Planet porn: Pornography is a feminist issue

It divides academics into pro and anti factions. For some it's anathema; for others a course subject
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The Independent Online

IN A graduate class at the University of California in Berkeley, some of America's brightest students spend dozens of hours watching scenes of ejaculation, anal penetration, gang-banging and other variants of hard- core pornography. They discuss the historiography of the pin-up girl, look at dirty photos and listen to celebrity pornographers giving lectures about their work.

IN A graduate class at the University of California in Berkeley, some of America's brightest students spend dozens of hours watching scenes of ejaculation, anal penetration, gang-banging and other variants of hard- core pornography. They discuss the historiography of the pin-up girl, look at dirty photos and listen to celebrity pornographers giving lectures about their work.

The course, taught by a film studies professor called Linda Williams, is officially entitled "Rhetoric 241: Advanced Rhetorical Studies of Genre in Media and Literature". But to its students and the university as a whole it is known as "the porn class", the object of much curiosity and just a little ridicule, as the principles of literary theory are applied to some of the most reviled artefacts of our times.

Instead of analysing Proust, or even the semiotics of advertising, the students watch Deep Throat, John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and The Opening of Misty Beethoven to help them muse on what Professor Williams calls "the essential pornography of the visible" and the propensity of dirty movies both to reinforce and to subvert the generic conventions of film as a whole.

It is a task the students undertake with utmost seriousness. "It was a lesson in tolerance," said Stuart Murray, a Canadian philosophy graduate who took the course last year. "Scenes some students might find arousing, I might find repellent, and vice versa. It was therefore essential to refrain from expressing personal judgement, making disparaging remarks or sniggering, out of respect for one's colleagues."

There is nothing new, of course, about the academic study of pornography. The Marquis de Sade, for example, has become a standard feature on many university syllabuses, with authors of the calibre of Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag and Angela Carter arguing in favour of the ability of such writing to transgress social taboos and politicise both male and female sexuality. What makes Professor Williams's course a little different is that it focuses on hard-core visual pornography and refuses to shy away from its vulgarities, its perversions and its power to shock or arouse.

Despite Berkeley's reputation as a centre for radical intellectual pursuits, it is far from alone in offering such unorthodox academic fare. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Constance Penley has been teaching a very similar pornography course to undergraduates since 1993. At the University of Nevada in Reno, the art history professor Joanna Frueh not only lectures on pornography, she has also published an academic book in which she discusses her sexual fantasies and is photographed in pornographic poses.

A new field of study is emerging, a field dominated by women that sometimes goes under the apparently paradoxical title "pro-porn feminism". That does involve a certain degree of advocacy on behalf of pornographic materials - especially when it comes to fending off charges that pornography necessarily exploits women and leads to male sexual violence - but mostly it involves the assertion that pornography, as a significant presence in the modern world, is worthy of study at all.

"Call me a feminist apostate, but I say there is more to pornography than a celebration of gender oppression, and limiting the discussion to that issue alone closes the door before things get interesting," argues Laura Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University and author of the book Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. "Why it exists, what it has to say and who pornography thinks it is talking to are more interesting questions than all these doomed, dreary attempts to debate it, regulate it or protest it."

Among other things, the new movement is a reaction against the anti-porn stance of academic feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose writings inspired a Justice Department commission on pornography during the Reagan era. Broadly, these writers took their cue from Robin Morgan's slogan "Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice" and refused to accept pornographic performers as anything but the sexual dupes and slaves of men.

In an era in which women produce pornography, grow rich from it and - to a lesser extent - consume it, the argument of the MacKinnonites has come to look a little simplistic. All the "pro-porn" writers emphasise the subject's complexity, frequently using psychoanalytic language to look at it as part of the unconscious of our collective psyche. "There are certain things we just don't want to know about ourselves, and about our formations as selves," Professor Kipnis writes. "These seem to be precisely what pornography keeps shoving back at us."

Professor Kipnis, perhaps the most appealing and accessible of the new writers, argues that pornography is in fact a highly political, class- conscious assault on the values of high culture. In an analysis of Hustler magazine, she describes its publisher, Larry Flynt, as "a one-man bug up the nation's ass" and sees deliberately subversive intent in his use of vile images.

"The Hustler body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body, one continually defying the strictures of social manners and mores and instead governed by its lower intestinal tract: a body threatening to erupt at any moment," she writes.

If Professor Kipnis examines the social and political implications of pornography, Professor Frueh is more interested in its transgressive power to alter the language of academic discourse - thus aligning herself with the French feminists Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who argue against the "patriarchal" linguistic order and theorise about "writing the body". Professor Frueh writes in her book Erotic Faculties: "Erotic scholarship is lubricious and undulant, wild, polyvocal, cock- and cunt-sure - secure in the erotic potency of bodily particularity unsuppressed by the stereotyped abstractions of age, race and gender."

Perhaps most controversial of all is the work of Professor Williams, who looks at pornography not for its cultural baggage but for its content. In her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the "Frenzy of the Visible" she argues that porn is more remarkable for its closeness to conventional film than for its divergences. She compares the structure of 1970s-era dirty films to that of classic Hollywood musicals, with the sex scenes operating much like big set-piece numbers and the rest merely providing the dramatic context for the next "song". The Opening of Misty Beethoven, a film about a young woman's sexual education, is the porn version of Pygmalion, and the climactic scene in which the heroine causes three men to ejaculate simultaneously is "the equivalent of the 'By George, She's Got It!' number in My Fair Lady".

Such analyses risk giving pornography far greater artistic credibility than it deserves and arguably teach us little about porn except how much Professor Williams enjoys it (she admits some degree of personal gratification in her book, although she cautions against prurient interest being interpreted as "uncritical enthusiasm"). Her students talk gleefully about going down to the local sex shop to pick up video titles such as Bend Over Boyfriend; several of them took advantage of a lecture by the pornographic sex guru Annie Sprinkle to seek intimate details about her fabled five-minute orgasm.

This is hardly the royal road to the heart of conservative America. When Ms Penley first started her course at UC Santa Barbara, Reader's Digest called her "outrageous" and Pat Robertson, the evangelical preacher, branded her class "a new low in humanist excess". This power to shock right-minded citizens is, of course, part of the point; more questionable is the way in which pornography has been not just studied but to some degree also embraced.

Susie Bright, co-founder of the lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs, now lectures in "the politics of sexual representation", aka pornography, at UC Santa Cruz. Porn stars regularly turn up at academic conferences organised by Ms Penley, Professor Williams and others. One Santa Barbara student recently spent a summer as an intern at a porn film company.

The porn industry thinks the academic interest proves that its activities are gaining ever greater mainstream acceptance. But is it healthy, or even educational? "Clearly it is difficult to strike a proper attitude toward pornography," Professor Williams concedes. That doesn't mean a number of high-powered academics aren't going to try.

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