COL 289 Pornography

The following is the course description for COL (college of letters) 289, a course studying pornography at Wesleyan University:

"This course investigates pornographic literature as a body of discursive practices whose 'materials,' according to the cultural critic Susan Sontag, comprise 'one of the extreme forms of human consciousness.' The pornography we study is an art of transgression which impels human sexuality toward, against, and beyond the limits which have traditionally defined civil discourses and practices -- defined, that is, by regimes of dominance and submission, inclusion or exclusion, in the domains of organ and emotional pleasure. Our examination accordingly includes the implication of pornography in so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism, and masochism, and considers the inflections of the dominant white-heterosexual tradition by alternative sexualities and genders, as well as by race, class, age, mental and physical competence. We also attempt to identify the factors, intrinsic and extrinsic, which align the pornographic impulse with revolutionary or conservative political practices. But our primary focus is on pornography as radical representations of sexuality whose themes are violation, degradation, and exposure."

                      

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Wesleyan Brings Porn Into The Classroom
Wednesday, May 12 Site last updated 05/12/99 3:04PM

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 photography.

"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 pornography.' "

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 Pictures."

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 masturbates.

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 back."

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.' "


1999  The Hartford Courant