Notes & Comments June 1999
Over the line at Wesleyan
On a class in pornography at Wesleyan University.
Here are a couple of facts about Wesleyan University, the elite liberal arts institution in Middletown, Connecticut, that has taken to calling itself “The Independent Ivy.” Tuition, room, and board this year are $30,430. Assuming a student takes four classes a term, that works out to about $3800 per class. An astounding sum, yes, but not out of line with other top-rated schools. What do students get for their nearly $4000 per class? Well, lots of rhetoric about “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and so on. That goes with the territory. They also get classes like COL 289, an “interdisciplinary” course in the College of Letters called “Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes.” Taught by Hope Weissman, a medievalist who helped establish Wesleyan’s women’s studies program and who has taught at the university for some two decades, the course is one of the new-breed sex classes that have recently infested American universities, especially in the politicized intellectual slums populated by women’s studies, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, and kindred forms of academic grievance-mongering.
The official description of Professor Weissman’s offering tells us the following:
This course investigates pornographic literature as a body of discursive practices whose “materials,” according to the cultural critic Susan Sontag, comprise “one of the extreme forms of human consciousness.” The pornography we study is an art of transgression which impels human sexuality toward, against, and beyond the limits which have traditionally defined civil discourses and practices—defined, that is, by regimes of dominance and submission, inclusion or exclusion, in the domains of organ and emotional pleasure. Our examination accordingly includes the implication of pornography in so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism, and masochism, and considers the inflections of the dominant white-heterosexual tradition by alternative sexualities and genders, as well as by race, class, age, mental and physical competence. We also attempt to identify the factors, intrinsic and extrinsic, which align the pornographic impulse with revolutionary or conservative political practices. But our primary focus is on pornography as radical representations of sexuality whose themes are violation, degradation, and exposure.
Where should we begin? This passage is at once so repellent and so utterly representative of the sort of thing being purveyed under the rubric of the humanities in American colleges today that it might well make it into a future Guide to What Went Wrong in American Higher Education, c. 1960–2000. The rhetoric alone is worthy of attention: the know-it-all tone, the neo-Marxist clichés, the general air of menace. This is course description as an exercise in ideological intimidation. We especially savored the use of the phrase “so-called”: “so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism, and masochism.” What, we wondered, would Professor Weissman choose to call such practices?
The reading list for Professor Weissman’s class included such delights as works by the Marquis de Sade and issues of Hustler magazine. But as befits a class dealing with “cultural practice,” it also required student projects. According to one account, Professor Weissman proudly asserted that nothing would have been considered too extreme: “I push people over the line, whatever their line is, but only when I think they can go there and come back.” Describing the final course assignment, she said: “I don’t put any constraints on it. It’s supposed to be: ‘Just create your own work of pornography.’” A freshman named Abbie Boggs “avoided being overtly explicit,” but nonetheless shot photos that “included oral sex with her ex-boyfriend.” (When we wondered, did he become, ex?) We suppose that only at a time when the President of the United States has adjectival sex with a twenty-year-old intern in the Oval Office could such a “student project” be described as not “overtly explicit.” Maybe this is the new modesty we have been hearing so much about: Another young woman made a film showing only the eyes of a male student as he masturbated (an homage, we presume, to Andy Warhol). Then there was a “performance piece” in which “a scantily clad female student bound her wrists with rope and asked others to flog her with a cat-o’-nine-tails.”
Douglas Bennet, the president of Wesleyan, circulated a memo to the faculty questioning “the appropriateness of this course in the Wesleyan curriculum” and ordering a review. But the toothlessness of his response is clear from his administration’s overall support of Professor Weissman (the official line: “one of Wesleyan’s most dedicated, serious, and effective” teachers). In an effort to diffuse criticism sparked by this latest marriage of farce and perversity, the Wesleyan administration issued a statement making light of the whole affair. About the bound girl who asked to be flogged, for example, the statement reassuringly noted that “some of her classmates did, hesitantly, feebly, and to the general amusement of everyone, gently ‘whip’ her.” But not to worry: “Nothing more serious than ideas were [sic] at stake.”
While you are pondering the implications of that ungrammatical statement, rest assured that the Independent Ivy college in Middletown really is no worse than many other institutions. That indeed is the problem. As Constance Penley, head of the film studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara, gleefully observed, “now pornographic film can be seen as a completely normal and necessary part of a film studies curriculum.” Sarah Maine, the twenty-year-old student who made the film about masturbation mentioned above, put it more pithily: “Porn studies are very chic right now.” Doubtless that is a great comfort to her parents or whoever is shelling out the $30,430 per year so that Sarah can acquire a B.A. at Wesleyan. As one student noted, most parents seem quite blasé about such classes. “Their best reaction is just to shrug and say, ‘That’s what kids do these days, they make porn at school.’” Classes on pornography do not set Wesleyan apart from its peers, any more than do appearances there by Annie Sprinkle, the former prostitute and porn star who visited Wesleyan early in May to celebrate the joys of prostitution and tell a group of several hundred students that “The answer to bad porn is not no porn, but to try to make better porn.” Still, repellent garbage is repellent garbage, no matter how broadly condoned. One twenty-one-year-old student summed up the situation smartly when she observed of the class on pornography that “it’s definitely symbolic of the kind of place Wesleyan is.” In other words, caveat emptor.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 10, on page 1
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