With classwork like this, who needs to play? Undergraduates taking Cyberporn and Society at the State University of New York at Buffalo survey Internet porn sites. At New York University, assignments for Anthropology of the Unconscious include discussing X-rated Japanese comic books. And in Cinema and the Sex Act at the University of California, Berkeley, undergrads are required to view clips from Hollywood NC-17 releases like Showgirls and underground stag reels.
It's called the porn curriculum, and it's quietly taking root in the ivory tower. A small but growing number of scholars are probing the aesthetic, societal and philosophical properties of smut in academic departments ranging from literature to film, law to technology, anthropology to women's studies. Those specialists argue that graphic sexual imagery has become ubiquitous in society, so it's almost irresponsible not to teach young people how to deal with it. "I was amazed by how much the students knew about pornography but how little they knew how to think about it," says Jay Clarkson, a graduate student in communications who introduced the University of Iowa's Pornography in Popular Culture class last fall. But although Clarkson and his peers may agree that porn studies have a place in the curriculum, they are divided over how far professors should go in teaching them. Do students really need to watch a couple copulating onscreen to understand why pornography turns people on? Or does a stimulating essay on the nature of desire provide just as much if not more insight?
Linda Williams, a film professor at Berkeley, lines up on the side of showing rather than simply telling. While researching feminist reactions to porn in the early '90s, she grew fascinated by the choreography of dirty movies and began teaching a trailblazing course about porno films. "I'm quite critical of pornography," she says. "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." Like many porn scholars, Williams includes readings from Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who wrote about sexual identity, to explore how porno movies interpret desire and what that says about the human psyche. Similarly, Alex Halavais, an assistant professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo, tracks pornography's pivotal role in the development of communications systems from the telephone to the Internet, with a reading list that ranges from student blogs to the Congressional Record. And in her graduate-level class on obscenity, media-studies professor Laura Kipnis of Northwestern University examines how publications like Hustler can define class stratification in the U.S.--by discussing the work of the 16th century satirist François Rabelais as well as skin magazines.