Understanding the Pornographic and the Obscene

Fall semester: Tuesdays, 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM
September 15, 2015 – December 15, 2015

Meets at MIT, room TBD

Expressions, images, and narratives labeled "obscene" and "pornographic" are often deeply charged. Pornography appears in a broad range of historical periods and cultural contexts; it varies drastically; and it is often influential in the way people define, think about, and understand sexuality. Both feminists and non-feminists from a range of disciplines, and outside the academy, have taken up the topic of pornography, producing dynamic debate but little consensus. Some have attended to the links between pornography and key concepts of personal autonomy, bodily integrity, and civil society. Others have set out to describe and analyze what pornography is and has been -- its formal elements, proximity to other genres and media forms, and development over time. Still others have fought vociferously over it, some claiming that it degrades and distorts minds and societies, others seeing within it opportunities for subversion and resistance. Thus scholars work to investigate, describe, contextualize, analyze and regulate pornography. Battles rage, and the object of study continues to be both provocative and protean.

This course explores what feminist scholars in multiple disciplines have said about the pornographic and the obscene. We will explore criticisms of pornography and celebrations of it, as well as more ecumenical efforts to study and understand what pornography is and has been. We will look at its adjacency to other genres and media (including websites, fan fiction, and romance novels) and will discuss recent examples of sexually explicit media that can be placed in dialogue with the pornography (including works by Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lars Von Trier, and others).  As a class, we will work to understand how pornography has been defined by various cultures and across time periods throughout history, how it is produced and consumed and by whom, the impacts of pornography consumption on individuals, families, communities, and societal norms, and -- importantly -- how pornography interacts with the multiple forms of oppression and expression, based on race, class, national identity, gender and sexual identities. Students can expect readings and topics from various disciplines, including history, literature, cinema and media studies, and the social sciences.

NOTE: Although certain course material (for example, assigned secondary source texts and historical erotica or documentary films about pornography screened during class time) may incorporate sexually explicit content, students will not be required to engage with any sexually explicit course material in this class. Students may opt out of any assignment of or in-class exposure to sexually explicit course material at any time, without any effect on their course grades.


Sarah L. Leonard is Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. She is the author of several articles situating pornography in a historical context. Her book Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany was recently published by University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burlin Barr is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Cinema Studies at Central Connecticut State University. He has published articles in Camera Obscura, Screen, Jump Cut, and other journals. His scholarly interests concern the constructions of gender in film, as well as the intersection of film form and cultural politics.

Madeline H. Caviness is Mary Richardson Professor Emeritus of Tufts University where she taught medieval art and gender studies. She is the author of Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle and Scopic Economy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, Reframing Medieval Art: Difference, Margins, Boundaries, Tufts University electronic book, 2001, and numerous articles on the history and reception of European art from the pre-modern era.


Next Steps

Contact Us

Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women, and Sexuality
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14N-211
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-324-2085