By ERIC RICH
This story ran in the Courant May 8, 1999
MIDDLETOWN -- The college student wore black pants and harness-like leather straps that
left her mostly bare above the waist. Facing a wall, she bound her wrists with rope and
asked to be whipped with a rubber cat-o'-nine-tails.
That scene unfolded at Wesleyan University this week -- on finals day in a seminar
called "Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes." The performance was among a
variety of student projects, which also included a video, some fiction writing and
"I don't put any constraints on it," Professor Hope Weissman said of the
final course assignment. "It's supposed to be: 'Just create your own work of
A decade or so ago, in a climate dominated by the politically correct, leading
feminists viewed pornography as just one step away from sex crimes against women.
But at Wesleyan and elsewhere, a rehabilitated sex industry has now crept into the
curriculum. Porn has become a not-necessarily-degrading art form that has much to say
about society, a cultural artifact to be dissected and decoded like any other.
"Lingua Franca," a journal of academic life, for instance, ran a 1997 cover
story under the teasing headline "How Feminist Scholars Learned To Love Dirty
Porn stars now work the college lecture circuit. Performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who
packed a Wesleyan auditorium Sunday, extolled the value of prostitution and told students,
"The answer to bad porn is not no porn, but to try to make better porn."
Wesleyan offered its class for the first time last year. Hartford's Trinity College
will list a new philosophy class this fall on the legal and political issues surrounding
pornography and prostitution.
"Porn studies are very chic right now," said Sarah Maine, 20, who made a
movie short for Weissman's class showing only the eyes of a male student as he
Yet the final projects in Weissman's class push porn's newfound popularity to an
unusual extreme, according to some other academics.
Last year, a student from Westchester County shot a gritty film short of another male
student masturbating to a hard-core commercial porn movie. This year, the filmmaker
himself was featured in Maine's four-minute video.
Freshman Abbie Boggs avoided being overtly explicit, but nonetheless shot photos that
included oral sex with her ex-boyfriend. Other students wrote porn fiction.
Nothing, Weissman said, would have been considered over the line. "I push people
over the line, whatever their line is, but only when I think they can go there and come
Short and bespectacled, Weissman is a medievalist by training. She is a self-described
feminist who helped establish the women's studies program at Wesleyan.
"I think she's a very brave women," said Professor Constance Penley, who did
pioneering course work on pornography in 1993. But even Penley said she asks her students
not to make porn movies until after they graduate, if only because of the criticism it
would draw to her.
Penley, chairwoman of the film studies department at the University of California at
Santa Barbara, said a chorus of critics, led by televangelist Pat Robertson, initially
painted her as a "completely outrageous maverick."
"Now pornographic film can be seen as a completely normal and necessary part of a
film studies curriculum," she said.
Experts in higher education said the shift reflects the broader trend in society, one
fueled by the Internet and the growing prevalance of sex in the media.
"There's an intense occupation with sex, deviant sex, etc., that once would have
been regarded by 90 percent of the population as just plain scuzzy," said Jordan
Kurland, assistant general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
Pornography itself is evolving, academic theorists suggested. Once-marginalized groups,
such as gays and lesbians, have begun making pornography of their own, using it as a form
of parody and empowerment.
The Wesleyan course is cross-listed in women's studies and the interdisciplinary
college of letters, where Weissman has taught for more then two decades. The syllabus
includes the Marquis de Sade, Susan Sontag and academic takes on Hustler magazine.
"It's definitely symbolic of the kind of place Wesleyan is," Tanisha
Johnson-Campbell, 21, said of the course.
"Wesleyan isn't going to approve a class that's just going to be looking at trashy
magazines and everybody giggling about it," the Bronx, N.Y., native said. "It
wasn't superficial at all."
Most of the about 20 class members are women. A few admitted to a certain discomfort
with the material.
"They were having issues the whole semester," Weissman said. "That's all
right, I want them to have issues."
Some students have not told their parents about the class, or simply glossed over its
contents if they did. Others said their families gently wondered why they paid more than
$30,000 a year to send their children to a university that studies porn.
Weissman dismissed critics with a verbal wave.
"It is an academic course," she said flatly. "No apologies."
Matthew Smith's parents were a bit skeptical when they first heard about the class.
"I can't say I didn't have some negative feelings at first," Barbara Smith
said of the class. "But Matthew's taken a lot of well-named courses that he's gotten
absolutely nothing from. I assume they're getting knowledge of some kind."
Still, they have not watched the video that earned their son an A in Weissman's class
last year -- the short of another student masturbating while the buttery voice of Ella
Fitzgerald crackles from a record player.
"Their best reaction," he said, "is just to shrug and say, 'That's what
kids do these days, they make porn at school.' "