Erotica of the past is important to understanding sexuality of the present.
PORNOGRAPHY! IN THE LIBRARY! I just thought you ought to know.
Yes, UVic’s archives and databases contain many examples of erotic writings, photos, documents, and videos, from the subtle to the explicit, and it is so important that they do.
In our digital age, when people imagine pornography, they often think of incognito browsers and graphic sexual videos, where erotica evokes the heavy breath of someone speedily flipping through Fifty Shades of Grey. But the study of erotic materials goes a lot deeper than that and, like any field within humanities, it has existed as long as humans have.
This past term alone, the English department has offered three different special topics courses exploring erotic subject matter: Dr. Stephen Ross’s ENGL 230, Sexting Through the Ages; Janice Niemann’s ENGL 385, Erotica and the 19th Century Garden; and Dr. Michael Nowlin’s ENGL 391, Adultery in the Modern Novel.
But why is it important to study the erotic? And do the lessons of these courses extend beyond taking spicy electives?
“Pornography gets a bad rap in our culture even though it’s everywhere,” says Dr. Georgia Sitara, an assistant teaching professor in History and Gender Studies.
Since the term pornography emerged in English about a century and a half ago, it has gained notoriety from the Christian Church, who deemed images of sex dangerous, and the ideas associated with it as harmful to the population. In the 1970s, this harm narrative was taken up by anti-pornography feminists, who saw the practices of pornography as, “harmful to women.” Because of their shared beliefs, anti-pornography feminists were able to work alongside the religious right and in the end came out on top both culturally and legally.
However, the views of anti-pornography feminism have continuously fallen under criticism by pro-pornography or “sex-positive” feminists.
“Yes, sex was [and continues to be] a place of danger, but it was also a place of pleasure and [that] in fact what we needed was the proliferation of more images and an encouragement of people to create their own images,” says Sitara, “there are multiple ways to read [a] sign. The sign itself has no one meaning. As observers, we give meaning to the sign.”
When academics talk about the study of pornography and erotica, they are really discussing a long history of diverse beliefs and practices.
“Sexual practices change over time, and the meanings associated with sexual practices change over time. We can have the same kind of practice or form and there can be different meanings assigned to it across time, even within a particular historical moment,” says Sitara.
By exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly of this history, students are able to understand themselves and correct their assumptions while also developing compassion and respect for others. Recognizing the possible harm that certain forms of pornography can cause can teach us how we can learn to rewrite what their images and portrayals mean, while creating new and better ones to replace them.
To be able to do this work, primary source erotica is essential in exploring erotic portrayals through the ages.
Where Sitara’s work explores eroticism in the context of theory and history, Ross’s Sexting Through the Ages course views the study of erotica as having many practical, alongside theoretical, and personal benefits.
“Erotic writing is the material we are working on, but what we’re really doing is learning how to read carefully and be careful critics of all kinds of texts,” says Ross. “It teaches students, nothing is off limits, you don’t have to adopt a distanced academic approach to everything.”
On the first day of class, to help break the ice and introduce material, Ross gives the class an example of really badly written erotica and proceeds to ask them how they know it’s bad.
“[It’s] a way to get students interested in paying attention to language, structure, and rhetoric,” no doubt, in a way they are not used to.
However, there are many benefits to Ross’s course beyond the rhetorical.
“As long as there have been people, there have been people having sex. And as long as people have been having sex, people have been writing about it, depicting it in art, painting, music [….] It’s a sex-positive education in the history of sex and sexuality but also really through the lens of looking at how attitudes changed about sex and sexuality over millenium,” says Ross.
To maintain everyone’s comfort level and feelings of safety in the classroom, each professor maintains a set of rules for classroom discussion beyond a general nature of sex-positivity.
First things first, no kink-shaming.
“What is hot for them may be the opposite for someone else,” says Sitara. Her goal in the classroom is “to be able to have a space where everyone’s sexual desires [can] be respected as long as those practices themselves are respectful.”
Secondly, Ross emphasizes that “fantasy is fantasy.”
“Some of [the students] may be turned on by the depiction of something that they would never actually want to partake of in real life. We honour that in this class […] there is a difference, an important difference,” says Ross.
And the final rule from Ross’s course: no confessions. Which is fairly self-explanatory.
Based on the large volume of erotic courses being offered in the English department, students are enjoying it. Ross has offered his special topics erotica course four times now and the course always fills up quickly. People are interested in the subject matter and have a desire to learn more.
For all the above stated reasons, maintaining primary source erotica in the library is extremely important. Though the library doesn’t actively collect erotic materials, various unique items can be found on the university’s shelves, microfilm archives, and in special collections. In our digital age, resources are readily available through online databases, but they require sufficient library funding to maintain subscriptions to them.
The Gale Archives of Sexuality and Gender is seen as the “star of the show” in terms of historical pornography databases. Around two years ago, the British Library digitized their Private Case collection of erotic and pornographic materials. Much of these materials can be found through the Gale Archives.
However, the study of erotic materials still faces many challenges. Referencing Gayle Rubin, a famous cultural anthropologist and sex and gender theorist, Sitara says that for a long time the study of sex, specifically queer sex, within academia has been systematically discouraged.
“Those within academia who studied gay topics were, to put it mildly, not well rewarded. Many were graduate students whose advisors told them bluntly that they were committing academic suicide and these warnings were not unrealistic. Many others who did this early work in queer scholarship endured systemic unemployment or underemployment in the academy.”
Sitara says the possibility of backlash is still high, particularly with the scrutiny through which syllabi are reviewed in the academy and with the prevalence of cancel culture.
“We want to be studying erotica, and we want to be studying sexuality because erotic justice matters, and we still need sexual liberation,” says Sitara.
For Ross, the continued studying of erotic materials, “introduces students to a wide range of sexual practices and different values around sexual practice, and it helps them become aware of and explore the diversity. Things are not often as clear cut as sex ed tries to make them seem to be.”
Dr. Georgia Sitara will be offering her HIST 385C: History of Sexuality course this May 2021.