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Understanding Pornography

Mondays, 3:30pm – 5:30pm

Location: MIT building & room TBA
MIT Course Number: WSG.640

Expressions, images, and narratives labeled "obscene" and "pornographic" can be deeply charged. Pornography appears in a broad range of historical periods, geographical areas, and cultural contexts, 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. 

This course explores what scholars working primarily in the United States have said about the pornographic and the obscene. As a class, we will work to understand how pornography has been defined historically and in various cultures, 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, media studies, public health, and other social sciences.


Sarah L. Leonard is Associate Professor and Chair of History at Simmons College. She is the author of several articles situating pornography in historical context. Her book Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany was published in 2015 by University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Emily F. Rothman is a Professor of Community Health Services at the Boston University School of Public Health. She is a federally-funded researcher with expertise in partner violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

Later Event: September 11
Feminist Inquiry