a bird and a bottle

Exposed on Campus
March 5, 2007, 5:01 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, is our children learning?, news, sexuality

I had just finished reading yesterday’s NYT Mag article about college porn and was about to write this post when I saw Jill’s post on the same article. So first I’ll just say, yeah, what she said.

I’ll also say this: In addition to the concerns Jill raises about the mainstreaming of pornography and the fact that objectifying men too does not lessen the harmful effects of porn on women, the article raises some issues for me.

First, the objectification of women in pornography (which these magazines on the whole are) is not only harmful to women as a whole (I am not going to go here into theories on why that is, but if you are curious you can ask specific questions in comments or read some Catharine MacKinnon. I don’t endorse her censorship approach to porn, but I do think she’s got it right that porn is harmful), but porn also hurts women at a micro, individual level. The publisher of Boston University’s magazine, Boink, which describes itself as sex-positive and is described in the Times article as “unblushingly lewd,” says that she doesn’t think her nude modeling stint in the pages of her magazine will cause any trouble for her in her search for jobs. She might be right. But she might not be. Porn can be insidious, and though she might not get turned down for a job “because she posed nude,” it could very well be a negative factor when a potential employer evaluates her candidacy. And while I disagree with the premise that a more casual sexuality can harm women’s later relationships, I do think that society assumes certain things about women who pose nude that could cause trouble in those women’s dating lives. Take, for example, this story from the Times article:

At one of Boink’s parties, Aaron Foster, the cover model from the third issue, met a female model, Anna Lee, signing copies of the second issue of the magazine, in which she appeared wearing only body paint. They connected again on MySpace and had what he described as “a whirlwind thing,” but then he stopped calling her. “It was a weird situation,” he said. “She’s a porn girl, so … I dunno. I assumed she wasn’t really looking for much from me. I’m a guy. There’s a lot less stigma attached to it. A chick, people think ‘slutty,’ whereas a dude gets associated with male bravado.”

Now a junior, Lee became audibly distressed when asked about her relationship with Foster. “That’s not why he told me he broke up with me,” she said. “The reason we split up is because Aaron was in a time in his life when he didn’t want to have a relationship.” As for her being a “porn girl,” Lee said: “It was a mutual thing. I didn’t know what to think of him either.” About her dealings with Boink, she expressed equally mixed feelings. “It really just started out as a joke. I think it’s good to be proud of your body, especially when you’re younger and stuff, as long as it’s tasteful. Just something to add to the résumé. I thought the body-painting spread was really creative. I wanted people to say, ‘That’s really cool and artistic and different.’ ” But she wasn’t pleased that her image was associated with some other, more explicit shots. “In my issue there’s this guy who posed, and he’s masturbating in the picture. It’s really awkward. I’m like: Wow. That was pretty disgusting.”

While I disagree with her that someone masturbating is disgusting, I do think it’s clear that posing for a magazine like this as a teenager can have unexpected and negative ramifications. None of this is to say that teenage women should not have the agency to decide to pose, should they want to. It is just to say that college porn is not likely to be a neutral force on campuses.

The fact that even soft core college porn (or especially college porn) runs the risk of objectifying women’s bodies (and men’s too) is apparent in one of the comments Ming Vandenburg, the editor of Harvard’s saucy H-Bomb magazine (a scientist who is sure to point out that she is not a feminist) makes while describing the magazine under her tenure. She says that she thinks all nude photos should be anonymous. Sure, because what better way to make sure that people are *only* looking at breasts or a vagina or a penis than by obscuring that person’s identity and face completely?

All of this said, I don’t think we should censor pornography generally — or on college campuses. And I think it is both wonderful and important that colleges are making space for an open non-judgmental discussion of sexuality. It’s also good that these magazines provide a space for students to educate each other on safe sex. I just wish it didn’t have to be squished between photos of naked women and masturbating men.


10 Comments so far
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The ups and down of pornography are a little familiar and less specific to this environment – even if still applicable – that your concluding comment:

“And I think it is both wonderful and important that colleges are making space for an open non-judgmental discussion of sexuality.”

