Skin Flicks 101

What porn studies profs don't get about sex


Last year's news reports about a course at the University of California at Berkeley called "Male Sexuality" seemed like a cultural conservative's worst nightmare—or fondest dream, depending on how you look at it. The story had everything from lurid tales of sexual depravity (including a field trip to a gay strip club) to damning evidence of academic decline (class work included such intellectual exercises as photographing your genitalia and then trying to match other students' genitals to their faces). And it was set in no less a bastion of academic radicalism than Berkeley.

Following the negative publicity, the administration suspended the student-devised, student-taught course. The class was reinstated a month later, when it was concluded that some of the most scandalous doings, such as an end-of-semester orgy, were not technically part of the course.

The controversy was but one of a series of recent scandals about sex in academe. These sex scandals do not involve shocking exposés of illicit activities, of lecherous professors preying on innocent students or undergrads holding drunken orgies in dorms and fraternity houses. They are about officially sanctioned academic activities, such as courses and conferences, that some see as cutting-edge studies of sex and sexuality and others regard as an obscene fraud.

Indeed, the academy may have edged out the art world as the center of the debate about graphic sexual content and cultural value. Unfortunately but perhaps not surprisingly, this debate often pits those who seem opposed to any explicit discussion of sex—particularly sexual activities other than heterosexual intercourse—against those who seem to confuse exhibitionism with intellectual discourse.

Take the outcry over a 1997 conference at the New Paltz campus of the State University of New York. The gathering, organized by the Women's Studies Department, was creatively titled "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom," and eventually led to an attempt to oust the college president, Roger W. Bowen.

The critiques of the conference by New Criterion Editor Roger Kimball and SUNY Trustee Candace de Russy dripped with disgust at the perversities celebrated there; de Russy's list of the horribles, in a March 1998 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, included not only sadomasochism but anal sex, lesbianism, bisexuality, and female masturbation. Kimball's Wall Street Journal article, succinctly titled "A Syllabus for Sickos," lamented "a vision of sexuality totally emancipated from nature."

This may sound prudish and closed-minded, but it's difficult not to sympathize with some of Kimball's and de Russy's concerns when you read descriptions of several events at the conference. In a workshop on sex toys, the presenter—the owner of a Manhattan boutique—explained the use of anal beads and mocked "tight assholes" by demonstrating a stilted walk in front of the room. Another panel featured a performance by a stripper who simulated sexual acts and whipped a male panelist onstage. Defenders of the conference accused its critics of trying to "police ideas," but just what ideas were being expressed here is not entirely clear.

Besides having all the intellectual weight of a bachelor party, the new academic explorations of sexuality are riddled with double standards. While "Revolting Behavior" featured advocacy of lesbian S&M (and what critics contend was unabashed "recruitment" by its practitioners), de Russy rightly noted that "if male faculty members had invited male recruiters from heterosexual-sadomasochism groups to campus to promote participation by female college students," an outcry would have been sure to follow. Nor is it easy to imagine a male parallel to another controversial campus event, a 2000 one-day festival titled "Cuntfest" and billed as a celebration of womanhood. Quite a few of these celebrations, reportedly including some of the panels at the "Revolting Behavior" conference, degenerate into by-the-numbers male bashing.

Another much-debated academic trend is the proliferation of "porn studies." Courses on pornography can now be found at numerous schools, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Arizona, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Wesleyan. In the Wesleyan course, taught by Hope Weissman, a professor of women's studies, the final project requires students to produce a pornographic work of their own—photography, fiction, or film.

Ironically, the push to legitimize porn studies has come largely from female scholars and self-identified feminists, such as Weissman and Laura Kipnis, a media studies professor at Northwestern University. This may be yet another double standard: Male academics crusading to incorporate pornography into the curriculum would have been crucified as lechers and sexists.

On the bright side, this trend represents a turn away from the "victim feminist" obsession with pornography, and sexuality itself, as male victimization of women. But that's a rather thin silver lining.

One needn't be a prude or a hidebound academic traditionalist to roll one's eyes at the earnest assertions of porn studies champions. Amherst English professor Richard Burt, among others, has said that pornography should be treated no differently from any other genre of film or literature.

In a way, this is a reductio ad absurdum of the postmodernist creed that no "text" is truly superior to any other. In a 2001 article in the Los Angeles Times, Burt boldly declares that no study of film adaptations of Shakespeare can be complete without a look at hard-core porno flicks like A Midsummer Night's Cream.

If porn studies and events like "Revolting Behavior" take intellectual content out of the academy, they also take human content out of human sexuality (and perhaps sexual content as well). "Transgressive" acts and identities are celebrated for their defiance of social norms.

At the same time, there is scarcely any sense of the emotions, good and bad, that actual human beings bring to actual sex—not only love but jealousy, fear, and anger; not only the quest for intimacy and human connection but the desire for power and conquest. The kinds of things, in other words, that cannot be captured by hard-core porn—where, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote in the afterword to Lolita, "action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés" and "style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust"—or by sex toy demon-strations.

Some conservative critics go far beyond this, seeming to suggest that the depiction of sexuality in art is never an appropriate subject for academic study. (One article, for instance, mocks a University of Chicago course titled "Love and Eros in Japanese History.")

But a class that included Lolita, or the 18th-century French classic Dangerous Liaisons, or even sexual artifacts of nonpornographic modern popular culture such as the movie Chasing Amy, would be a far more meaningful exploration of human sexuality than all the porn studies courses across the land combined.