Understanding Pornography

Taught on Tuesdays, Contact the GCWS for course meeting time.
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The topic of pornography is deeply charged. Both feminists and non-feminists from a range of disciplines, and outside the academy, have taken up the topic of pornography (or better said, pornographies), 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; the object of study continues to be both provocative and protean, and there are adherents and detractors of all political, ideological, and academic persuasions.

This course asks how and why feminist scholars in multiple disciplines have set out to study pornography, and why their findings frequently diverge. 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. 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 intersectionality of multiple forms of oppression and expression (e.g., race and class, gender and sexual identities).

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 historical context. Her book, Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: Books, Obscenity, and the Problem of Inner Life in Nineteenth-Century Germany, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press.

Emily F. Rothman, ScD  is an Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and Boston University School of Medicine.  She is also a visiting scientist at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.  Her primary area of research is violence prevention, including dating violence, adult partner violence, and sexual violence.  She began studying the impact of pornography on youth in 2012.  She is a former battered women’s shelter advocate and batterer intervention counselor.

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.


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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