It seems to me that this is the core issue at play here. I am not so sure how open and non-judgmental these spaces are, but I am intrigued by the possibility. Can you say more on this front? Any college students out there want to comment?

Comment by professorplum

I guess what I am trying to say is this: I think that to create a space that normalizes sexuality and talking about sexuality (and sex itself) is a good thing. And to talk about it seriously, not in a sex and the city type way (though the editors of these magazines acknowledge that a lot of the writing they receive is inspired by Carrie Bradshaw). And the truth is that the representations of the body in these magazines are often somewhat original or even subversive — a man masturbating is not often found in a magazine that also includes naked women (though as the article notes, the editors admit that this hurts sales). But that doesn’t change the fact that the magazines still sell because of women’s naked (or mostly naked) bodies, eroticized, simulating sex, objectified. I wonder what the readership looks like. I’m guessing it’s mostly male and mostly straight despite the interesting twists.

Comment by bean

Full author disclosure: I am still sorting out my own beliefs about pornography. I believe that it can be harmful in its modeling of sexuality and submission. But I am not of the MacKinnon school (though I do mention her in the post, because she gives the best explication for the view that porn is harmful). There’s the other sex-worker feminist side, too, that is opposed to MacKinnon’s radical feminism. Take this excerpt from Eva Pendleton’s Love for Sale:

Unlike radical feminists, who dream of eradicating prostitution and pornography in order to “liberate” women from sexual exploitation, sex-worker feminists recognize that pornographic representation is neither wholly exploitative of women’s sexuality nor an instruction manual for the patriarchy.

Just more food for thought.

Comment by bean

Well, from what I know of porn/rape research, there’s just no link, in either direction.

But, more on topic, I suppose a key reason behind the bias against porn stars is the idea that sex and especially sex work is something special, to be distinguished from all other forms of recreation or work. Combine that with an unhealthy level of puritanism and you get a culture that thinks that a prostitute or a porn model is forever dirty just like a thief is forever a criminal.

Comment by Alon Levy

I think there are some studies showing a link between porn and rape (a 1984 study by Silbert & Pines for example). And there is definitely work on the connection between streetwalking (as a subset of prostitution) and rape. The research has been criticized for its methods, so who knows how reliable it is. But the point is that it is out there. As is, I’m sure, research pointing the other way.

In terms of why sex work is thought of as “special,” I think that’s exactly right. As much as some pro-prostitution groups, like COYOTE (http://www.bayswan.org/COYOTE.html), claim that prostitution is just like any other profession, people haven’t bought into that idea. I agree that it’s due in part to our puritanism which has been cemented by portrayals in pop culture (Pretty Woman aside).

Comment by bean

The studies linking pornography to rape are few and inconclusive. More conclusive are studies that link sexual abuse during childhood to prostitution. For subjects with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder, a dissociative condition stemming from early childhood abuse), the correlation between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution runs as high as 90%. Another detail: The longer the abuse takes place during childhood, the more severe is the underlying disorder.

Comment by Swampcracker

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While I respect your right to your opinion I very much disagree. Societies ignorance about porn and those who are in it’s works are the sole cause for the human reflection of those who work in them. This entire line of it damages woman and men is a load of crap. Life is about experience and one must not hide nor limit that experience. First of all employers who turn down someone based on their part in porn is not a worth while employer. In addition a great number of states today have made that an illegal act. My wife has been in college porn and standard porn. She is very well educated, a respected member of our community, a great mother, friend, daughter, leader, big sister, and all around damn good person. I take issue with anyone who says different. :\

Comment by Justin

Justin, to be clear — I am not at all impugning the men and women who are in porn (and would never ever say that your wife is not a damn good person). What I am saying is that it’s possible that porn could have negative systemic effects. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, as I’ve tried to make clear in my post and my comments here. But I do think it’s not 100% clear cut. But, again, what *is* 100% clear is that *I* would not judge anyone based on their participation in porn; I am just concerned that some might.

Comment by bean

[…] Katie Kish on Mar.07, 2007, under Body Image, Feminism I was reading bean’s pornography post again with the intent of writing about the negative and positive effects that pornography has on a […]

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