The Pedagogy of Pornography
By Mireille Miller-Young

Intimate Literacies
By Celine Parreñas Shimizu

Risky Lessons
By Carlos Decena


Still from Sex: the Annabel Chong Story (dir. Gough Lewis, 1999). Used with permission from Strand Releasing.

  home | film reviews | featured article | calls for papers | in memoriam | contact
  issue 2.2 |  



Intimate Literacies: The Ethics of Teaching Sexually Explicit Films

By Celine Parreñas Shimizu

To teach in ethnic, feminist, film, and performance studies is to encounter many students who are engaging issues of difference for the first time. When students come in deciding they already know what race, sexuality, and representation mean, it is a marvelous revelation to see them open up to the power of analysis, good writing, and reading widely across diverse materials. They learn that knowledge is actually gained through a process of discovery, rather than deciding ahead of time what their object of analysis already means and defending the views they already possess. To participate in knowledge production is not simply to further reify pre-existing beliefs and convictions but to keep open to learning, equipped with the abilities of critical reading and analytic writing.
           Within an ethnic studies context, and as a feminist sexuality scholar, I teach film and performance theory and film production; race and sexuality; transnational feminisms; and popular culture. Specifically, my courses attend to the production of race and sexuality in popular culture over the last 100 years in narrative, documentary, and experimental moving image forms. We focus on particular thematics such as sexual difference and analyze subject formation in the study of women’s and men’s representations. I teach two small (15-45 students), upper-division courses that directly engage sexuality, race, and/or representation in their title, course description, and content. I do not teach pornography, but films that can be considered sex-positive in their unapologetic representation of sexuality and a wide array of sexual practices as part of everyday life. No surprise films are screened in class. On the syllabus, in the introduction to the class, and before every film screening, I make sure to forewarn students of any sexually explicit material, and I acknowledge how the power of these films may lead to responses that include anger and excitement. I emphasize that such experiences do not preclude—and must involve—our critical analysis. Films, like race and sexuality, are powerful, and sexually explicit materials can produce confusing feelings in a situation where students are required to think. This is precisely why these films need to be studied more than ever: we need the ability to screen, in the sense of sift through, watch, and study, materials that shape our culture so ubiquitously.
       Sexually explicit film is a particularly important object of analysis in the study of race, gender, sexuality, and other social differences because these films allow us typically inaccessible entry into private moments, such as the emotional encounter within the intensity of sexual relations and the settings in which they occur. Teaching Helen Lee’s Prey (1995) allows me to dissect the kiss between two differently racialized subjects as an actional encounter: Is it a coming together? Is it a proximity of two cultures who meet across difference and inequality? How does power enter, move, and shift within and without the relationship? In Prey, the Native Canadian man learns how to say the Korean Canadian woman’s name, thus the tongue and the kiss come to be a way for them to learn about and recognize each other; in the truest sense of the word they form an alliance.
   The main problem I encounter in teaching this topic is that discourses of sexuality outside the classroom are frequently organized by the forces of “moral panic,” as theorized in Gayle Rubin’s classic essay “Thinking Sex” (1984), which argues for the need to separate the study of sex from gender in order to avoid the framework of discipline and subjugation that ties those two categories together. I use Rubin’s essay in my approach to the study of race and sexuality in a way that counters moral panic. Instead, I prioritize an ethical approach that concretely identifies the materials as objects that are produced by subjects who wrestle with sexual, racial, and representational conundrums, and I attempt to make an argument relevant to our social relations. In my feminist classrooms, as in my scholarship, I utilize a film reading technique that I call “intimate literacy” that entails the deconstruction and analysis of the structure, grammar, and vocabulary of sexual acts without judgment, especially when it gets in the way of understanding what the material is actually doing. We cannot already decide what the films mean without analyzing them. As in the work of Alfred Kinsey, who made sure to concretely catalog the sex acts in the pornography collected in the Kinsey Institute archive, my courses are sites where the identification of bodily forms and gestures in acting must occur alongside the dissection of a film’s grammar and structure in cinematography, production design, directing, and performance. Whether a film is a documentary, experimental or a fictional narrative, students need to be able to identify the movements and actions of the body as well as the cinematography, design and editing in producing meaning. Questions that need asking include: How does the actor or the character convey sadness or happiness? How does the particular grasp of the hand on a shoulder indicate the character’s motivations or disclose their feelings?

Design by Joanna Wyzgowska.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.