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What We Talk About When We Talk About Porn

Getting college students to talk about the issues of sex, power and identity that surround pornography shouldn't be that controversial.

by Arielle Pardes
21 March 2015, 6:55am

It was obvious we were watching pornography. Even on the other side of the heavy wooden door you could hear those telltale soft, urgent grunts, the wet noise of skin slapping skin. A student knocked, then stuck her head in. "I'm so sorry to interrupt," she offered, beet-red and clearly embarrassed, "but could you please turn that down?"

It was my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania and my classroom—where Deep Throat was blaring from a big screen—stood adjacent to a room where a group of writing tutors met weekly to workshop other students' essays. Those tutors knocked on the door many times over the course of that semester, because there they were every Wednesday, and every Wednesday, we watched porn.

So when I heard about Christian Graugaard, a professor in Denmark who said that " porn belongs in the classroom," I found myself nodding along. Of course students should watch people have sex on camera in an academic setting—how else are they going to learn about porn?

Obviously, it's a lot more complicated—and controversial—than I'm making it out to be. A few years ago, a professor at Appalachian State University was quietly placed on leave after screening The Price of Pleasure in a sociology class (that's not even porn, by the way; it's a documentary that's critical of porn). You can barely let the word pornography escape from your lips before people are shouting about how the very concept is coercive, how it's demeaning to women, how it's the source of all the awful sex in the world today. It's already bad enough that teenagers spend all their free time jacking off to the stuff; why bring it into school?

When I reached out to Debby Herbenick, an associate professor at Indiana University and the author of dozens of books about sexuality, she seemed kind of put off by the whole thing. "I don't believe that porn needs to be shown to teenagers in school-based sex education," she said.

But the truth is, there's so much more to pornography than just tits and ass, and to suggest as much is reductive. Just look to the burgeoning academic field of "porn studies" and the PhD holders who are treating dirty movies seriously.

Shira Tarrant is one of those people. She recently co-wrote New Views on Pornography, a book that dissects the debates and empirical research about porn; she also teaches a class about pop culture at Cal State Long Beach, where—surprise—she and her students use porn as a launching point to talk about culture.

"There's a lot of moral panic around [pornography]," she said. Porn has been around for as long as images have existed, and yet the debates about pornography are retrograde: Is porn good? Is porn bad? We're only beginning to move past that. "Just last year, Routledge started publishing an academic journal called 'Porn Studies,'" Tarrant told me. "I hope what's happening now pushes porn past the stalemates."

The journal publishes studies about history and culture, studies about the politics of pleasure, studies about trends in porn consumption, and more. The point of all this is that there's a lot more going on than two (or more) naked bodies getting down to business.

I learned that during my freshman year of college, when I signed up for what I thought was a creative writing class—though, actually, it was called " Uncreative Writing" and taught by experimental writing guru Kenny Goldsmith. Instead of getting to work on essays or short stories, however, we dived into erotica. We watched Deep Throat, in its entirety, twice. We pulled porn clips from the 70s and compared them to videos we found on XTube. We watched Andy Warhol's Blowjob, and then we wrote about it as if we were composing a police report: Man fidgets. Makes eye contact and then averts eyes uncomfortably. Looks toward ceiling. Closes eyes and tilts head back, exhaling. Opens eyes and rolls them around.

I'm going to be honest: That class was really fucking weird. During the first few weeks, when the freshman boys who lived on my hall found out that my homework involved watching porn, they giggled a lot and asked me, "So, wait, what are you supposed to be learning?" I stared at them blankly and shrugged, universal teenager for "I don't really have the tools to talk about this."

But after a few classes, I learned to divorce the material from its sexually gratuitous nature and I discovered that through pornography, you can pretty much talk about anything. Our class had discussions about race and gender and representation; there were conversations about power, about protection, about figuring out what turns you on. Topics like the evolution of pubic hair and breasts in pornography led to discussions about culture, politics, and identity. Porn wasn't just a way for us to learn about the mechanics and expectations of sex; it was a lens that allowed us to view the entire world. It also gave us a lens to view porn.

When Christian Graugaard spoke with VICE News about his proposal to incorporate pornography into Danish classrooms, he said what I already knew: It's not the images that are important, it's the conversations that spring up around them. Even softcore pornographic images "may generate valuable discussions about the diversity of eroticism and even raise issues such as personal integrity, gender equality, human rights, and 'safer sex.'" And of course, that's exactly the point: There is good porn and bad porn and plenty in between, but none of that matters if we're not talking about it.

Obviously, porn doesn't have a place in every classroom ("Today's lesson is on string theory... but first, here's a clip of Stoya getting pounded in the ass") but there are certainly settings where talking about these videos and images in a critical setting can be eye-opening. People are going to be watching porn anyway, they might as well be able to think and talk about it in a serious way.

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