Teaching Sexually Explicit Material

For Hughes, it’s helpful to “establish some kind of language and context about the avantgarde,” where nudity and nakedness have been used historically for various artistic and political purposes. Reflecting on trying to find “accessible way[s] to introduce a naked body on stage,” Hughes recounted how, to her surprise, “the sight of a naked body is often more disruptive to students than the explicit performance of sexual acts… Nudity is still shocking or upsetting, even if some students sometimes react like ‘This is boring, no big deal.’”

Hughes reported that the most controversial thing she teaches is Annie Sprinkle’s “Sluts and Goddesses.” Hughes says that Sprinkle seems to “be operating in this post-shame atmosphere—there’s something very sweet and sincere” about her treatment of sex and sexuality. Students get to see Sprinkle’s assumptions about sexuality and how different those assumptions are from mainstream American culture’s views. So, Hughes concluded, contexualizing nudity and sex helps students to talk about race, sexuality, and gender, as does showing them sex-positive feminism and sex work activism.

Hughes also talked about one of her most powerful strategies as a teacher: “Being out about who I am, including being a pro-choice feminist [lets] students know that I have my own point of view, that I am not objective, but that I can look at things analytically, see what’s strong or weak about a given piece of work, no matter what my own opinions and beliefs.”

Using psychoanalysis as a way of thinking about practical pedagogical issues, David Eng structured his talk around “how to deal with / manage transference issues between teacher and student, and between student and student.” Eng said, “It’s not sexually explicit material per se, but politically and socially difficult topics,” like abortion, for example, “where people have strong opinions, and even a lot of shame, and this can create what seem like big problems in the classroom, but it can all be seen as issues of transference and counter-transference.” Rather than seeing such reactions as “problems,” Eng suggests building upon them: “[It’s important to see] the classroom as a site of transference [because] it is only through understanding this that you can build a community in the classroom.”

To do this, Eng reflected, you sometimes have to be willing to sacrifice your own ego, what Eng called “the narcissism of teaching,” and become a kind of holding environment for the confusion and anger that sexually explicit or politically difficult material can provoke in students. “When you teach difficult topics you shouldn’t take it personally if students don’t love you, or even hate you. And remember that transference is often delayed, so a student may come to appreciate you in time.”

Eng recommends that teachers establish some “ground rules” right from the start. Write on your syllabus that the class will be dealing with sexually explicit material. Echoing Hughes, Eng also emphasized contextualizing the material: “Put things in context—say ‘I am teaching sexually explicit, politically difficult material. If you are uncomfortable, take another class.’ And tell students that ‘Reading or watching it doesn’t equal doing it.’”

Eng also pointed out that the kind of class one has leads to its sense of community—it’s easier to know where your students are at when you are teaching a small seminar than when you are doing a lecture course. Requiring conferences and doing in-class writing reflections on what students are learning all help.

Patricia Duffet is a PhD candidate in English at the The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Holly Hughes began the February 25th Lesson Plans workshop reminding her enthusiastic audience that when it comes to teaching sexually explicit material, there’s no way of avoiding controversy—“especially controversy about the body. . . . Issues of sexuality, gender, race all automatically come up when you teach the performing arts.” And, as teachers across all disciplines know, undergraduate students usually need lots of help talking about and analyzing complex, controversial, and difficult ideas, let alone sexually explicit material. Just what has and hasn’t worked in their classrooms was the topic of Hughes’ and David Eng’s thoughtful and engaging talks.