Images of Eroticism


Image (above) from Jerzy Skolimowski, Deep End (1970)



This course is fully Online via Canvas
Dr. Rob Thomas

Office Hour:  via email, or Canvas, or via Zoom video conferencing by appointment.

This course meets the following requirements : Upper Division UD-C: Arts and/or Humanities, SF State Studies: Global Perspectives, GE Segment 3


This course is a critical study of the relations between eroticism and forms of human expression, including that form of expression we have come to name “pornography.” The historical formation of the concept of “pornography,” including its relation to modernism/modernity, will be foundational for this course. Equally foundational will be those works that seek to simultaneously challenge and re-conceptualize the concept of pornography (e.g. In the Realm of the Senses, Bijou). We will consider important theoretical texts (Foucault, Williams, Kendrick, Nash, Agamben, Preciado), historically censored films, recent hard-core art films (Shortbus9 Songs), and narrative films that deal with issues pertaining to the social construction of sex, sexuality, and gender in a patriarchal, capitalist society (Deep End—this work has been moved to an extra credit module)We will read recent work from feminist, black, queer, and trans theorists in the cutting-edge field of porn studies: Paul Preciado’s Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboys Architecture and Biopolitics, Jennifer C. Nash’s The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography and Linda Williams’ Screening Sex.

In addition to our work on the concept of pornography, we will think pornography as a genre of film (i.e. a form of expression that makes use of cinematic and social conventions). Genre films (which are probably the majority of the films that you see) are those that feature scenes you have seen so many times before, in so many different ways, that you expect to see them again and again depending on the type or genre of film (western, zombie, porn, action, etc.). Genre films don’t just employ cinematic conventions, they also teach us about social conventions, and pornography is no exception (this is particularly true with regard to constructions of gender and sexuality).

Students will gain foundations for critically thinking about obscenity, pornography, and sexuality, as well as the ability to think about and analyze “hard-core” films as a genre. This will enable us to look at the social conventions surrounding sexuality and gender expressed in these works. Students will learn to think critically about various aspects of pornography, censorship, obscenity, sexuality, desire, gender, feminism, gay and lesbian sexuality, sadomasochism, and other subjects in a cross-cultural and comparative historical framework. Throughout this course we will endeavor to think our relation to these subjects in the context of the historical present. Please be aware that my courses typically build over time. If you do not read the assigned readings, if you don’t take notes, if you don’t watch my instructional videos, or are otherwise not engaged with what we are covering, you will likely fail the class. 

Please don’t take this course if you have no interest in doing this work or, are offended by this content. 

While we are doing some really cool things in this course, but this is still a challenging class. We are NEVER looking at forms of sexual expression to “get people off,” but to analyze them in historical, social, aesthetic and other critical contexts. Some of the films and artworks we will look at will be graphic and sexually explicit, and include hard-core images of sexual acts. Some of the works we study will have been banned and/or censored. The social reaction against these works of sexual expression and the social taboos associated with them will form part of our critical study. While we will all have strong reactions to some of these works of expression, we will endeavor to think about them critically. This means going beyond the level of binary reaction, including noticing and reflecting on our own immediate responses to these works. It is not just that some of these films will shock us that is important to our study, but what that shock is meant to do (critically). How is it that these forms of expression have the ability to make us think?

Feminist porn studies is a field of inquiry that began to emerge over the past few decades in response to the lack of scholarly study of “pornographic” forms of expression. Informed by feminist and queer theory, it sought to move beyond the simple binaries of anti-pornography feminism from the 1970’s and 80’s in order to more neutrally consider the historical, social, cultural, aesthetic, theoretical and material aspects of “pornography,” particularly as these relate to gender, sexuality, race and class. While this course remains open to a wide variety of perspectives within the field, including the history of anti-pornography feminism, it’s important to understand that feminist porn studies does not mean anti-pornography feminism. Rather, the ways in which the scholarly study of pornography and feminism intersect is part of the journey that this course embarks upon. Moreover, this field of inquiry supports a wide range of diverse, and even opposing, points of view. 

Everyone is welcome in this class. The online Learning Communities or discussion are, above all, a space where students are allowed to have a voice. It’s really important, especially with what is going on in the world, that we support each other and strive to be respectful of our differences, our contributions, and our points of view. From the primary course materials (written by women, women of color, trans men, and sexual minorities), to the work we will do in the online Learning Communities, this is an inclusive class in every way. All of the theoretical and aesthetic works we will study in this course, with the exception of one film, have been created by those who have been excluded from social and cultural dominants. This is all the more reason for all of us to practice sensitivity and kindness in our work.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I moved many of the films that are more challenging for students to watch to extra credit modules or eliminated them entirely (Sadly, this means that we will no longer study the writings of Oshima Nagisa, nor his film. In the Realm of the Senses, which added a major non-Western cultural component to the course and, thematically, further tied our studies to modern culture.)  The course was temporarily reconfigured to give you the same learning experience without the additional emotional labor of having to watch images that may be “too much” for folks during a pandemic. 

I have eliminated final papers and exams in this course due to the pandemic in order to help students during this difficult time. 


Is sex really an individual issue? The concrete act of sexual intercourse definitely takes place between two individuals, but I believe through union with another individual one is attempting union with all of humanity and all of nature
Oshima Nagisa
"Sexual Poverty"
Do we truly need a true sex? With a persistence that borders on stubbornness, modern Western societies have answered in the affirmative. They have obstinately brought into play this question of a "true" sex in an order of things where one might have imagined that all that counted was the reality of the body and the intensity of its pleasures
Michel Foucault
Introduction to Herculine Barbin
Discussions and representations of sex that were once deemed obscene, in the literal sense of being off (ob) the public scene, have today insistently appeared in the new public/private realms of Internet and home video.
Linda Williams
Porn Studies
Like any other popular-culture genre (scifi, romance, mystery, true crime), pornography obeys certain rules, and its primary rule is transgression. Like your boorish cousin, its greatest pleasure is to locate each and every one of societies taboos, prohibitions, and properties and systematically transgress them, one by one.
Laura Kipnis
"How to Look at Pornography"