Inside Higher Ed: When Can Faculty Show Porn?

By Mitch Smith, for Inside Higher Ed

April 23, 2012




Drawing attention to a blurry line between scholarship and obscenity (and questions about scholarship about obscenity), two professors have been criticised in recent weeks for showing videos that some considered to be pornographic.

Most agree that sexually explicit materials, including videos, can be academically relevant in sociology, gender studies and human sexuality courses, among others. But questions arise when instructors show those videos without first alerting their students and when students subsequently complain to administrators about the content.

Jammie Price, a tenured professor of sociology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, was suspended last month after showing a documentary about pornography in her introductory sociology class. She is fighting the charges, arguing that the university is attempting to punish her for exercising her right to free speech in the classroom.

Price was accused of engaging in “inappropriate speech and conduct in the classroom” after four students and some of their parents complained to administrators last month. Among the charges were that she screened The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships without properly warning students about the anti-porn documentary’s explicit content.

Price said that the film, which she checked out from the university library, was graphic at times but academically relevant to that week’s topic of gender and sexuality. A Wheelock College professor who helped make the movie said that it was “ludicrous” to discipline an instructor for showing the documentary, noting that interviews with gender studies scholars figure prominently in the film, which is critical of the porn industry but also includes brief explicit scenes of porn.

Price’s case lends itself to a wider discussion of how professors present relevant but potentially objectionable course materials – and how institutions respond when students complain.

Earlier this month at California State University, Fresno, a professor showed a film on advanced sexual techniques to her introduction to human sexuality class, The Fresno Bee reported. Administrators defended Peggy Gish after students and conservative bloggers complained that she was showing pornography. An administrator told The Bee that Gish informs her students each semester they may leave the classroom if they feel uncomfortable. Gish did not respond to an Inside Higher Ed message seeking comment.

John DeLamater, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and past editor of The Journal of Sex Research, said that he has aired The Price of Pleasure in his own classes and believes that it has academic value. But he said that professors have a duty to inform students ahead of time when a movie is graphic and to allow those students who object to leave without any repercussions. Price did not warn her students about the film’s contents, but said that they could have excused themselves after it started without any negative consequences.

DeLamater gives presentations on best practices for college sex educators. Among his tips are to consult with university attorneys before teaching a course on sexuality and to make sure that students do not bring guests into the classroom. If students bring friends, he said that could constitute a public viewing and expose professors to punishment under local obscenity laws.

Appalachian State’s punishment of Price resulted from issues beyond the film. Among the seven charges outlined in the 16 March disciplinary letter obtained by Inside Higher Ed are that Price “made disparaging, inaccurate remarks about student athletes”, strayed from her syllabus, forced her political views on students, said she did not like working at the university and criticised the college for having an old white coal miner as its mascot. As a result, Anthony Gene Carey, the vice-provost, writes in the letter, some “students…do not feel safe in your classroom” because of the “intensity of the hostility that you expressed toward the university and its administration”.

Price, a tenured full professor, said that she had originally planned a lecture for that day but decided to show the film instead after a student complained earlier in the week that Price was hostile towards athletes. That allegation, which was included in Price’s disciplinary letter, centered on a classroom discussion about sexual assault accusations leveled against Appalachian State athletes and a resulting campus protest. The athletes’ cases are being tried in campus judicial hearings, the results of which are not public. They have not been charged in a criminal court.

Price said that she feared the athlete who complained would think her lecture on gender and sexuality was a form of retaliation, so she decided to screen the film instead.

The offending discussion on athletes occurred on a Monday, the video was screened on Wednesday and the 60-person class discussed its content that Friday. The following week, over spring break, Price learned that she was being placed on indefinite paid leave while campus officials investigated her conduct. Price – who said that she is innocent of wrongdoing – believes that she will be fired when the university completes its investigation.

Citing privacy laws, Appalachian State officials declined to comment. Jill Ehnenn, chair of the faculty senate, declined to comment on the specifics of Price’s case. But Ehnenn said that administrators have always supported her when students challenged course materials in her women’s studies classes.

Adam Kissel, a vice-president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, criticised Appalachian State for instructing Price to not discuss her situation with students or fellow faculty members while the case is pending. While colleges have the right to investigate faculty members in some cases, Kissel said that telling them to cut off communication with those on campus could prevent them from contacting potential witnesses for their defence.

Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, was a senior consultant for The Price of Pleasure and is interviewed in the film. She travels the country showing the film to college students and is a critic of pornography.

While she said professors should warn students about the content of the film and tell them that they can leave without any repercussions (something Price did not do), she cannot understand why Appalachian State is taking action against Price. “This is what education is,” Dines said. “You expose them to the reality of the world they live in, and you use that exposure to develop a critical scholarly discussion in class, which is exactly what she did.”

She said that The Price of Pleasure has been screened at hundreds of colleges of all types across the US, and that she is not aware of any other professors facing consequences for showing the film.

Price, who has taught at Appalachian State for eight years, believes that the disciplinary letter is a result of a long campaign to remove her – a sentiment that she said started years ago when she was critical of administrators. She says she has been falsely accused of serious misconduct in the past and was accused of having sex with a student several years ago, an accusation she denies.

Price brought up that allegation in her sociology class this spring, something that she was scolded for in her formal discipline. In the letter, the vice-provost says that information “was unrelated to the course material outlined on the syllabus”. Price said that it was a meaningful way to engage students in a discussion about the seriousness of sexual assault.

Since being placed on leave last month, Price has retained a lawyer and has been working to clear her name. She said that she has wanted to leave Appalachian State for years, but has not because she shares custody of her young daughters with her ex-husband, who is also an Appalachian State faculty member.

Price doubts that she will keep her job after her formal hearing, and is not sure that she would want to return to an Appalachian State classroom in any case. She hopes to be cleared of charges of wrongdoing, perhaps receive a severance payment and work on raising her children and writing fiction.

But first, she intends to see the disciplinary process through. To discipline someone for showing a serious academic film, she said, is not fair.

“Sometimes students are going to be uncomfortable,” she said. “The material they learn isn’t always going to be rosy. They talk about racism; they talk about sexism. Nowhere does it say we’re supposed to make them feel good all the time. Talking about pornography is one of those examples.”

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