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Interview with a Philosopher: A Class on Porn

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Hugh Hefner long ago shocked people nationally and sought to make them think in new ways by personally philosophizing about sex, love, and pornography in the pages of Playboy. Now an academic philosopher shocks some folks in Arkansas by keeping the tradition alive, but in a very different way. Jacob M. Held is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at The University of Central Arkansas. I got to talk with him recently about his innovative philosophy class on porn.

Tom: Hi Jake. I know you've done lots of work on issues in pop culture and philosophy. You co-edited a book on James Bond, you'll soon set one loose on Dr. Seuss, and you've also written on South Park, The Beatles, and many other topics of general interest, but your new focus really intrigues me. How did you move from Dr. Seuss to pornography?

Jake: I'm interested in anything that gets me thinking. But in particular, I'd just been working on issues related to obscenity law for a book on Pornography and Philosophy when I was offered a chance to teach in my university's honors college. To turn issues about obscenity into a full semester course I needed to broaden the scope, so I moved into pornography itself as a philosophical issue. There's a lot there beyond mere freedom of speech - issues over civil rights, sexual violence, exploitation, women in media, gender, etc.

Tom: So you actually taught a college course on porn? Could you find a classroom big enough?

Jake: Yes. And yes. Honestly, going through the process of offering the course reinforced why this topic needs to be explored more openly. For example, I had to interview all potential students and get them to sign a waiver before they could be admitted to the course. I had several meetings about content, books, and so forth. And the interesting thing is, it was all because of the sexual nature of the content. I've taught on torture and war, but no question was ever raised about student exposure to violence. So the care with which I had to approach this course illustrates the oddity of our discordant treatments of violence and sex, where the former is allowed in the curriculum to an almost unlimited degree, but the latter is nearly taboo, even though both are arguably obscene in the strict sense of the word.

Tom: My Oxford English Dictionary defines 'obscene' using terms like 'indecent,' 'highly offensive,' 'morally repugnant,' and even 'loathsome.'

Jake: Exactly. It's interesting that our culture tends to associate those terms with graphic depictions of sexuality but not with equally graphic presentations of violence.

Tom: You either have tenure or are a brave man to launch such a course where you are.

Jake: No, I don't have tenure, and that was a real concern for my wife.

Tom: Hey, if that was her only concern during the extensive research it takes for a new course like this, bravo to her, and to you.

Jake: Thanks. I'm indeed very lucky. As you know, academic freedom extends only so far, and although a strong case can be made for the importance of studying pornography, it's politically volatile, especially where I teach in Arkansas, so there were concerns. But ultimately I was satisfied I was safe enough. And I was driven by the fact that I firmly believe, to quote one of our predecessors, that the unexamined life is not worth living, and so nothing is, or should be, off limits to philosophical reflection. Plus, porn is ubiquitous now and to turn a blind eye to it, or allow it to be discussed only behind closed doors, or just according to approved standards of discourse does everyone, especially our students, a disservice.

Tom: How do you think your class on pornography fits into the overall education of your students? What do they get out of this course that they need?

Jake: First, in considering porn we deal with law, ethics, feminism, labor, literary and media theory, sexuality...basically all areas of life that define and fill out what constitutes our subjectivity and our places within society. How we deal with pornography is reflective of how we deal with myriad issues that are considered "legitimate" areas of study. The way the class has been regarded by critics, as inappropriate, or trivialized, or both, is reflective of why it's so important - we wrongly trivialize porn or mark its consideration as off limits when it's such a prominent and potent aspect of modern culture and our lives.

Some echo of porn is everywhere, it touches all of our lives, and yet we don't talk about it seriously, or only do so to condemn it according to a classic, antiquated formula of "sex = bad." And even then our culture is schizophrenic; consider the sexualization of children in beauty pageants and salacious cheerleading routines, not to mention the impact of popular films and music. We pimp our daughters to pageant judges for monetary prizes or scholarships but condemn Jenna Jameson for making a career of it, or professors for thinking about it. And yes I know there's a difference between a porn star and a pageant princess, but the hyperbole helps to underline a point. Few people talk about the pornification of our culture honestly or take it seriously, and when they do, they're pigeonholed as radical feminists or perverts or scolds. I'm sometimes disparaged on campus as "the porn guy." I'm going on and on, but to underscore this point about its value to students, do you mind if I relate a story from the class?

Tom:No, please do.

Jake: I had a student who was in a committed relationship. They knew their partner looked at porn online but until they'd had the class were unaware of how graphic and disturbing some pornography can be. To paraphrase, they thought porn was just naked people having sex. They were oblivious to how that can escalate to more violent or grotesque forms. They went and checked their partner's computer and were disturbed by what was there. That was an important life lesson. In the class they learned not only what porn is, but also how to contextualize, conceptualize, deconstruct, and deal with it. Fortunately, the relationship lasted, and it's hopefully more transparent, more equal, and thereby stronger.

Tom: You had your students view pornography in class. I imagine that was a bit of a sticking point for the administration. Can you recount some of the issues related to this?

Jake: Sure. To go back to violence: If I taught a course on horror films, or terrorism, torture, or war, it would be assumed that students would be exposed to examples or representations of these things. You can't expect an informed discussion on anything unless people have been exposed in some way to it. So if we're going to read authors like Rae Langton, Catherine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, who are what might be termed "anti-pornography" feminists, we should also look at what they're talking about in order to better understand their concerns. Likewise if we're considering racial undertones in interracial pornography while reading Linda Williams, the students will need to see what we're talking about. Can you teach an aesthetics course without slides of art? In the same way, you can't teach a class that deals with porn without exposing students to it. But they're adults, it's a controlled environment, and I'm ultimately a responsible filter. I put limits on what we would or would not see, even though they needed to be exposed to a wide range in order to be able to make well-informed and critical judgments and assessments. What we saw was relevant to the issues, enough, but not too much, and there were certain lines I wouldn't cross. We talked about the Supreme Court's ruling that simulated child porn is protected speech, but I wouldn't show this in class because you can't un-see things, and I was not about to inflict that on students. The same went for bestiality.

Tom: How did the students respond to the class, and where do you go from here?

Jake: I find that when I start actually discussing this with people who were at first dismissive or combative, they're fascinated, which again, is why this type of course is needed - people don't have venues like this very often, and they're growth experiences. The students responded well, and I've been invited to teach it again. I've been told the class is what the honors college is about, which I take to be self-understanding through critical reflection on issues that are part and parcel to the human condition. And I agree. Really delving into pornography with an open mind and a willingness to be discomforted, leads to self-discoveries and the development of tools necessary for the pursuit of the good life.

The evaluations were all wonderful, except for one student who apparently was troubled by the course and waited until the end of it all to mention anything to anybody. But that's to be expected.

Tom: Like the city councilman who complains about the strip club only after watching the whole show.

Jake: Indeed. But I'm Socratic enough to believe that I'm not doing my job as a philosopher unless I irritate or disturb somebody. I learned a lot by teaching the course and I'm putting together a manuscript on pornography, basically the course in book form, and already have an interested publisher, so we'll see.

Tom: We've had graphic novels. Now we have graphic philosophy. I'll be interested to see what you produce. Keep up the bold philosophizing.

Jake: Thanks, Tom, and thanks for your interest.

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