“Obscenity” in the Classroom
Aired on KANU April 3, 2003 during morning edition.
In 1971, I attended a sex education workshop at Indiana State University. I was the sole male biology teacher amidst over a hundred women Home Ec teachers. And we watched a “porno film.” It actually was an 8 millimeter stag film, brought to class under the arm of a Terre Haute vice detective.
He ran the projector and, 30 years later, I really don’t remember the “action” at all. I do remember the classroom discussion afterward. We had already learned the percentages of youngsters who viewed such films, but only now did we realize the impact that might have. We observed that the actors involved were not at all “average” in anatomy or endurance; how viewers might find themselves feeling inadequate compared to the silicon enhancement or spliced photography. And we talked about the lack of love and romance, the promotion of sex-without-commitment. Two of the home ec teachers were Catholic nuns who excused themselves from viewing the film, and their discussion of how viewing this might constitute a violation of their vows of celibacy was very thought-provoking.
That was a valid and important college-level lesson 30 years ago. Today, there are many more X-rated videotapes available, cheaper and more accessible to youth than ever before. And Kansas has a sex ed mandate that began in 1987 and expires in 2005. Therefore viewing such a video would be a legitimate practice in training teachers for sex education at the undergraduate level.
Without doubt, that 1970s stag film was both obscene and pornographic. It appealed to “prurient interests” based on public standards. But it is not obscene and pornographic in the educational context.
And this problem applies across many disciplines. Pre-med and nursing programs use videos to prepare students who will eventually move to actual patient examination, palpation, and care techniques; for them, sexuality cannot be ignored. University psychology and sociology classes use videos to illustrate behaviors and attitudes that students may not understand–heterosexual, homosexual, and otherwise. Classes in Abnormal Psychology are substantially human sexuality classes that would be greatly curtailed by this amendment. Virtually all of the material defined as obscene can be and is the bonafide object of academic study at the university level. Handled professionally in an academic context, such videos are neither obscene nor pornographic.
The Kansas statute that defines “obscene” recognizes this difference and specifically exempts schools and universities. This new amendment threatens us because it uses the community standard definition of obscenity but ignores the educational exemption. This issue that threatens academic censorship emphasizes the ongoing need for responsibility.
And students have responsibilities. Along with their parents, they choose which public university or private college to attend. The university student is now a young man or woman expected to begin thinking and making decisions on his or her own. A student who enrolls in a human sexuality course should not be surprised to hear about sexuality, talk about sexuality, and see videos illustrating various expressions of sexuality. For any student who finds such class content too “mature,” the university offers a procedure for dropping the class.
Does “anything go” in the classroom? Of course not. The professor has a responsibility for maintaining academic integrity. The knowledge must be accurate, the teaching meaningful and effective, the evaluation fair, and the classroom atmosphere must not be intimidating. A teacher should care about the students. Respect their diversity of beliefs. And the university has a responsibility to ensure that these are the faculty they have in the classroom. Universities also have procedures for evaluating teaching, not offering tenure, and assigning courses.
Finally the Legislature has responsibilities. Kansas cannot afford to produce shy doctors, squeamish nurses, or naive teachers. Nor can Kansas afford to have a future populace that is ignorant about their sexuality and intolerant of biology and behaviors they do not understand. By leaving responsibilities where they belong, hundreds of biology, sociology, psychology, pre-med and health professors across Kansas will not have to censor themselves next year.
John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology, occasionally teaches human reproductive biology education methods, and lives in Emporia, KS.