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The University organises a group of functions within which "gifted students" visit the campus in order to see what they might study and learn and experience at university. These are senior students who are selected as particularly able to gain things from that experience. Departments are offered the opportunity to provide a demonstration or presentation of either the training they offer or the topics they address.

Our department has offered presentations in previous years on topics like "Gender in the Media". This year, we proposed a group effort - a mix of both Gender Studies and Cultural Studies perspectives on the contentious question of pornography - on some of the debates around what pornography is for and the kinds of problem it is often seen to be. Four of us agreed to present short pieces on different approaches to debates around pornography.

So far so good. Pornography is certainly one of the issues where both gender studies and cultural studies have a lot to say, and an issue that's clearly of general public interest as any survey of mainstream media indicates. But the organising body within the university came back to us with the decision that pornography was not an appropriate topic to offer to these students experiencing what university is like.

It's a strange decision, given that "current affairs" and "social issues" segments in newspapers and on television which these same students will be encouraged to consider as a valid field of public debate address similar questions. It would be a rare 17yr old who had no opinion on the various debates around pornography and those people could clearly choose not to select our session from among those available. It would, indeed, be a rare 17yr old who had never encountered a piece of pornography (although we were never intending to show any).

Not only will undergraduate students taking many units at university be asked to consider such debates, but these are clearly issues that undergraduate students are particularly interested in debating. This is additionally odd from my perspective because I was planning to talk about the debates surrounding communities of teenagers writing and reading pornographic fiction online. While arguments over whether or not this comprises a social ill are part of those debates it seems very strange to assume the age peers of these community members are incapable of understanding or expressing an opinion on the issue.

One of my colleagues wondered if we should have proposed a lego display instead, and I couldn't help thinking immediately of a Harry Potter Lego porn narrative site I was linked to when studying Harry Potter fanfiction communities. No, I won't provide a link here (I haven't asked the artist's permission and in any case it may be scandalously stumbled across by one of those many teenagers surfing the internet - but of course never encountering or having any ideas about pornography while they do so).

Yesterday a colleague at the University of Newcastle (thanks to Craig Williams) sent me a link to the following "report" on "Corporate Pedophilia" by "The Australia Institute" (under "What's New"). This report argues that girls' magazines and television programming directed at young children sexualise them, and points to the pervasive sexual images and practices of teenagers as one cause for this - as a sort of trickle down effect. Having recently been an expert witness in a court case on the content of tween girl magazines I can attest that this idea that teenage magazines are intensely sexualised is a well-established one in many quarters and that I am not the only one who would think that presuming older teens were ignorant about such things was odd.

To add to all these ironies the Australia institute has removed its images supporting this report on the grounds that they generated complaints from parents of the pictured children who didn't want their children linked on websites to "pornography". Particularly when compared to the high moral tone of the report working as an "exposé" this would have been another excellent example of the complex issues arising amidst ideas and debates about pornography.

I suppose the University is actually more concerned about the responses of teachers and parents to the idea of these students hearing academic debates about pornography, and perhaps that's inevitable and it was merely naive of us to imagine that the students were being given a representation of what we do. So we should all remember to keep it a secret that, just like the rest of Australia, at university we discuss issues surrounding kids and sex, and pornography is part of those discussions.

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.
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