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"Pornotopian Studies: Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire"
Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire (By Robert Eberwein. Rutgers UP, 1999); reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 19 July 2000

Steven Marcus coined the word [pornotopia] in his study of Victorian pornography [The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid Nineteenth-Century England (1966)] to denote "that vision which regards all of human experience as a series of exclusively sexual events or conveniences." (Eberwein, p. 210)

Warning! Robert Eberwein's pioneering investigation of American sex education films and videos contains detailed discussions of the various sexual acts depicted (or simulated) in many such screen productions of the twentieth century, and features explicit film stills including a close-up of diseased male genitalia, a blow-up shot of syphilis under a microscope, and an image of a "Doctor" Donald Duck wearing a headlight (presumably for gynecological examinations). According to this choice of illustrations, Eberwein—a lecturer in film history, theory, and appreciation in the English Department at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan—would seem to possess a slightly bent sense of humour. However, he matter-of-factly attends to each of these illustrations (along with some thirty others) in the course of his intriguing research, the rather straightforward aims of which are specifically "to identify, categorize, and describe representative kinds of American sex education films and videos; to provide a historical framework for understanding their development and use; and to suggest their cultural and ideological significance" (3).

Due to the thorough scope of sex educational films and videos he has catalogued and examined, Eberwein provides an unprecedented register of works in this area and a curious lot to be pondered over by those interested in screen representations of sexuality. Adopting a Foucauldian approach, he shows how modern social, medical, technological, and institutional systems have influenced the legitimization of the various (negative and positive) effects of sexual desire captured in these productions. Thematic developments are linked to social, political, demographic and technological changes—not least in screen media themselves.

Eberwein’s discussion works through five chapters, with each assigned a chronological period marked by such developments and innovations. The range of films discussed in "The Initial Phase, 1914-1939" includes narrative and expository Venereal Disease (VD) films such as Damaged Goods (1914) and Damaged Lives (1933); non-narrative VD films like First Aid Treatment after Exposure to Syphilis (1924); birth control and abortion films like the silent Where Are My Children? (1916); and maternity films such as The Birth of a Baby (1938). "World War II and the Attack on Venereal Disease" focuses on two genres of training films: those for (mostly male) military personnel and those for (mostly female) domestic education. Sex Hygiene (1941 & 1942) and A Message To Women (1944), respectively, represent these types.

"Youths and Their Bodies" looks at mostly post-World War II sex instruction films for use in primary and secondary schools. These include films on sexual reproduction such as Egg and Sperm (1967), and films about sexual anatomy like Boy to Man (1962), It's Wonderful To Be A Girl (1966) and Linda's Film on Masturbation (1974). "Films and Videos For Adults, 1946 – Present" covers a variety of post-War films and videos on Sexually-Transmitted Diseases, conception and birth control. "Learning About Pleasure" investigates home videos about heterosexual sex such as the Better Sex Video Series (1992) and Couples (1994). Attention also turns here to specialized productions on issues such as sex for older persons. Selfloving (1991) and Solo Male Ecstasy: The Art of Self Pleasure (1996) are discussed as key videos, respectively about female and male masturbation.

Throughout this compendium, Eberwein weaves his discussion around several original screen representations of sexuality. The film, TNT (The Naked Truth) (1924) contained animated drawings of menstruation and the womb and was shown to a mass audience. The earliest film demonstrating condom use (on a metal rod) was Sex Hygiene (1941). High school educational films, Free (1970) and Achieving Sexual Maturity (1973), respectively showed explicit photo-realistic scenes of (heterosexual) intercourse and masturbation by females and males, while ten years earlier such content could only appear in drawings. "Detailed information about the relation of the clitoris to female pleasure [did] not appear in sex education videos until the 1980s" (112) while the film, The Body Human: The Facts For Boys (1980) showed an erect penis, then a shot of "sperm" (although I think he means "semen") coming from a flaccid penis (129). How? Bizarre!

Like the films from which they’ve been selected, the stills used as illustrations in Sex Ed contain images and captions ranging from the perversely sublime to the humorously misinformative. Captions include, "A typical microscopic shot of syphilis" (28) and "How venereal disease germs travel through the body" (72). The latter describes a rather imaginative image from Sex Hygiene (1942, Navy Version) showing white lines radiating like electrical currents from around a male’s genitals and through the lower torso of his body. The rather fetishistic shot from The Birth of a Baby (1938) shows a male doctor attired in black pants and waistcoat under what looks like a white dinner jacket, holding a metal dildo-like object near the concealed nether regions of the mother-to-be (61).

