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Whitney Strub: Stop fighting yesterday's porn wars

Reading UW Regent Bob Atwell’s recent op-ed about pornography, I had to pause and rub my eyes to make sure we had not returned to the 1880s.

Claiming that “Most of us don’t need science to know how devastating pornography is to the mental, physical and social health of those enslaved by it,” Atwell continued, “We can see it in the sad and empty eyes of millions of boys and young men whose zest for life is being sucked into their smartphones.”

As a historian of pornography and proud University of Wisconsin-La Crosse graduate, I momentarily thought I was reading “Traps for the Young,” the manifesto by the Victorian anti-vice zealot Anthony Comstock, father of the 1873 federal obscenity law that limits the First Amendment to this day.

Describing youth exposed to porn, Comstock cataloged their “pale cheeks, lusterless and sunken eyes, [and] enervated body” that led, in his accounting, to sin, murder and damnation. If there had been smartphones in the 1880s, Comstock and Atwell would be indistinguishable.

I’m mystified and disappointed by the fallout surrounding Nina Hartley’s recent visit to UW-L.

I first learned to take pornography seriously at Murphy Library, as a high school student in the mid-’90s, browsing the stacks for scholarship on the British Romantic poets and coming across Linda Williams’ groundbreaking feminist book “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible.”

Later, as a UW-L undergraduate, I read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, once banned as pornographic and obscene, in an English course. In the history department, Professor Jodi Vandenberg-Daves generously let me pursue an independent study on feminist thought in which I read noted anti-porn activists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

I mention all of this because studying at UW-L prepared me to think seriously and critically about matters of sexuality and power.

Later, as a grad student in history, I returned to UW-L to look at an archival collection of material that Professor Dale Kendrick compiled on a 1977-78 local controversy over an anti-pornography ordinance.

When a group called Christian Family Renewal urged La Crosse to pass a broad anti-porn ordinance, the city council wisely refused. But the group used inflammatory and unsupported arguments linking smut to rape, much as Atwell insinuates without evidence a link between adult and child pornography. A direct referendum passed with 65 percent of the vote, with only the UW-L area preferring free speech to moral panic.

What came of the new ordinance? A failed obscenity case against Best Buy, the long-running downtown adult store (where I saw much porn in my youth and still maintained my zest for life). So instead, city prosecutors turned to Pure Pleasures Bookstore, La Crosse’s only gay-oriented adult store. In 1980, they won a conviction.

Battles over porn are never just about sex. They are always about ideology. Explicit heterosexuality was acceptable to La Crosse in 1980, but explicit homosexuality was not. It wasn’t the fact of the graphic sex, it was the type of sex that mattered.

And which ideologies do Regent Atwell and UW President Ray Cross reflect in their overwrought responses to Hatley’s visit?

Sadly, in addition to their retrograde Victorian attitudes toward sex, they also embody the spirit of a sexist male culture in which men determine women’s value by judging their bodies and sex lives.

Atwell’s description of Hartley as a “porn star too old to be much in demand” makes enormous, and demonstrably untrue, assumptions based on her age, and his reference to her “surrendered dignity” is a frankly misogynistic effort to shame her for her consensual sexual choices. This isn’t critique, it’s ogling. This is the world of the Clarence Thomases, Bill Clintons and Brett Kavanaughs, unbefitting of a UW regent.

In contrast, Nina Hartley has lectured at college campuses for decades, and made profound contributions to modern feminism. I’ve assigned her writing in my courses, and students have found it enlightening whether or not they agree with it.

Ultimately, there are not two sides to the porn debate, one pro and the other anti. Nina Hartley made clear that porn is not for everyone, nor are her sexual choices the only ones, and that critiquing porn is all right, as is enjoying it.

The two actual sides of the porn debate are those engaging in thoughtful, critical ways, and those reducing the topic to simplistic moralism. Hartley is a wonderful example of the former; Atwell and Cross unfortunate examples of the latter.

John Rosemond: Columnist responds to criticism

Reading Dr. Richard Strauss’ (Sunday Tribune) take on a recent column in which I highlight the bias in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ attempt to demonize spanking, I was reminded of philosopher Elbert Hubbard’s definition of the ad hominem argument: “If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.”

Instead of defending the AAP’s position or even critiquing mine, Dr. Strauss instead chooses to point out that I am a Christian, counsel from a biblical foundation, do not counsel with people who are involved with other counselors, do not accept third-party payment, believe in traditional child-rearing principles, and a reviewer for the Huffington Post did not like one of my books.

What any of that has to do with my research-based opinion concerning the AAP’s position paper is beyond me.

After this attempt at who-knows-what, Dr. Strauss calls for the Tribune to stop running my column. There’s a reason it is currently the longest-running syndicated column written continuously by one author, and it is not because I pander to the likes of Dr. Strauss.

To be clear: I have not and never will recommend spankings.

I do not believe they are essential to proper child discipline. The primary reason I don’t recommend them is because most parents who spank do so such that nothing of value is accomplished (but accomplishing nothing of value and causing harm are two different things).

Eric Frydenlund: Nature offers the equitable society we seek

Our dog Fargo is good at finding remnants in the woods. He brings them back with a perpetual smile on his face induced by the bone too wide for his mouth. We try to entice him to drop his prize with treats that by the look in his eye he judges not to be an equitable exchange. Like any aspiring predator, he’s proud of his prize.

