Westminster pornography class still planned despite social media onslaught

Despite considerable pushback on social media, Westminster College is standing by its plans to offer an elective class on pornography during its upcoming May term.

Each spring, Westminster College offers students short-term, credit-earning experiences which can include study abroad opportunities or intensive study into subject matter often unrelated to their majors.

“We have no intention to back away from offering this class. By and large, the campus community is supportive of that academic freedom and Westminster’s commitment to talking about tough subjects,” said Westminster College’s chief marketing officer Sheila Yorkin on Thursday.

Westminster is a private, nonprofit, accredited and comprehensive liberal arts college in Salt Lake City.

The college has experienced an onslaught of social media attention, phone calls and even doxxing of some staff since conservative influencer, talk show host, political commentator and activist Candace Owens tweeted about the course earlier this week.

“I thought this was a joke — it isn’t. This is a pornography class that you can enroll in at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The class description reads that porn is as American as apple pie and students will watch pornographic films together and discuss sex as an art form,” she tweeted to her 3 million Twitter followers.

Yorkin said the two-credit elective will be taught by a “well-trained, published Ph.D. who’s taught classes like this and similar to this and subject matter along these lines. She has lots of measures in place if students are feeling either uncomfortable or whatever the case may be to leave the room and there’s no academic punishment for that. So she’s really aware of the sensitive nature of it and she’s a professional.”

Presently, 14 students over the age of 18 have enrolled in the class, which will include viewing film, reading, analysis, conversation and “looking at it from all points of view,” Yorkin said.

Associate professor Eileen Chanza Torres, who will teach the class, said she is completing her ninth academic year at Westminster and has taught similar courses in the past.

“Since I started, I’ve been teaching courses that deal with sex studies. It’s really interesting how this was ‘leaked’ because it was never private,” Torres said.

The pornography studies course will meet twice weekly for three hours over the four-week term and students will be “thinking seriously about this media,” she said.

“The course is not really a course about just sitting down and watching porn and then going home, right? That’s not what we ever do. There are some active conversations and so we’re looking at the history of the representation of pornography on film. As soon as the human animal creates a new technology, we put sex in it. … And so that’s pretty much the focus of thinking about how pornography has developed alongside technology,” she explained.

Some have expressed concerns that children are being exposed to pornography or that Westminster students are forced to take the class. Neither is true, she said.

“You could graduate Westminster College without ever seeing me and we’re a tiny campus. No one’s forced to take any class with me,” she said.

Clearly, the class is not for everyone and the content is heavy as the class explores topics such as rape fantasies and violent pornography, she said.

One of Torres’ goals is to create a safe space for students to study pornography as a group and have classroom discussions.

“I tell the students, ‘If it’s too much, you can tap out. You can walk out. You don’t have to tell me anything about it, it’s perfectly OK.’ You know, in the past, I’ve never had a student walk out from any of these discussions,” she said.

Torres said the Westminster College community includes students and faculty with diverse backgrounds and points of view. Torres grew up in the Catholic Church and comes from a conservative family, and she respects a wide array of perspectives, she said.

“We have a lot of conservative students and to imagine that everyone is teaching porn or sex to our students is actually not true. We do teach quite a lot of courses that include studies of gender, sex and sexuality, but it’s for sure we have conservative folks in this on this campus who are not happy about the course,” she said.

But academics in many disciplines have been studying porn “for a really, really long time in many different ways,” Torres said. That the class struck a nerve at this juncture was somewhat surprising but “it’s an odd time to be teaching sex studies, critical race theory. It’s never been a good time, but it’s definitely a little bit more volatile than in the recent past.”

The course description of FILM-3000 Porn from the college’s online catalog reads:

“Hardcore pornography is as American as apple pie and more popular than Sunday night football. Our approach to this billion-dollar industry is as both a cultural phenomenon that reflects and reinforces sexual inequalities (but holds the potential to challenge sexual and gender norms) and as an art form that requires serious contemplation. We will watch pornographic films together and discuss the sexualization of race, class, and gender and as an experimental, radical art form.”

The college provided this statement regarding the class:

“Westminster College occasionally offers elective courses like this as an opportunity to analyze social issues. As part of this analysis, Westminster College and universities across the county often examine potentially offensive topics like pornography to further understand their pervasiveness and impact. Descriptions of these courses, while alarming to some readers, help students decide if they wish to engage in serious investigation of controversial subjects.”

Torres said the controversy will likely be short lived.

“I’m sure it will die down soon and by the time the class starts, people would have forgotten about it. Well, that is the hope,” she said.

The content is not new, nor is teaching about pornography on college campuses, Torres said.

“I mean, there’s an academic journal called Porn Studies. It’s old news,” she said.