For Sex Week at Yale, pullout method fails

On Saturday night, as part of a pornography-themed day, Sex Week at Yale held a porn screening in the Law School auditorium. The featured pornography was a series of trailer-type clips, chosen by director Paul Thomas from among his own films. The Sex Week team, however, didn’t preview all the footage Thomas chose. This is why, partway through the showing, graphic rape fantasies began to play onscreen.

Rape fantasies, bondage, the piercing of a woman’s nipples and the labeling of a woman as a “slut” who “deserved” violent sexual degradation — this was some of the footage played at one of Sex Week’s final events. Its inclusion, from the Sex Week organizers’ point of view, was an embarrassing mistake, and a potential public relationns disaster.

So damage control came quickly. After a panicked powwow out in the hall, the Sex Week organizers stopped the screening and moved directly into the scheduled Q & A session. The next day, one Sex Week organizer asked to meet with the Women’s Center board to explain how it could be that rape pornography was shown as part of the program. He said there would be a panel discussion on Monday night led by the Sex Week team, which would address those shocked by the screening. He apologized, saying the Sex Week team had had a tiring week — if the organizers had vetted the film, they would never have allowed the rape scenes to be played.

I could only think that this Sex Week organizer had completely missed the point.

The lesson of the Sex Week pornography screening is not that the Sex Week organizers should have edited out the rape footage. The lesson is that editing jobs are necessary to make pornography — even the “high quality,” “mainstream” pornography touted by Vivid Entertainment — look inoffensive.

Better minds (read: Dworkin, MacKinnon) have addressed the far-reaching harm caused by the porn industry and the dubious empowerment that porn stars are claimed to, or claim to, attain. The conversation that we should be having at Yale is one that Sex Week failed to frame for us: how pornography and pornographic cultural products affect the way we have sex.

Debates involving porn stars and Q & A sessions with porn directors are not good ways to start this conversation. Besides, the question of “porn or no porn” is a fallacious one. Pornography is inevitable; to ban it is “censorship.” What we need to understand is the scope of pornography’s influence. Porn isn’t just what teenage boys watch in locked bedrooms (or, in this enlightened age, what lots of people watch on YouPorn.com). Porn and the sexual expectations it propagates — those of big penises and big breasts, violent intercourse, massive orgasms and so forth — infiltrate our culture, and our sex lives.

The overwhelming amount of Sex Week that was devoted to pornography created a false equivalence between porn and sex. Here’s the thing: Porn is not sex.

Sex Week glamorized pornography. Advertised via e-mail to all Yale students (subject line: “Day O’ Porn”), Saturday’s screening was followed by the Sex Week at Yale dance party, where (said the e-mail) you’d “[d]ress as a pornstar, party like a pornstar, with the porn stars.” The e-mail promised free Vivid DVDs and the chance (for “40 Lucky Yalies”) to pre-game with the “Vivid Girls.” Suddenly, you were invited into a context sexier than your own — the glamorous world of porn stars, who definitely have better sex than you do.

Pornography decontextualizes sex. Drawing the line between pornography and “racy” films with “sexy” content involves this realization: that in porn, the act of sex — including, but not limited to, intercourse — is translated into an alternate reality, or a distorted one. In porn, sex is not a normal, healthy part of normal, healthy lives; it’s fetishized, exaggerated or embellished. Porn isn’t honest. We need to talk honestly about it: It hurts women.

Presca Ahn is a junior in Branford College. She is the Amy Rossborough Fellowship Coordinator of the Yale Women’s Center.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    BUT WHAT ABOUT FREE SPEECH???

    WHAT ABOUT FREE SPEECH???

    love chase xxx

  • '73 Old Blue

    Ms. Ahn,
    Your essay reads as if you didn't notice the debate on porn reported on in yesterday YDN. Perhaps you did and just didn't take it seriously given the participants. OK, that's fair, but you ought to acknowledge that a debate was held as part of the "festivities". If the programs presented during the week did not suit your organization's taste, why didn't you put together some counter-events? If you did and it escaped my attention, I apologize.

    By the way, citing Dworkin and Mackinnon as authorities doesn't much help your argument to anyone but the truly devoted anti-porn folks, and those folks don't need convincing on a position they already hold.

  • Carolina C.

