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.