Such is the case with the University of California, Santa Barbara, which recently offered the latest installment of its "porn course."
For the past decade, Professor Constance Penley, a noted authority on film theory and the director of the Center for Film, Television and New Media at UCSB, has been teaching "Topics in Film Genre: Pornography."
XBiz recently caught up with Penley to get a first-hand look at her controversial program and the benefits it offers to students.
When she first started teaching the class in 1993, Penley divided her time between film and women's studies.
"People still thought that all feminists were anti-porn, and I wanted another image of feminists out there," Penley said.
Initially, developing course material was a concern, but Penley soon found help through the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.
"I've been able to amass an equivalent teaching collection, so we are able to start with French brothel films, and there's so much great vintage stuff out on DVD now that a broad representation is available," Penley said. "I think that the real radical success of this class is because I teach it exactly the way I teach all other film-genre classes in the film studies department. Just as Clint Eastwood might make revisionist westerns like "The Unforgiven," the same thing is happening with pornographic films."
Penley added that the course takes a close look at what kinds of cultural values, anxieties and ideas about identity are in certain adult films.
"We look at the 1970s, the so called 'Golden Era,' and then we get into the 'Video Era' — and that's when I have guests from the industry come in," Penley said.
A number of well-known personalities from within the adult industry have lectured Penley's students, including "The Fashionistas" director John Stagliano, Vivid's Steven Hirsch and Veronica Hart, who premiered her musical remake of "Misty Beethoven" for the class.
"The main text I've used is Linda Williams' book, 'Hard Core.' The next time I teach the course, I will use a new collection that she's edited, called 'Porn Studies' — and I have an essay that really shows you my take on porn, along with the discoveries that my students and I have made about porn over the years. I've been very interested in studying pornographic films as films, within the whole spectrum of popular culture, along with issues of class and taste and humor."
When asked about students seeing uncensored work, Penley said she invites people to bring clips of their own work as well as the work of other people they find compelling. And while Penley offers no disclaimer, adult students should be prepared to see explicit imagery in any course that has "pornography" in its title.
One question that inevitably comes up when discussing a class on porn is whether students are required to make a porn film as part of their class assignments. Penley said that no porn shoots are required of her students, and that she urges them to hold off on making porn films until after they have graduated, as a personal favor.
"It just makes my life easier," Penley said.
As can be expected, a school teaching a class on pornography, regardless of the context, is bound to generate its share of controversy. Asked about any negative responses she has received from people due to teaching this course, Penley said at one point in time she had been contacted by Santa Barbara Citizens Against Pornography, which tried to get the course shut down and have her fired.
"At first the anti-porn people were saying that I was showing porn to children, and that it was harmful," Penley said. "The problem was that I wasn't looking at porn and asking 'is it art or not?' or is it 'harmful or not?' I was looking at pornography within the whole spectrum of popular culture, and the anti-porn groups were afraid that I would somehow normalize it."
While critics may question the legitimacy of such a course in a publicly funded school, Penley counters that porn has become quite mainstream not only in its business models but in its penetration, so to speak, into popular music, advertising and general cultural consciousness.
"Since the adult industry is a pretty big part of the economy and culture of the state of California, it's hard to say that the subject matter isn't valid," Penley said. "Besides, it has given many members of the school's administration a chance to shine as they explain the limits of academic freedom."
As for the overall success of the class, Penley considers it the most successful course she has taught because her students learn about an important part of film history that they've been told is dangerous and should be avoided.
"My greatest fear when I started to teach the class was that the women in the class would be less vocal than the men, but instead I found that the women completely take over the class," Penley said. "Women students will come to me in the beginning of the course and ask 'is this it?' — when they see what they've feared all of their lives, and then come back at the end of the course to ask, 'is this it?' — meaning, is this the limit of man's sexual imagination?"