Why I Like to Teach Sex

This past week, Paul showed a room of graduate students and professors just how foxy Harvey Keitel is in the sack.

Disambiguation: Paul was a panelist for a workshop on how to teach film in literature courses. He delivered a mini-presentation on how to analyze a scene, focusing particularly on sound and music. He chose, as his sample, a scene from Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” which is, let me tell you, one of the most exquisite films that I have ever seen. It is also the only film that, to my knowledge, features Harvey Keitel as an explicit object of desire. When we see Harvey (or rather, when you see Harvey, because I probably cannot sit through any of his other, much more violent, films), it tends to be in this sort of context:

Image taken from badassdigest.com

In “The Piano,” Harvey Keitel’s character has also adorned himself with tattoos, but they are limited to his face and signify his assimilation into the tribal communities of 19th Century New Zealand. Whether or not said tattoos work for him would likely generate some debate. But, in any case, they seem to work for one of the film’s female characters, because she falls deeply in love with him. And after these characters express their mutual feelings, they engage in a rather lengthy and graphic bout of love-making. This is the scene that Paul showed us as part of his presentation. Nervous laughter ensued.

A number of factors contributed to the giggles that rippled through the audience. First, Paul warned that the scene includes partial nudity, and there is simply nothing “partial” about it – unless, of course, anything less than full-frontal shots of genitalia is, in your opinion, child’s play. That said, taking into consideration that we do not see the women from the front, and assuming Harvey is relatively endowed, I would put the extent of the nudity in this scene at about 95 percent. Perhaps if we had only caught a quick glimpse of the love-making, then the effect would not have been so dramatic. But oh, how the camera lingers. We see caresses. We see smoochies. We see Harvey mount and penetrate with a determined thrust. And all the while, the music is gorgeous!

Paul did, ultimately, cut short the viewing, having forgotten just how long we are privy to the lovers bumping uglies. And, honestly, it is a shame that he felt that compulsion, however understandable it was. Jokes aside, the scene was perfect for the point Paul wanted to convey to us, and it productively accompanied his brilliant feminist analysis (I won’t divulge said analysis to you because I hope he publishes it someday).  Afterwards, my friend and colleague, Katie Stanutz, the organizer of these teaching workshops, joked that Paul was responsible for the first nudity to make its way into the series. She also hatched what I think is a brilliant idea for another workshop: how to teach controversial material. After the panel, a few of us, including Katie, began to talk about how presenting or discussing explicit material is always a challenge. It also can have varying–sometimes difficult–effects on the space of a classroom or lecture hall. Of course, everyone who attended this workshop loves Paul and appreciated precisely why he had shown us that film clip. But the affect of amused discomfort was palpable as we gradually recognized that this was a long scene of no-holds-barred sex – one that we were watching in public, amongst professional colleagues. Afterwards we realized that this was one of those “teaching moments” to which we all refer (sometimes with a dollop of sarcasm).

I am by no means immune to the impacts of encountering controversial material, whatever the nature of its content. However, I also do not shy away from teaching it. Because my research interests include human sexuality, the topic tends to make its way into just about any course I teach, and in a variety of manifestations. I have incorporated “The Piano” into a women’s literature class before (with Paul’s help, I should add). This semester, in my Introduction to LGBT Literatures class, I will teach poetry by the brilliant Essex Hemphill. When I teach within my comfort zone, i.e. the Victorian period, I assign Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, and challenge my students to think about the ways writers articulated their erotic desires in a climate that was far more conservative. It is especially important to me to teach women’s sexuality because of the ways it has been–and continues to be–scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited, both within literature and outside of it. Some of my very favorite lines of poetry–lines that strengthen me whenever I feel judged by others–are from Victorian poet Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway.” Webster’s poem imagines the interiority of a kept woman struggling with her “fall” from sexual propriety while still asserting her self-worth:  “I have looked coolly on my what and why / And I accept myself.” Sometimes it is nearly impossible for me to speak those words aloud without getting choked up.

My students generally come to know me as a teacher who will “go there.” I am comfortable with this, both because I try to make those moments productive and because I think it is critical TO go “there” — in other words, to the sex. We see evidence every day that society still does not know what to do with sexuality. However often we read humor pieces about the trials and tribulations of forgetting your vibrator when you visit your parents, talking sex tends to make us nervous unless we do it in a private setting. I recognize that everyone has limits to what s/he wants to discuss, and I am by no means arguing that we should all broadcast our sex lives, heedless of our audiences. Despite being a very sex-positive person, there is a great deal–although perhaps it does not always seem like it–that I prefer to keep to myself. And there are details about my life that others simply need not know. But as an instructor, I believe in challenging my students to question the boundaries that shape their comfort zones. Discomfort can be one of the most productive things we feel, so long as we are willing to reflect on what has generated it. I want my students to read material that makes them uncomfortable. Doing so enables us to have vibrant and healthy discussions about what that discomfort means – what social or institutional forces influence and perpetuate it.

As long as we continue to tiptoe around discussions of sex in the abstract, we will not be capable of fully facing the social problems that derive from sexual anxieties. For instance, until we can recognize the validity of sex workers, it will be one more factor that contributes to a culture of slut-shaming. So too, will be the systemic silencing and blaming of sexual assault victims, many of whom are women. For as long as we fetishize and exploit same-sex eroticism, queer people will not be encouraged to regard their love as valid and beautiful, just as all love is. (For some of the latest in outrageous lesbian fetishization, see Shakira’s latest music video. My opinion of her has lowered considerably: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mP3mJDL2k. And no, Macklemore does not make it all better.) I could go on at length, and it would just depress us all. It’s Friday, so I don’t want to do that.

But there is so much that we need to do. We need to talk with our students about the line between the pornographic and the erotic, and why that matters (see Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” if you want to do a little outside reading that will inspire you to start a revolution). We need to create supportive and generative spaces where words like “vagina” and “aroused” don’t get caught in our students’ throats as they attempt to make points about the day’s reading. We need to teach tolerance for sexuality and, in so doing, emphasize the difference between choosing to maintain one’s privacy and feeling compelled to hide a fundamental part of oneself.

When I teach sexually explicit material, I hope that I am able to impart some of these lessons — or, at least, to create a pedagogical climate conducive to these conversations. Because, while I want to challenge my students (and myself, too), I always, always want them to feel safe.

And if all else fails, I guess I can just show my students a naked, tattooed Harvey Keitel over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, Paul!)

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