    Loved the article Presca! Congratulations

  • PP, Pierson '90

    Walk around campus and read some of the inscriptions at Woolsey and Dwight Halls. Perhaps your heart and your conscience will be softened and you will weep over this disgrace and affront to Yale and the many people who sacrificed and gave so much, with a vision that Yale would serve as a light to the nations. Shame.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Ahn, I did like your article, but found your last statement to be lacking something important. Pornography doesn't just hurt women, it hurts men too.

  • Anonymous

    I never thought I'd agree with something written by the Women's center, but that day has finally arrived.

    I was at the event as well, and I can tell you that I went hoping to see some sort of dare I say academic or social discussion/question and answer session with these representatives from the Porn Industry, but the reality of the event was that it was little more than a 2 hour long session of catcalls and flirting.

  • Anonymous

    The "better minds" you cite are remembered mostly for inciting a debate, not concluding it definitively. My sense of the critical response to Mackinnon and Dworkin's work is that their claim of widespread damage caused by pornography was inconclusive at best and outright erroneous at worst.

    In the several generations of scholarship that followed on to their work, we see both a general lack of agreement on what relationship porn has to violence, and an even greater and more significant disagreement about the structure, function and intents of pornography at the most basic levels.

    It is a severe misrepresentation to pretend that there is any sort of critical consensus on these questions.

    It also further damages your sweeping generalizations about pornography to assert that it (formally, you seem to suggest) "hurts women." I eagerly await the arguments for the case that gay male pornographies hurt women.

    Finally, this assertion that porn "decontextualizes" sex is a dangerously normative one. One could fairly say that pornography is a sexual context, but your points about a kind of fetishism are misinformed. Porn is fiction, yes, but we don't run around condemning J.R.R Tolkien for misrepresenting the geography of the world, do we?

    Lastly, the reactionary posters crying about how discussion of pornography is a shame to Yale need to get out of the year 1950. You're also likely the ones lamenting how young girls dress today and how overtly sexual American culture is. A lot of people have been trying to understand these phenomena for several decades now, and as a result, there's a considerable volume of academic discourse about pornographies throughout history. Whether Sex Week fully participates in that emerging intellectual tradition is another question altogether, but to act as though these issues aren't without their own merit is a kind of ignorance that is genuinely shameful to this University.

  • A.C.

    This is just another instance of people attacking the supposed "inspiration" for bad behavior (in this case, the degradation of women, I suppose) instead of attacking the people who actually act that way. Not to mention that it completely ignores that the majority of people (yes, people -- men and women) enjoy pornography in a completely innocuous (at worst), enriching (at best) way.

    Arguing against pornography because some people get the wrong idea and then treat their partners like crap in bed is akin to arguing against violent movies because they may make some idiot want to grab a knife and stab people to death. So unless you suggest that we run the Care Bears on every channel 24/7, how about we just hold people accountable for their actions instead of launching a blanket attack on something that most of us enjoy without any deep, negative psychological repercussions?

  • Daniel13

    beauty hath deceived thee, and lust hath perverted thy heart

  • Matthew5

    whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart

    It was rather interesting for me as a Christian to awake to the YDN and find myself in agreement with the YWC

  • A.C.

    "It was rather interesting for me as a Christian to awake to the YDN and find myself in agreement with the YWC"

    Thanks a lot, #10. We've been waiting a long time for one of you guys to admit that Christians are anti-woman.

  • Anonymous

    What a messed up society America is.
    Children have access to violent and indecent movies; you allow them from tender ages to glorify in violent video games.
    And then you wonder about the shootings, indiscriminate killings, rapes.
    Perhaps, it is time to go back to Care Bears.
    One request please- forget globalization and keep this decadence to yourself.
    Free Speech indeed!

  • Anonymous

    If anything the YWC is PRO-woman. They do a lot for women, but that frat incident was the DUMBEST thing they ever did in terms of reaction! The other issues such as female faculty and porn are definitely relevant to women! Keep talking about issues like this YWC, it'll increase your credibility! As a woman, porn does degrade women and turn them into nothing more than sexual objects for male pleasure! Women deserve more respect!

  • Matthew5

    To A.C.-

    I am quite pro-woman. I have instead found the Women's Center to be anti-woman. Keep supporting abortion- all it does is sex-select girls for abortions.

