IN A graduate class at the University of California in Berkeley, some of America's brightest students spend dozens of hours watching scenes of ejaculation, anal penetration, gang-banging and other variants of hard- core pornography. They discuss the historiography of the pin-up girl, look at dirty photos and listen to celebrity pornographers giving lectures about their work.
The course, taught by a film studies professor called Linda Williams, is officially entitled "Rhetoric 241: Advanced Rhetorical Studies of Genre in Media and Literature". But to its students and the university as a whole it is known as "the porn class", the object of much curiosity and just a little ridicule, as the principles of literary theory are applied to some of the most reviled artefacts of our times.
Instead of analysing Proust, or even the semiotics of advertising, the students watch Deep Throat, John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and The Opening of Misty Beethoven to help them muse on what Professor Williams calls "the essential pornography of the visible" and the propensity of dirty movies both to reinforce and to subvert the generic conventions of film as a whole.
It is a task the students undertake with utmost seriousness. "It was a lesson in tolerance," said Stuart Murray, a Canadian philosophy graduate who took the course last year. "Scenes some students might find arousing, I might find repellent, and vice versa. It was therefore essential to refrain from expressing personal judgement, making disparaging remarks or sniggering, out of respect for one's colleagues."
There is nothing new, of course, about the academic study of pornography. The Marquis de Sade, for example, has become a standard feature on many university syllabuses, with authors of the calibre of Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag and Angela Carter arguing in favour of the ability of such writing to transgress social taboos and politicise both male and female sexuality. What makes Professor Williams's course a little different is that it focuses on hard- core visual pornography and refuses to shy away from its vulgarities, its perversions and its power to shock or arouse.
Despite Berkeley's reputation as a centre for radical intellectual pursuits, it is far from alone in offering such unorthodox academic fare. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Constance Penley has been teaching a very similar pornography course to undergraduates since 1993. At the University of Nevada in Reno, the art history professor Joanna Frueh not only lectures on pornography, she has also published an academic book in which she discusses her sexual fantasies and is photographed in pornographic poses.
A new field of study is emerging, a field dominated by women that sometimes goes under the apparently paradoxical title "pro-porn feminism". That does involve a certain degree of advocacy on behalf of pornographic materials - especially when it comes to fending off charges that pornography necessarily exploits women and leads to male sexual violence - but mostly it involves the assertion that pornography, as a significant presence in the modern world, is worthy of study at all.
"Call me a feminist apostate, but I say there is more to pornography than a celebration of gender oppression, and limiting the discussion to that issue alone closes the door before things get interesting," argues Laura Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University and author of the book Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. "Why it exists, what it has to say and who pornography thinks it is talking to are more interesting questions than all these doomed, dreary attempts to debate it, regulate it or protest it."
Among other things, the new movement is a reaction against the anti-porn stance of academic feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose writings inspired a Justice Department commission on pornography during the Reagan era. …