Images of Eroticism


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

This course is fully Online via iLearn
Dr. Rob Thomas
Email: theory at sfsu dot edu
Office Hour:  via email, or iLearn, 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 this 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 (9 Songs), alt porn (Neu Wave Hookers—optional in Summer 2018), 1970’s narrative porn (Sex World), and narrative films that deal with issues pertaining to the social construction of sex and gender in a patriarchal, capitalist society (Deep End). We will read recent work from feminist, black, 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, the latter of which will serve as an anchoring text for the class.

In addition to our work on the history 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 are not otherwise engaged with what we are covering, you will likely do poorly in the class. 

While we are doing some really cool things in this course, this is still a challenging class. Please don’t take it if you have no interest in doing this work. Above all, we are not looking at forms of sexual expression to get people “off” but to analyze them critically. Many of the films and artworks we will look at will be graphic and sexually explicit, including hard-core images of sexual acts. Some of the works we study have been banned and/or heavily censored. The social reaction against these works of sexual expression and the social taboos associated with them will form a part of our critical study. While we will all have strong reactions to some of these works of expression, we will endeavor to think critically about them. This means going beyond the level of binary reaction. Including reflecting on some of 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). In other words, how it is 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 several 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.

The above disclaimers aside, everyone is welcome in this class. The online forums 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 forums, this is an inclusive class.

Prerequisites: ENG 114 or consent of instructor

REQUIRED TEXTS BOOKS (available at the SFSU bookstore)

  • Jennifer C. Nash – The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography
  • Beatriz Preciado – Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboys Architecture and Biopolitics
  • Linda Williams – Screening Sex


Optional Essays


  • John Cameron Mitchell – Shortbus (USA, 2006)
  • Nagisa Oshima – In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida) (Japan, 1976)
  • Wakefield Poole – Bijou (1973)
  • Jerzy Skolimowski – Deep End (USA/Germany/Great Britain, 1970)
  • Anthony Spinelli – Sexworld (USA, 1977)
  • Kate Williams – Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization (USA, 1999) (selections)
  • Michael Winterbottom – 9 Songs (Great Britain, 2005)
  • Eiichi Yamamoto – Belladonna of Sadness (Japan, 1973)


  • Andy Warhol’s Blow Job
  • Pornography: The Secret History of CivilizationEpisode 4, “Twentieth Century Foxy(selection)

Extra Credit Film Modules

  • Eon Mckai, Neu Wave Hookers (USA, 2006)
  • Ken Russell, The Devils (UK, 1971)

I encourage students to make use of additional resources made available to you in the course blog. (Please note that some of these resources refer to work done in previous semesters.) For additional research in the field, in addition to numerous books and publications, there is now a Journal of Porn Studies

Trailer for Images of Eroticism

Play Video
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"