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Rebecca Schuman

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Sex and the Syllabus: The Paradox of Undergraduate Sexuality

Posted: 04/23/2012 10:11 am

Last year it was the scandal of "Professor F**ksaw" -- a surprise live sex show right in class! That admittedly shocked even me. But this year's prevailing scandalous classroom-sexuality kerfuffle is a big yawnfest: Appalachian State University sociology professor Jammie Price recently got the tenured-professor equivalent of the boot ("administrative leave"), for a dubious list of offenses that include showing "objectionable content" in class.

This objectionable content was documentary film The Price of Pleasure, a scathing critique of the pornography industry that mostly consists of Marxist hand-wringing and (albeit quite convincing) intellectual concern trolling. Not that it doesn't have a point -- income inequality between men and women, attitudes about what constitutes "worthwhile work" for women, and the big bad Capitalist world-order all result in the commodification of the female body -- but its stern tone certainly invoked an eyeroll or two in me. But Professor Price's students didn't object to the delivery style -- for them it was the bare breasts, pixelated money shots and theatrical faked orgasms from actual pornography that serve as "examples from the text" to make the filmmakers' points. That's right -- students (and presumably their parents) were shocked, SHOCKED!, to screen a searing critique of pornography that included brief, censored clips of pornography. And now a professor is seemingly out of a job.

This recent development in the university pearl-clutching wars is cause for slight concern to me, both theoretically and pragmatically.

Pragmatically I fret on behalf of my own upcoming course at Ohio State, a German literature and cultural studies class taught in English that I'm calling, derivatively, "Sex... and the City." In what I thought was a nice ploy for enrollment, we are going to be studying some edgy material, from the canonical (Otto Dix) to the truly envelope-pushing (Charlotte Roche's Wetlands). But, this being a university course, we'll be approaching this work from a critical perspective, whether that be gender theory by Judith Butler or the odd social/architectural critique of Adolf Loos. This course doesn't even start for six months, but I've run into some trouble because of its flyer, which features a small, black-and-white version of this incredible painting by Christian Schad. Luckily I have the support of my department to display a 1929 painting that presently tours museums around the world -- but you never know. If the context of viewing the clearly anti-porn The Price of Pleasure can be misunderstood, why won't Christian Schad be?

And that brings me to the far more interesting conundrum to arise from this recent to-do, which is theoretical; I am reminded again of the Paradox of Undergraduate Sexuality. When I was in college, you know what the young women wore to be sexy? Tank tops. Here's an entire screed I wrote in 1996 purely about tank tops. Today? Have you seen an undergraduate ready for a night out recently? I have, and she often looks - -hair bleached to near-white, George Hamiltonesque skin, shellacked makeup, tube dress, 6" platform heels -- somewhat indiscernible from the stereotypical aesthetic of an adult performer.

Make no mistake: I am not "slut-shaming" today's kids, nor do I hold adult performers and sex workers in any contempt; I am all for self-expression (although I do disapprove of tanning beds! Cancer!). I am also not putting all of the emphasis on the young women: Every warm day at Ohio State, scores of Ohioan beefcakes play theatrical games of Frisbee as a barely-disguised excuse to show off their twelve-packs on "Oval Beach." What I find confounding is that undergraduates today seem (regardless of what they actually do) sexualized -- so why are they so affronted by sex on the syllabus?

Nowhere is the Paradox more evident in the recent publicity surrounding professional Most Odious Person Ever Hunter Moore's now (thank goodness) defunct "revenge porn" website, Is Anyone Up. This site consisted entirely of amateur nude and XXX photos originally meant to be shared between consenting adults but submitted, after a relationship presumably gone awry, without the subject's permission -- along with his or her (in the overwhelming majority of cases, her) Facebook profile, full name and location. Hundreds of young people's lives were upended by this vile invasion of privacy, and you know what Hunter Moore had to say about it? He echoed what seems to be the common prevailing wisdom: "Don't take nudes." I'm sorry, excuse me? Someone hacks into your phone and posts your private content -- taken to celebrate your body and share with someone special -- and it's your fault for wanting to express and celebrate your own body and sexuality in private? How is this possible?

I blame the Paradox: Various factors have caused This Generation to be ultra-sexualized, and yet said sexualization remains highly stigmatized and nobody wants to let us talk about it in the classroom. This is not just an annoying precedent, but a dangerous one.

 

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