If this year’s Superbowl halftime show teaches us anything, it’s that the media loves nudity. But if that “nipple guard” had been guarding a Yale student’s breast, it would probably have generated only slightly less buzz. As we learned back in 2000, when the Yale skin-flick “The StaXXX” drew a host of international press outlets to New Haven, Ivy League booty sells.
Now H Bomb, a student-run magazine that would feature nude pictures of Harvard undergrads as well as articles about issues of sexuality, has set off a new media frenzy and a storm of controversy about a university administration’s role in student nudity. But H Bomb is by no means the first controversial display of nudity in the world of higher education. As students become more comfortable with displaying nudity, universities must decide to what extent they will allow this form of personal expression to be associated with the institutions where it occurs.
Inspired by a similar publication at Vassar College, Harvard sophomore Katharina Baldegg and junior Camilla Hrdy proposed their idea for H Bomb in early December 2003. On Feb. 11, Harvard’s Committee on College Life (CCL) — a committee composed of students, faculty and administrators — approved the publication in a 14-0 vote with two abstentions. The only restrictions, based on the university’s liability, were that models must be over the age of 18 and that student could not take photos inside of Harvard buildings.
But in the following days, after the Harvard Crimson ran a headline declaring H Bomb a “porn magazine” and the story was picked up by both national and international news outlets, the committee began to reconsider its decision. According to a recently issued official statement on the part of Harvard, the university will not provide any funding for the magazine, and the committee will reexamine the proposal with Baldegg and Hrdy. The statement attributed the initial approval of H Bomb to “much misunderstanding” about the nature of the magazine’s content.
As far as nudity off the page is concerned, Harvard’s only regular naked event is the Primal Scream, a mid-finals nude expression of Howard Dean-level angst. But the magazine is not without national precedent. Vassar’s Squirm magazine, a student-run erotica magazine, has been published annually since 1999. Running around 60 pages each issue, Squirm is a combination of sexually themed photos, artwork and written work.
Distributed only on-campus, Squirm had not received significant media attention. But in the wake of the H Bomb controversy, every news story has mentioned the Vassar publication as the inspiration for the Harvard magazine. Per Henningsgaard, a Vassar senior and the layout and design editor for Squirm, said the Vassar administration has always been supportive of the magazine and only increased their support in light of recent exposure.
“The administration at Vassar has been extremely supportive,” Henningsgaard said. “It’s really nice to see them continue to be supportive in these trying times when there is this media frenzy … Now that Vassar’s name has been nationally associated with the magazine, we continue to have very good relations with the college.”
Jeff Kosmacher, director of media relations at Vassar, emphasized that all student organizations, including Squirm, are chartered through a rigorous application process that operates entirely through the Vassar Student Association.
“We really entrust the students with conducting what they’ve established to ensure that student organizations uphold their commitments,” Kosmacher said. “Provided that the organization maintains its credibility and its purposes under the student government, we support it.”
Henningsgaard said it was “flattering” to have other students copy Squirm’s example, also citing Swarthmore College’s attempt at an erotica magazine, Unmentionables. Published only once, in 2001, Unmentionables followed Squirm’s suit by featuring articles about sex as well as photos.
Swarthmore senior David Berger, who was a freshman when the magazine came out, said the publication of the magazine had not been controversial on campus. The only reason the magazine did not continue being published was that the founder was a senior and graduated, Berger said.
While neither Squirm nor Unmentionables attracted much media scrutiny until H Bomb hit the scene, Wesleyan University has already dealt with the attention that even rumors of nudity can bring.
About four years ago, The New York Times ran a story about Wesleyan’s “Naked Dorm,” alleging that one of the residential dorms — West College — was “clothing-optional.” David Pesci, director of media relations for Wesleyan, said there was no policy, either official or unofficial, saying that nudity was okay. Although Wesleyan asked for –Êand received — corrections and retractions, the fabled “Naked Dorm” still comes up whenever the issue of nudity and college comes up.
“It’s kind of a hassle for us … especially because it’s not true,” Pesci said. “In terms of the university’s overall reputation, when things like this get repeated, it certainly can’t help, but I don’t think it makes people shy away or take us less seriously.”
At Yale, nudity comes in all forms, largely uncensored. Although both Exotic Erotic and Pierson Inferno have been recently canceled, masters of both colleges attributed the cancellations to safety issues, not indecent exposure. And rumors continue to fly about current members of the administration having been members of the frequently clothing-optional Pundits while they were undergrads at Yale.
It would seem that if you want to be naked at Yale, you can find somewhere to do it and someone else who wants to be naked, too. Will Barley ’05 said he guesses he’s been to about six naked parties at Yale and has never thought about the Yale administration interfering in his unclothed fun.
“I’ve actually never heard of anyone administrative talk about a naked party,” Barley said. “I doubt that they care at all … I bet some of them have been to a couple.”
Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said Yale does not interfere in students’ extracurricular nudity, such as streaking or naked parties.
“We don’t have policies about any of these things,” Trachtenberg said.
For Yale, already known as a relatively liberal campus concerning many acts of questionable legality, nudity is at most a small concern. In fact, professor William Summers, currently teaching a seminar called “Gender, Science and Sexuality”, said nudity is a relatively safe way for students to explore rebellious behavior in college.
“Certainly nudity is one of the more innocuous forms of transgressive behavior,” Summers said. “Nudity has a lot of sexual references, but it’s a safe sexuality.”
Despite the limited danger of nudity, however, Summers said he doubted Yale would officially support an erotic magazine along the lines of the proposed Harvard publication.
“Yale is very protective about the use of the Yale name,” Summers said. “They have an interest in using the name in a way that won’t compromise the goals of the university.”
While Trachtenberg would not comment on H Bomb itself, she said Yale does not freely give out its name.
“Yale has policies about the use of the Yale name,” Trachtenberg said.
Although Harvard has yet to resolve the future of H Bomb, Baldegg and Hrdy released a statement saying they will continue negotiations with CCL. But the magazine’s debut, originally scheduled for Harvard’s May commencement ceremonies, may need to be pushed back.
Back at Yale, Elis have yet to make any moves to counter Harvard’s recent (and sensational) romp with nudity. Dina Solomon ’04 said she thought the situation was funny because of the role reversal in the images of Yale and its rival to the North.
“I think it’s amusing because you think of Harvard as these really straight-laced people who don’t have any fun and Yale’s the university that does all these weird things,” Solomon said.
Is that a challenge?