Creaming For Credit
Academia gets into the juicy stuff
Published September 3, 1999 in Scope

It's fin de siècle season at the University. In a time when Women's Studies is old news and queer theory is so de rigueur that it's passé, the stuffy academics are breaking out the hard stuff. Hardcore porn, that is.

See also...
... by D. R.
... in the Scope section
... from September 3, 1999

Getting credit for your Linda Lovelace video collection has never been easier. Wesleyan's "Pornography" class, for example, is famous for encouraging the students to go from aficionado to engineer. The final project is, of course, to create a work of porn. Who says college doesn't teach you skills for life?

In an era when deconstructing Barbie is just cause for tenure, the wizened scholars have learned to justify their love. It's easy to see what's intellectually compelling about a cheerleading squad fucking to cheesy funk music. But what do the nubile young student bodies really get out of these classes, besides flushed cheeks and a better GPA? Interestingly, even the most intellectually rigorous teachers acknowledge that the results are often more personal than intellectual.

"One thing I've learned over the years is that in our sex-saturated culture, people are frightfully ignorant," says UC Santa Barbara professor Constance Penley. Penley pioneered the study of porn as a film genre in the early '90s, but she recognizes the cognitive dissonance. "For me, it's a film studies course. For the students, it's sex ed. It's become a chance for them to find out who they are, sexually -- what attracts them, what their boundaries are."

California classes, like "The Power of the Erotic" at UC Berkeley, almost seem designed as academic self-help sessions for the libido. Bay Area sex luminaries like writer Carol Queen and dominatrix Lady Green are dragged in to discuss everything from open relationships to the nitty-grit of S/M. Throughout the semester the students keep journals of their own sexual discoveries, exploits, and fantasies.

For Lisa Solomon, one of the instructors for "The Power of the Erotic," Porn Studies is an opportunity for healing and acceptance. She says that term papers about shoe fetishes will "hopefully make it easier for the general population" to deal with the full range of sexuality. "People might say, 'if they're studying it in college, it must be OK.'"

Bridled Lust

Not surprisingly, just about everyone's got an opinion about just how Smut Sciences will affect our broader culture. Some scholars hope that a more unbiased study of porn will affect arts funding and censorship debates in Washington, while others expect it'll give feminists a PR boost. But it's not all fun and games.

Many film studies professors assert that porn paints a chillingly accurate portrait of our cultural anxieties, fears, preoccupations, and bugaboos -- from how we feel about fat people to what we believe about masculinity, race, and class-based economics. Titles such as A Clockwork Orgy and John Wayne Bobbit: Uncut are, they assert, vital documents of our social moment. And fetishes reveal our culture. In Israel, for example, Holocaust and Nazi imagery can be found all over the smuttiest skin mags.

That people often eroticize the taboo is a valid area for academic inquiry. But a balanced perspective is crucial if anyone's going to take these scholars seriously. As Catharine Stimpson, Graduate Dean at NYU's School of Arts and Sciences, notes, "to focus on [sexuality for study] -- fine. But let's not make this a central enterprise of Western Culture. Children are still dying, for God's sake."

Although it's tempting to picture a Perv Generation being enlisted into the life of pro-doms and porn stars, the students are -- for now, anyway -- mostly the kind of kids who use porn in the first place. So there are 20 to 50 kids on every campus who'd rather study Candida Royale than René Descartes -- it's going to take a more diverse class demographic to create a cultural shift toward greater sexual openness.

On the other hand, one wonders if extensive deconstruction wouldn't just derail the temptation to transgress. Solomon isn't concerned. "If you analyze a fetish away," she says, "something else will always pop up in its place." And Amanda Merrill, another past facilitator of the Berkeley course, claims it's just more fuel for the fire: "The more attention you give something," she observes, "the more interesting it becomes."

These days, Porn Studies gets such a great deal of attention. But whether or not the stuff's complex enough to withstand the test of time (and tenure) remains to be seen. For those hungry to suck down the hermeneutics of Deep Throat: You might want to get back to school now, while dirty pictures are hot.

See also: Porn 101: A smattering of the porn classes on offer

D. R. is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, Sojourner, and on the occasional public bathroom wall. She also fights crime in the subway.