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Jewish World Review May 28, 1999 /13 Sivan, 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Majoring in porn?

(JWR) ---- (
SO THE LATEST FAD in the trendy groves of academe is “porn studies.”

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, professor Hope Weissman teaches a course on pornography in which one of the class assignments is to create a pornographic work of one’s own. In the New Yorker, James Atlas reports that porn studies is taught at Columbia and Northwestern, among other top schools. The University of California at Northridge last summer sponsored the first World Pornography Conference.

Even when porn is not the focus of a course, it finds its way into the rest of the curriculum. At Brandeis University in Massachusetts earlier this month, a graduation ceremony for women’s studies majors included one graduate’s presentation on the use of vibrators.

Some critics of pro-censorship feminism — the kind that sees pornography as not merely offensive but injurious and oppressive to women — are cheered by these developments and particularly by the fact that many porn-friendly academics are feminists. Meanwhile, conservatives predictably denounce porn studies as another sign that our culture has become a moral swamp and that professorial elites are corrupting the young.

Maybe the cheerleaders and the hand-wringers are both wrong.

The “pornologists” may take a more sensible view of porn than Catharine MacKinnon, the University of Michigan law professor who thinks Penthouse magazine encourages men to rape and kill women. But just because X-rated movies and girlie magazines shouldn’t be banned doesn’t mean they should be celebrated or studied with the same seriousness as the plays of William Shakespeare.

In a way, pornology is the logical conclusion of the radical academics’ obsession with sex, gender and “the body.” They’ve been reading sex into everything — including lesbian attraction in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility — so it’s hardly surprising that many of them would take a shortcut and analyze “cultural products” that actually are about sex.

This is not to say sex and sexual themes in art — such as the great 18th-century novel Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos — should not be the subject of academic study.

But most X-rated fare is a crude caricature that has few if any interesting things to say about sexuality. And much of the new sex-obsessed scholarship has very little to do with knowledge or insight into the human condition. It alternates between heavy-handed jargon (“Sexual intercourse ... lends itself as a vehicle to every variety of investment of social affect”), fashionably radical rhetoric about transgression of bourgeois norms and narcissistic self-indulgence (such as a recent book by a University of Nevada art historian that features nude photos of the author as well as her sexual fantasies).

The conservatives’ mistake, meanwhile, is to assume that porn studies is sexy. Watching a sexually explicit video in class and analyzing it as a “social script” is unlikely to put many people in the mood; actually, it may do more than all the sermons in the world to turn people off pornography.

Indeed, the porn scholars and the anti-porn crusaders may have something in common (besides spending a lot of time analyzing pornography). Both want to intrude into the realm of private pleasure and fantasy and to subordinate it to a public and political agenda. As Lee Siegel wrote in the New Republic last year in a withering attack on literary theorists who see sex everywhere, “Sexualizing all of life takes all of life out of sex.”

In his essay on porn studies, James Atlas concludes that “the quest for the provocative, the edgy, the new has got a little threadbare.” Porn studies exemplifies the worst trends in today’s academy: the preoccupation with the trivial and the trashy, the relentless focus on sexual politics, the pseudo-revolutionary chic. It may not be a great moral peril (surely college students see far more pornography on their own than in the classroom). Some may see the vogue for porn on campus as a symbol of moral decay; but maybe it says even more about our culture’s intellectual decline.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Cathy Young