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Porn 101

At Berkeley wild things are going on in a "Male Sexuality" class. Is this gambling in Casablanca?

11:01 PM, Feb 21, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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BY NOW, you're surely aware of the controversy that erupted at UC Berkeley last week over the school's student-taught courses on "Male Sexuality" and "Female Sexuality," sponsored by (of course) the Women's Studies department. Last semester's "Male Sexuality" course featured an orgy; a party game involving matching anonymous Polaroid shots of students' genitalia with the correct student; and a field trip to a gay strip club to watch course instructors strip and have sex. (The Daily Cal, the Berkeley student newspaper, broke the story; if you haven't been following it, you can read their coverage here and here.)

What's most telling isn't the presence of such a course at a prestigious American university (more on that in a moment), but the arrested development revealed in the comments of those involved with the courses as instructors and students. Morgan Janssen, a student instructor, told the Daily Cal that "in the class we don't say anything is right or wrong." Instead, the classes "provide a much-needed forum" for discussion "of how students really feel about themselves and their bodies and others," said another instructor. Such discussion is necessary to help students break through taboos and feel comfortable discussing their "sexuality."

This is laughable, to say the least. Do today's college kids really need help talking about sex? Haven't they ever heard of discussing this sort of thing with one's pals over a beer at the local pub? Sex isn't exactly a taboo subject on campus--as demonstrated, for example, by the weekly sex-advice column that runs in the Daily Cal. Your average Berkeley student is probably hard-pressed to correctly identify which countries we fought in World War II, but after reading Tuesday's column, he can tell you everything you'd ever want to know about your G-spot.

The tinge of respectability that the academic world now grants to porn is nothing new. The Berkeley courses are just the latest in a long string of embarrassing disclosures. For example, in 1999, Wesleyan University professor Hope Weissman offered a course called "Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes." Among other things, she required students to create their own porn and write about the experience for their final assignment. One male student chose to shoot a video of his eyes as he masturbated; a scantily clad female student did a "performance art" piece in which she asked her classmates to whip her with a cat-o'-nine-tails.

In the fall of 2000, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, offered a course--an "English" course, no less--titled "How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation." In previous years, an earlier version of the course dealt with depictions of homosexuality in classic literature. But in its new incarnation, it morphed into . . . well, I can't even do it justice. You can check out the eye-opening course description for yourself here (scroll down to course 317, section 001). I have it on good authority from a student still at U-M that on at least one occasion students in the course watched a gay porn film.

Every year or two, courses like this appear on the national media's radar screen, and the inevitable Kabuki dance begins: Conservatives display the requisite outrage, university administrators stammer in defense of "academic freedom," and eventually the whole mess blows over. Depending on how extreme the content is, the course either disappears forever, or returns a year or two later in barely modified form, sans outrage. (The Wesleyan course was killed by embarrassed administrators; the Michigan course, however, returned intact last fall, with much less hullabaloo.)

The porn profs claim they are simply studying a widespread cultural phenomenon, reflecting the larger society around them, etc. etc. It's a lame argument, one that perfectly encapsulates today's confusion about the purpose of the university. But the professors are right about one thing--porn is everywhere today. Last fall, William F. Buckley tackled this subject in an article decrying the "pervasive presence" of porn. His case looks stronger all the time. Just last November, ABC aired a "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" during prime-time, full of models clad in bras and G-strings, with nary a raised eyebrow of disapproval from the FCC. And a PBS "Frontline" documentary that aired a few weeks ago detailed just how massive the porn industry has become, with mainstream companies like General Motors, AT&T, Time-Warner, and the Hilton hotel chain (among many others) deeply indebted to porn distribution for a substantial share of their profits.

Buckley's article was prompted by the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, which, though ostensibly selling clothes, mostly shows models without them. A&F at least restricts the catalogue's distribution to adult customers. In that respect, I can see Buckley's bid and raise him one. Perusing the March issue of Vanity Fair, I spotted a four-page Versace ad spread that featured the well-oiled bodies of numerous male and female models posing suggestively on a beach. While some of the models wore what could be described charitably as "swimwear," the ads included several naked derrieres and fully exposed breasts. This is of course a magazine that any 12-year-old can buy at the corner newsstand--that is, if he's not busy downloading porn on his computer at home.

How should we respond to porn's new role as, in Buckley's description, "the creepy wallpaper of our daily lives"? Is there any way to marginalize it again? Contrary to the feelings of helplessness among those disturbed by the mainstreaming of porn, there is much we can do, as Jay Nordlinger discussed in a companion piece to Buckley's. Among other things, we can support politicians who, like Rudy Giuliani, dare to enforce obscenity laws. As for the college courses, university regents and alumni can demand that administrators recognize that Hustler and "Deep Throat" aren't the kind of "texts" that professors need to elucidate for students.

Beyond all this, there is one other reason for hope. Today's purveyors of all things sexual, whether pseudo-sophisticated academics or simple smut-peddlers like Larry Flynt, might manage eventually to make the subject of sex so boring that we'll be sickened by it all, like a surfeited 6-year-old who has stuffed himself with so many Twinkies that his stomach turns at the sight of another. Then, just maybe, we can take a deliberate step back, and rediscover the delights of true eroticism--the secret joy of what is left unheard and unseen.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.