed us to talk about these issues and that helped us engage the explicitness of the sex but also see how many issues we confronted which were similar to other materials we had already discussed.

      Nevertheless, one of my most outspoken students asked to be excused. She did not object to the showing of the film—in fact, she had already seen it and discussed it with friends. Her concern was with viewing it in class among her peers. Something about viewing and discussing this sexually explicit film pushed against her comfort zone, regardless of how outspoken she had been until then, how well we knew one another (she had taken other courses with me), and how much she may have trusted my facilitation of the discussion. Ultimately, she did very well in the course, but she and I never broached the topic again. We may have had a good relationship, but it was clear to me that I had to respect the boundary she was setting.

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