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Porn Studies 101

Porn Studies 101

November 28, 2005
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" students have turned to porn as the last great taboo in campus discourse "

Boston University students eager to get a jump on the college-dating scene have more than just the freshman face book waiting for them as they arrive on campus. This fall, they'll also have Boink, one of the nation's first student-produced porn magazines.

Boasting a subscriber base of 3,000 readers, both on- and off-campus, Boink's third issue hit the stands in October. Co-founder and editor-in-chief Alecia Oleyourryk said her staff already was in the process of a 20,000-issue print run before the Jewish high holidays and said the issue would continue the magazine's tradition of featuring both gay and straight BU students in the buff.

"We wanted it to be real people and real college students," said Oleyourryk, explaining the magazine's editorial philosophy. "We think it captures the fun and exuberance of going to college."

Granted, sex and college have gone together since the days of Bing Crosby and raccoon coats. But for those who attended college during the late 1980s, the notion of a student-produced skin rag might seem a little out there. That was before DVDs, hotel room pay-per-view and, most importantly, the way the Internet turned porn viewing into an activity about as edgy as dumping food dye into the campus fountain.

But now at elite schools, where the free speech battles of the 1960s were fought, students have turned to porn as the last great taboo in campus discourse.

As Accuracy in Academia reporter Joe Jablonski noted as far back as 2001, more than a dozen colleges nationwide already were offering courses devoted to the critical analysis of porn.

"Watching pornographic films, viewing pornographic magazine images, reading pornographic writing and even making homemade porn flicks appears to be a growing trend in American academia," writes Jablonski, who, while critical of the development, sees it as an inevitable consequence of the broader trend in sexual libertinism/exhibitionism fueled by the Internet and the American public's growing obsession with sex.

That obsession warrants attention, say academics, and many have embraced pornography as a teaching tool.

"At the University of California, our mission is to contribute to the understanding of the economy and culture of California," said University of California at Santa Barbara film studies professor Constance Penley, who in 1993 launched one of the first film studies courses that treated pornography as a genre worthy of serious scholarly research.

"Pornography is a major part of both the economy and culture of California," Penley said.

For University of California at Berkeley professor Linda Williams, author of seminal 1988 book "Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Art of the Frenzy of the Visible," the embrace of pornography at the faculty level reflects a movement past the feminist mindset of the 1980s through debates led by anti-porn activists such as the late Andrea Dworkin and University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon.

Porn Appreciation
Viewing the anti-porn crusade as a waste of feminist energy, Williams offered her first film studies course dedicated to pornography in 1992. Since then, she has come to better appreciate pornography both for its brutally honest depictions of human sexuality and for its fantastically outrageous take on human behavior.

"[Porn] is a little bit like the documentary genre," Williams said. "It wants to say, 'These bodies are really here and are really rubbing up against each other.' But then, at the same time, it turns out to be terrifically hard to portray the pleasure of sex, so you have these crazy conventions like the 'money shot.'"

The resulting tension is a magnet for younger academics eager to build their own academic reputations. Mireille Miller-Young, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara, is one of 17 writers who contribute essays to Williams's latest book, "Porn Studies." For Miller-Young, pornography is to cultural studies what DNA analysis has become to the life sciences realm: a fresh tool for the purpose of probing complex topics such as racism, imperialism and socioeconomics.

While porn may have been the route to respectability among young professors and other budding academics, any undergraduate wishing to take a leading role in the critical discussion should brace for inevitable hostility. That's what happened to students at Western Washington University when they attempted to hold a porn-viewing session titled "Porn and Popcorn" in 2003.

"It was supposed to be an open discourse," Farwell said. "The coordinators were going to show porn from all different sub-genres — fat pride porn, disability porn, etc. — as a way to stimulate the conversation. The coordinators never really had the opportunity to defend the topic to the public."

Since then, the Western Washington University administration has exercised its power both as local landlord and in loco parentis guardian of minor students. The use of campus facilities to show pornographic films is now strictly barred, and the Sexual Awareness Center finds even its tamest programs increasingly coming under the review of the campus Program Standards committee.

"It seems as though we've become the targeted office on campus," Farwell said.

At about the same time Western Washington students came under fire for "Porn and Popcorn," their counterparts at Yale were playing a cat-and-mouse game with Hollywood and the national news media over "Porn & Chicken," a secret society rumored to be in the process of making a porn movie (working title: "The Staxxx") using undergraduates as onscreen talent. Although the movie never materialized, at least one Yale student managed to spin the "Porn & Chicken" story into gold, landing an agent and selling a treatment based on his participation.

Not to be outdone, students at Harvard responded last year with H-Bomb, a student magazine dedicated to taking a "multimedia, omni-sexual approach to discussing sex and sexuality at Harvard and in general."

Although the first few issues of H-Bomb have been stingy in the display of naked student flesh, the magazine's publication has at least set a precedent for Oleyourryk and others to follow.

Boink Rocks?
So far, Oleyourryk and her colleagues appear to be succeeding. The first issue of Boink earned a rave review from porn blog Fleshbot. "Boink f—king rocks," exclaimed the popular adult blog. "Nice production, some truly sexy articles, gorgeous photography and an editorial focus that gives equal weight to hot guys, hot girls, and [almost] every combination thereof."

Boink's smorgasbord approach to college sex is a commentary on porn's cultural ascendance. While film courses exploring pornography as a genre reflect the industry's quiet migration into mainstream American experience, Boink's mixture of gay, straight and bi porn in a single student magazine reflects both the blurring of consumer boundaries made possible by the Internet. And while the BU administration won't let the magazine be sold on campus (unlike Playboy and Penthouse, Oleyourryk notes), the sizable off-campus readership reflects the up-to-the-minute synchronicity between student tastes and the culture at large.

"Sex has always been there as a part of college life," Oleyourryk said. "Why not talk about it? Why not show it the way it is?"


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