    I also appreciate you taking the time to make a negative comment at a time when I was ready, as a Christian, to agree with you.

    Typical….

  • Anonymous

    Clarification: the writer's on the YWC board but this op-ed is only signed by her, not anyone else in the YWC. Let's not generalize.

  • disappointed

    Porn is only degrading to women in the minds of men who hate women no matter what. I rather like porn. What I don't understand, is why violent pornography is any more "degrading" than vanilla porn. between 5-10% of people occasionally engage in BDSM - including 11% of women. 17% of women had tried bondage in a 1983 study (Lowe). In general, BDSM pornography is even more respectfully produced than regular porn, as the directors have to have the full and willing consent of all participants. Boundaries and limits belong to the submissive, in this case the female. I'm disappointed that the Women's Center is so close-minded and anti-sex as to alienate so many women - you don't see the center calling any other group's desires deviant and degrading, not since lesbians in the 70s. why us? as a strong, submissive female, i think you all do more than anyone to undermine the happiness, self-esteem, and mutual respect of women in the BDSM community than anyone else - our dom partners sustain us, not hold us down.
    also, to the Christians: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and Song of Solomon 1:2-10, 5: 2-8

  • A.C.

    Matthew5 --

    I won't even try to argue with your claim that being pro-life is a "pro-woman" position. If you're brainwashed enough to believe that, I'm afraid you're already too far gone.

    I just want to know, what does you being a Christian have to do with agreeing with me? And when, exactly, were you going to agree with me? I'm one of those lust and porn loving atheists who actually believes we shouldn't get our moral code from an invisible man in the sky. Although, if you're going to quote that moral code, interpret it right:

    "whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart" deals with, as it very clearly states, *adultery*. Seeing as how most of us Yalies are unmarried, I'll assume you're fine with us watching porn and lusting all we want.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. That's to the article. And more.

    And in response to Comment #7: Words, and oh how great they sound. But lacking in the substance of reality or truth. This is a reason why there are so many from our "Ivy League" institutions who may well spend their whole lives very pleased with themselves but never figuring out or doing a substantial thing.

    And Free Speech? Free Speech means I can say Nigger, or faggot from the lectern, that I can show in the classroom anti-semitic films, free speech means I can insinuate that women are inferior and not lose my job, that blacks are a lesser race and be congratulated on my honesty; that I can teach you the 'truth' about neenos and krauts. That I can teach the Bible, or Koran, or Talmud, or Mein Kampf from the classroom as truth. That child-porn, voluntary or otherwise, is a 'persuasion,' and that it's ok to spread it all that I can think up and decide I believe in, everywhere without limits.
    That's free speech. But we don't have it here. And I'm not so sure that we want it, not all of it. I'm not sure that's freedom.
    And since we all seem to 'believe in' so much about peoples' right to sexuality, to BDSM, to equality, to scientific studies, and to 'enlightenment' by taking the cover off everything around us to expose all it's entrails and revel in it 'responsibly.' And proselytize whatever else backs what we want to do, whether people around us agree with it or not, let me just say that I believe that pornography does damage, to relationships, and to individuals, and will hurt everywhere it is touched.

    And not only that, I'm going to try to help others not by 'hurt' by it as well. Because they are my business, just as my AIDS suffering friends in Africa or the sub-poverty urban crack addicts around the country. And that's because I believe too that chronic hunger isn't good, that AIDS hurts, and that pornography isn't good and does damage, perhaps worse that either hunger or disease.
    And I believe that "free speech" hasn't been the highest goal for either the 'left' or the 'right' for a long time. And I think that's ok.

  • A.C.

    "pornography isn't good and does damage, perhaps worse that either hunger or disease."

    Wow. I mean, that's all I have to say, right? Really, forgive me for not engaging every single inane point you make but, what's the point of arguing with someone who would make the above statement and seriously compare the "evils" of pornography to AIDS?

    Wow.

