January 23, 2002 | Commentary on Education
"There has to be a reason why this stuff is so popular."
That's what Michele Malach, an English professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., said in November when her upcoming spring seminar was announced. She hoped to delve deeply, it seems, into a real puzzle. Namely, the appeal of … pornography.
Now, for the rest of us, the popularity of "this stuff" is hardly one of life's great questions. It's not as if we're trying to figure out how the Great Pyramids were built or how to cure the common cold. But to Professor Malach, answering the elusive riddle of pornography is not only a worthy quest, but an heroic one.
Hence, she warned, the course was "not for the faint of heart." Students would be required to watch pornographic films and discuss them. But she had loftier goals in mind. "It's an opportunity, like other classes, to broaden students' horizons and get them to consider the world in ways they haven't before."
Well, few of us would doubt the ability of pornography to broaden a horizon or two, but do we really want to pretend it's a worthy topic of study for college students, especially those at a public university highly subsidized by taxpayers? Is it truly "like other classes"?
Judging by the reaction to "The Poetics of Porn" (the actual name of the class), the answer is no. Letters of protest poured in. Two local congressmen, one an alumnus, also complained. Officials at Fort Lewis College finally suspended the course. Not that there was anything wrong with it, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld might say, but because further review was needed to "ensure the academic integrity of the proposed course."
But elsewhere, as Professor Malach noted, similar courses continue. They're offered at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of California (Santa Cruz and Berkeley campuses) and Arizona State. Those signed up for "Exploring Cyber Sexualities" at San Francisco State learn how to download computer pornography, notes the Washington-based non-profit group Accuracy In Academia. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a private school, students film their own pornographic movie.
All of this alleged academic inquiry, we're told, is geared toward understanding pornography. Professor Malach wants to know if it's "detrimental to men, women, children [and] animals." I would suggest she read a report the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography issued in 1985. It found that an overwhelming number of sexual predators use pornography, and that pedophiles often use it to overcome resistance from their young victims.
Since then, the number of pornographic films made in America has increased tenfold (now averaging about 10,000 a year), and the number of Web sites catering to every imaginable fetish and perversion has exploded. An addiction to Internet pornography is being cited in an increasing number of divorce cases. And you only have to pick up your local newspaper to read the latest case involving an adult who has preyed on minors via some sex-oriented Web page.
"What we keep marginalized tells us a lot about society," Professor Malach said in reaction to the news that her course was being suspended. Pornography? Marginalized?
There was a time, not so long ago, when you had to seek pornography out. Now you have to make an effort to avoid it.
No, the mystery here isn't why pornography is so popular. It's why some of our universities are willing to give students credit for watching it-and then act as if they're fulfilling some great academic need. This is one fig leaf that just won't stick.
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.