While fascinating words appear in Sex Ed, some of the terminology and syntax is clumsy, and there are gender imbalances in the scope of the book that remain unexplained. Terms such as "micro cinematographic photography" (8) might have been placed in the index alongside "stereomotorgraph". While the discussion of one film mentions "the shot of an actual baby emerging from the womb" (110) perhaps "vagina" or "vulva" would be more fitting than "womb." It is noted that the film, The Birth of a Baby (1938), "actually shows the doctor delivering the baby," while "the shots [from the film] in [Life] magazine of the birth provoked the greatest concern" (61). But, why? Did they show vulvar detail or not? Considering current debates over the banning and ‘unbanning’ of contemporary films such as Romance (which includes a full-screen shot of a baby emerging from a vagina), such details are of historio-political significance and should be clarified. The clitoris and penis are discussed in Sex Ed at times, but not indexed for reference. Several images of male genitalia from sex educational films have been selected as illustrations, but none of female genitalia appear. Why not explain why?

Eberwein’s most provocative insights come through his exploration of what he terms "the thematizing of vision and the dramatization of conditions of reception" (4). Since the appearance of Damaged Goods (1914), "films and videos increasingly narrativize the act of medical, scientific and pedagogic vision." Early sex education films simply portrayed what could be observed in the clinic, while "[o]ver time, scenes within the clinic were replaced by scenes in which characters watched a film conveying clinical information" (5). This watching-of-a-film-of-others-watching-a-film approach further legitimized both the medical gaze and the audience’s reception. The in-house viewers became influenced by the very portrayal of the reactions of the audience observed on the screen. Because the immediate spectacle of these human interactions outweighed any complicated assessment of the context in which the drama had been constructed, these "films and videos about sex and sexuality [had] the effect of riveting attention on the visible manifestation of the body in a way that [made] the operation of invisible ideology all the more powerful" (6).

Throughout Sex Ed, Eberwein uncovers much of this ideology. He pays significant attention to contemporary feminist and anti-racist perspectives on screen representations of women and African-Americans, although uneven attention is afforded to queer issues. He explains how females became typified in early films as the "dirty woman" in films about blacks, and the "nice girl" and the "prostitute" in other films, such that almost all women in pre-1950s sex education films were seen as potential carriers of VD. How African-American men have typically been hyper-sexualised through racist portrayals of their "primitive drives" (187-8) is also shown. Even in the recent sex instruction video, Ebony Erotica (1995), the black actors are described as "performers," while those who appear in white sex guides are referred to as "couples" or "people" (204). However, in his otherwise-comprehensive analysis, Eberwein mentions (the albeit less commonly available) queer screen productions and the lesbian and gay characters they and other films and videos contain, only in passing. While not part of a specific aim, he has nevertheless only scraped the surface of the heterocentric (and frequently homophobic) ideology that pervades most sex educational films and videos of the twentieth century.

The important question of what it means when ostensibly heterosexual men watch explicit films showing other men’s sexualized bodies is left open to question. The photographic artwork on the cover of Sex Ed shows a group of male soldiers watching John Ford’s film, Sex Hygiene (1941). Eberwein discusses the possible implications on (heterosexual) male viewers of Sex Hygiene (with its images of a man inserting argyrol into his penis) in terms of the shock value registered by the soldiers when watching shots of diseased male genitals. And from here, important points are raised about the representation of male bodies and their sexual parts. While mentioning a groundbreaking study of damaged penises in fiction, he declares that, "as far as I have been able to determine, no one has explored the significance of the visual representation of the diseased penis" (81). Anyone interested in following that up? We could just as easily ask: how and why was such homosocial male spectatorship of diseased male bodies constructed and privileged, if not made mandatory for these soldiers? Is the framework of desire in this case actually constructed against the possibility of (same sex) desire? While images of diseased penises were prescribed for soldiers in World War II, what of the proscribing of images of aroused healthy ones in underground pornographic gay films of the same period which provided (homo)sexual instruction for lay gay men and sexologists such as Alfred Kinsey?

Drawing on Michel Foucault’s argument in The History of Sexuality that the scientia sexualis functioned largely as (and in lieu of) an ars erotica in modern Western culture, Eberwein notes in his introduction that "[erotic] pleasure is [found] not in the act of sex itself, but in the analysis of sex" (8). In his last chapter he suggests that during the 1990s there was a move from a scientia sexualis to an ars amore, as evidenced by scenarios in recent sex education videos which teach how to achieve affectionate and orgasmic (heterosexual) pleasure rather than just basic reproductive anatomical mechanics. Despite his claim that these home videos reflect a new ars amore, many (if not most) contemporary screen productions that deal with sexuality—while not falling under the rubric of "sex education"—continue to serve as vehicles for the transmission of misogynist, racist and homophobic propaganda. Through his candid analysis, Eberwein has exposed these ideologies that framed the production and reception of desire in earlier sex instruction films. His inspiring pornotopian text itself operates as part of the (post)modern scientia sexualis and should provide the critical reader (and viewer) with great pleasure.


Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire. By Robert Eberwein. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999. ISBN: 0-8135-2637-x.

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2000, 2006 © Simon Astley Scholfield