  • disappointed

    Pornography is a worse evil than famine or disease? Really? Because it allows people sexual fulfillment? Because it (horror of horrors) depicts sex? Pornography is as old as depiction itself. Since pictures, since words, there has been porn. Yes, the volume of pornography poses a danger. I would agree with that. In a decadent society, in any society, some people don't know when to stop (see also alcohol, gambling, and narcotics). I believe this is true. Does this mean that alcohol, card games, prescription medication, are horrible evils that should be banned from the earth? Some would say yes, prevailing wisdom says no, a thousand times no. Porn is only different because it's sex, not merely nurturing, soft, tender sex, but sex in all of its permutations and varieties.
    A vanishingly small number of men do not engage in viewing or mentally constructing pornography. If porn really made - MADE - men into vicious, woman-subjugating brutes, wouldn't they all be that way? Porn creates expectations, yes, but it also allows a valuable escape. Aside from the content of this particular pornography, its very existence reaffirms that the physical creation of life and of intimacy is important, even if you never see it happen.
    I'm not an avid consumer of porn, but I do believe in its importance in an organized society.
    I don't care what anyone else is doing, I will defend my speech, your speech, and anyone else's speech. As speech is eaten away, our soul, our anima, dies.

    p.s. Rolf - If you're going to mock someone else for writing "empty words", make sure you write something more weighty than they did. Otherwise, you come off as preachy, naive, ill-informed, and, frankly, bigoted against people who actually believe in the good and life-affirming qualities of sex. If I can't slam any other group, you certainly can't slam them. Remember, you didn't want freedom of speech.

  • Rudy

    Just a reminder on free speech. The term just means that GOVERNMENT cannot restrict or punish speech. Imus had no first amendment right to his job. Whether you agree he should have been fired or not, his company had the right to fire him for his speech. Also, a private university has the right to enact restrictive speech codes, resulting in the possible irony that students and faculty at a state university may have more rights than someone at a private university. Take for example Johns Hopkins vs. University of Maryland -- see, http://www.thefire.org/index.php/schools/2493

  • A.C.

    The *term* "free speech" doesn't mean that the government cannot restrict or punish speech. The constitutional protection of free speech means that.

    "Free speech" is a value, one that most of us would consider a positive one, particularly for places like universities which should always embrace the diversity of ideas and encourage discussion and dissent.

  • Rocco

    All movies are larger than life, not just porn.

  • Darklady

    What's sad is that even at an excellent college like Yale, there doesn't seem to be an interest in a genuine discussion of pornography and the larger world of sexuality. Instead of honest investigation, we're encouraged by this editorial to blindly swallow the "It hurts women" argument. Well, I'm a woman and I refute that claim. I don't need sex scared academics like Andrea Dworkin doing my thinking about porn and sex because I have a fully capable brain of my own. I've been watching porn steadily for a decade as a professional reviewer and while I've seen stuff that doesn't appeal to me, I always remember that porn is not "real" sex; it's fantasy brought to life by real people. Some of the sex I see, I try at home -- with great results. If we're afraid of what we truly desire, then perhaps the focus should be on why we fantasize about things that are transgressive -- and why some of us enjoy manifesting those fantasies in our own lives. Frankly, I'm sick of the "Men are sex pigs and women are sex victims" line of argumentation. Sexuality is complex and no amount of white washing by the Far Right or the Far Left will change that. Instead of trying to force mutually consenting adults to only film what the timid find acceptable, I think we'd be better served by encouraging honest and open discussion of sexuality, which would allow us to place pornography -- and many other issues -- within a larger context. As it is now, it reflects our humanity supposedly polite society would rather censor and criticize than rise to porn's challenge. Part of pornography's sin is that it's so honest… and we're not raised to be honest, especially about sex.

  • Harper Jean Tobin

    Without having been privy to the whole affair, I suspect Ms. Ahn is right to criticize the Sex Week organizers for their lack of preparation/quality control and lame excuses. At least they could have a) warned attendees that the material shown would feature such strong material, and b) ensured that their presentation did not over-represent the more kinky and faux-violent niches of porn, so as to feed gross over-generalizations like, well, Ms. Ahn's. On the other hand, one should keep in mind the depictions that so alarmed Ahn are also ways that mature, consenting women and men sometimes do sex in real life.

    As to her more general critique, Ms. Ahn begs a great many definitional questions about what is "normal," "healthy," "exaggerated," "fetishized" or "embellished" sex, the role of art and film (not always to present things just as they are, but also to explore our fantasies and obsessions), and most of all what is "porn." There is a great deal not to like about the porn industry, but none of it will be changed by attacking the explicit (and sometimes, inevitably, commercialized) depiction of sex as such.