The Pedagogy of Pornography
By Mireille Miller-Young

Intimate Literacies
By Celine Parreñas Shimizu

Risky Lessons
By Carlos Decena


Still from AfroDite Superstar. Image courtesy of Venus Hottentot and Candida Royalle, used with permission.

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The Pedagogy of Pornography: Teaching Hardcore Media in a Feminist Studies Classroom

By Mireille Miller-Young

Teaching pornography in the college classroom can be fraught with challenges. At least this is the view held by most professors, who see it as intensely problematic for one’s career by opening us up to charges of poor pedagogical practice or even to censorship (Curry 1996; Kirkham and Skeggs 1996; Kleinhans 1996; Lehman 2006; Reading 2006; Attwood and Hunter 2009; McNair 2009; Nguyen 2010). Beyond contributing to the vulnerability of professors, pornography in feminist classrooms is seen as an antifeminist invasion of “safe space,” the ethical and democratic environment many faculty work to create. Hence, to teach porn is primarily seen as to take risks and do harm rather than to create an opportunity for rethinking the role of sex in the classroom or to create new, transgressive pedagogies.
           I teach pornography because it is, as Constance Penley has shown in her groundbreaking senior seminar on pornography,1 a genre of film and media that has been central to the development of technology, culture, and society over the last one hundred years (see Kirkham and Skeggs 1996). The students in my senior and graduate-student seminar, Sexual Cultures: Pornography, in the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), are aware of feminist debates about pornography and their continuing salience for interdisciplinary studies of feminism and postfeminism in popular culture and beyond. I see no better way to instruct students about the complexities of the feminist debates about the relationship of violence, exploitation, and misogyny to pornography than to show them examples of the very cultural production under discussion.
        While my own research on race, blackness, and gender in pornography is situated within the liberal, anticensorship, and sex-positive camp of the porn debates, I encourage my students to read across ideological arguments, including radical feminist criticism, and to make up their own minds. Like Chuck Kleinhans, who teaches pornography at Northwestern University, I “cannot pretend I’m neutral” because my writing on the subject takes a position in the sex wars; yet “in the classroom I can try to create a space for discussion that allows frank expressions of difference on all sides” (Kleinhans 1996). Most students are not overly familiar with pornography, and some are viewing it for the first time in my classroom. Nevertheless, they often come to the course with strong opinions about pornography as singly sexist, gross, or deviant.
    According to Wheelock College professor Gail Dines, pornography has “hijacked” sexuality, destroyed intimacy, and must be stopped; she’s founded the group Stop Porn Culture to reignite the feminist antipornography movement to eradicate pornography (Dines 2010). What this view evacuates in its notion of sexuality as ruined by pornography is that historically speaking, sexuality, sex, and intimacy have hardly been liberated terrain for women. But if we are to search for sites of women’s sexual autonomy and eroticism we might begin by looking at precisely the sites where they are involved in creating sexual cultures, including pornography. What might be more productive than situating pornography as inherently against women’s interests would be to study it as a setting where women are also contributing to its meanings, forms, and content.
        Like University of California, Berkeley professor Linda Williams’s pedagogical approach to teaching pornography, mine is not to defend pornography against a narrow, problematic, and extremely sex-negative framework set out by feminist antipornography scholars and activists, but to show its diversity, complexity, and historicity. I too have held the premise in my classes that “since moving-image pornographies existed, we would not take up the question of whether they should exist before we had considered their form and content” (Williams 2004, 13). My aim is to educate students about pornography as a popular field of representation and a political economy informed by gender, race, class, and culture. I attempt to show that, as Susanna Paasonen argues, “In spite of its frequent use as a cultural symbol, pornography is not, and never has been, a monolithic entity” (Paasonen 2009, 597). Hence, I provide techniques for the analysis of pornography as a variant and historically contextualized visual culture, film genre, and sector of the sex industry. Prompting students to consider the technological, socioeconomic, and cultural context of particular images as they are produced, circulated, and consumed also means positing how sex functions as a site of desire, power, and knowledge through the specific textual forms.
     In my class we consider aesthetic and industrial concerns and posit what can be learned about the workers and working conditions of sex labor, one of the largest industries in the world. Given the proximity of UCSB to the heart of pornography film production in the San Fernando Valley, ninety miles south, I invite my research contacts—mainly women and men working in pornography such as Sinnamon Love and Tyler Knight and feminist and queer pornographers like Tristan Taormino—to come to campus to speak to students about their experiences, views, and work. Students have an opportunity to address the real people from the images we see in class about an aspect of particular importance to them in the feminist studies classroom: the question of agency. How much agency do women and sexual minorities have in pornography and how do they, and we, define it vis-à-vis empowerment and survival?
       My students struggle with the question of agency just as they wrestle with their own responses to seeing explicit images in the classroom. There seems to be, on the part of institutions, the professoriate, and even students themselves, an unspoken warning: Show explicit images and you traumatize and demoralize the minds of young people (Nguyen 2010). While it is of course crucial to be sensitive to potential trauma ignited by sexual materials—readings or images—in the classroom, this overwhelmingly cautious approach seems to be rooted in a sex-negative and phobic protectionism. This practice, according to experimental filmmaker and Bryn Mawr professor Hoang Tan Nguyen, instantiates hierarchies of pedagogy and knowledge that feminist and queer scholars have tried to contest. “Teaching porn is different from other modes of pedagogy,” suggests Nguyen, “because it activates and disavows bodily reactions from teachers and students, thus highlighting the fact that both are sexual subjects, [that] teaching and learning are both embodied practices” (Nguyen 2010).

1 Constance Penley has taught a course on pornography as a genre of film at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 1993, one of the first in the nation. In the resulting controversy Pat Robertson called her course “a new low in humanist excess” and asserted that, “a feminist teaching pornography is like Scopes teaching evolution.” See Penley 2006.

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