As colleges become more corporate, we are hearing more and more stories of academics being sanctioned for having the audacity to speak out against corporate malfeasance. Not only does this limit the free speech of academics, it also serves to scare teachers into adhering to the hegemonic discourse.
The latest example is quite stunning. Jammie Price, a full professor at Appalachian State University, was suspended last month for showing the documentary The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships. Distributed by the Media Education Foundation, one of the most respected producers of progressive documentaries in the country, the film sets out to look at how mainstream pornography has not only become more violent and misogynistic, but is actually in bed with major financial institutions such as credit card companies, venture capitalists, cable companies and hotels (they make more money from porn than mini bars).
After showing the film to 120 students, three evidently complained to the university administration that Dr. Price was showing “inappropriate material” in class. Dr. Price was not allowed to learn the names of the students or to meet with them, was denied a hearing, and was immediately suspended and told that she could not enter any offices or classrooms in the Arts and Sciences buildings. Should she want to obtain “materials, computer files, pick up mail …” she needed to make arrangements to be escorted by a member of the faculty.
How interesting that a university decides that an academic analysis of one of the most profitable industries in the world is “inappropriate.” What exactly are we supposed to teach about? Maybe if Jammie Price had been in a business school and taught a case on how to make a killing in porn, she might have been given a pass. Or maybe, to be on the safe side, Dr. Price should have instead invited a pornographer to class to promote their products. In 2008, the porn press was abuzz with the great news that Joanna Angel, owner of the porn site Burning Angel, had been invited to speak to a human sexuality class at Indiana University. No pretense was made that this was going to be an educational event by the porn news site X Critic, when they wrote, “She will be showing the students clips from her movies, handing out sex toys and enlightening them with a positive view on pornography.”
I wrote a letter of complaint to the president of Indiana University pointing out that the role of a university classroom was to educate the students, not provide a captive audience for capitalists to push their products. The president’s office responded in a rather odd way. They asked the professor to apologize to me for bringing in Joanna Angel, as if this whole case was a personal insult to me. I think we should be speaking about porn in the classroom, but not as a fun industry that sells fantasy, but rather as a global industry that works just like any other industry with business plans, niche markets, venture capitalists and the ever-increasing need to maximize profits.
It seems to me that Price’s crime was to provide a progressive critique of the porn industry, rather than wax lyrically about how porn empowers women sexually. She showed a film that takes an unflinching look at the real porn industry. Instead of claiming that we are all empowered by porn, The Price of Pleasure delves into the underbelly of the industry, illustrating its points with images drawn from some of the most popular porn websites. These are not pretty, nor are they very erotic. We see women being choked with a penis, women smeared in ejaculate, women being slapped and spit upon, and in a particularly horrible scene, a woman retching after she has licked a penis that was just in her anus (called Ass to Mouth in the industry).
I have never before heard of an academic suspended for either talking about or showing porn. This is not really a surprise because the trend in academia is to avoid talking about the actual industry and how it interfaces with mainstream capitalism. At a recent academic conference I attended in London, I found myself surrounded by post-modern academics who could use a good dose of political economy. The plenary session consisted of academics making the argument that there is no “it,” meaning the porn industry, because there are so many producers of porn and just so many types of much porn on the internet, that it is impossible to locate any actual industry. Interesting that while there is no “it,” there are, in fact, porn trade shows, porn business web sites, porn PR companies, porn lobbying groups, and so on. All these things that would suggest that there is indeed a porn business.
The failure to lose sight of how the industry functions has been noted by the pornographers themselves. Andrew Edmond, President and CEO of Flying Crocodile, a $20-million pornography Internet business, explained to Brandweek that “a lot of people [outside adult entertainment] get distracted from the business model by [the sex]. It is just as sophisticated and multilayered as any other market place. We operate just like any Fortune 500 company (Brandweek, October, 2000, 41, 1Q48). Jammie Price did not get distracted by the sex, and for that she paid dearly.
GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).