The woods fill with the signs of life and death struggles. Coyotes prowl the hills for food above our house, interjecting a forlorn howl into the night sky when they sit down for a meal of some less fortunate creature. Smaller trees look barren of growth, having lost the battle for light to towering trees reaching for the sun. Graveyards of toppled trees, decomposing remains, and fallen leaves litter the forest floor with not so much as a grave marker for their ended lives.

Humans, of course, are no stranger in this battle for supremacy. Wars rage the world wide, with unspeakable atrocities that have little parallel in nature. Competition for primacy reigns in business, culture and sports. And oh yes, politics. Having survived our battles of the midterms, we return to our lairs to lick our wounds or admire our prizes.

Much of this we rationalize with the one-liner, “survival of the fittest!” the iconic platitude offered with an exclamation point by combatants to refute any dissent. We see media stars, sports icons and politicians celebrating their “survival” over their rivals with a dance in the end zone.

Except the originator of “survival of the fittest,” did not mean that we need to vanquish our opponents and dance on their graves to survive. Biologist Herbert Spencer coined the phrase after reading Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” using the term to describe Darwin’s concept of “natural selection,” the ability of a species to adapt to its environment.

Social Darwinists and societal combatants have stolen the phrase to justify take-no-prisoners politics, economics, and even racist policies, a more sinister interpretation that glorifies competition over cooperation and favors aggression over adaptation.

To be sure, competition is part of survival. Even Fargo, the gentlest of creatures, resorts to instincts when in pursuit of smaller critters and spares no leniency when, on rare occasion, he actually catches them.

However, adaptation through symbiotic relationships is more complex, and just as important.

The Northern Monkshood, a purple-colored member of the buttercup family native to the Driftless area, possesses a hood-shaped flower adopted for bumble bee pollination, a relationship benefiting both species.

Birds and squirrels find shelter in trees that in return use their occupants to distribute their seeds.

Farmers feed and shelter farm animals in exchange for food and raw materials for clothing.

Cooperation between species is beneficial to our well-being. Cooperation within our species is critical to our survival.

Author Don De Lillo, in his dystopian book, “Zero K,” about death and the violence of culture, turns to nature for a glimpse of hope. His protagonist observes a boy on a cross-town bus looking at the setting sun and “Finding the purist astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

Fargo and I feel the touch of earth and sun on our hike as the day in late fall approaches end. Fluorescent yellow leaves illuminate the woods, offering a bit of flamboyance to their death throes. Barren trees silhouetted against the horizon raise their limbs in praise. A quarter-faced moon looks down upon this tranquil scene. The open sky makes for a big room. Big enough for all of us.

The setting sun, rising moon and cathedraled sky offer a sanctuary to celebrate the day in transition, a place to escape the day’s turmoil and discover the equitable society we seek. Nature is indiscriminate in its application of competition and cooperation. Yet we have a choice. We might bury our pride rather than our bone, and choose wisely.

Tom Still: Gene-modified babies violate scientific ethics and process

MADISON, Wis. – Sadly, it was only a matter of time before a scientist somewhere outside the United States claimed to have created the world’s first genetically altered human babies.

That’s not because scientists in the United States lack the know-how to tweak the genes of babies in the womb. It’s because those same scientists are governed by laws, regulations and ethical standards that would prevent them from doing so.

That distinction is important to understand as advancements in genomics, some of which are taking place in Wisconsin, lead to more personalized therapies for treating and curing killer diseases.

He Jiankui of China’s Southern University of Science and Technology shocked the scientific world in late November when word got out he had edited the genes of twin girls while they were embryos, explaining it was done to protect them from contracting the HIV virus. Researcher He basically bypassed scientific norms that call for subjecting his experiment to review by peers.

As a result, He was called on the carpet at the second annual International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, most vociferously by a UW-Madison bioethicist who was around for the dawn of human embryonic stem-cell research 20 years ago and who helped to organize the summit.

Alta Charo, who holds appointments in both Wisconsin’s law school and medical school, is a leading American authority on bioethics. She called He’s experiment “misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless” – and that was just for starters.

“The children were already at virtually no risk of contracting HIV, because it was the father and not the mother who was infected,” Charo noted.

“The patients were given a consent form that falsely stated this was an AIDS vaccine trial and which conflated research with therapy by claiming they were ‘likely’ to benefit,” Charo said. “In fact, there is not only very little chance these babies would be in need of a benefit, given their low risk, but there is no way to evaluate if this indeed conferred any benefit.”

Other scientists have chimed in along the same lines in hopes of policing their own. When a scientist like China’s He goes rogue, it poisons the well for legitimate, peer-reviewed researchers everywhere, which is why most of the world’s scientists abide by rules and processes that value ethics as much as efficacy. Science is generally governed by the notion that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done.

When those norms are violated, most scientists understand, it invites more regulation from the outside that can slow or halt useful research.

That’s true even in China, where a group of 122 Chinese scientists issued a statement calling He’s actions “crazy” and his claims of having altered the embryos’ genes “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”

In fact, researcher He is facing investigation by a medical ethics board in Shenzhen to see if he broke the law. The Chinese university has placed He on unpaid leave. How was the gene editing done? By using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which enables scientists to make precise changes in DNA. The technique is changing how research is done at institutions such as the UW-Madison and could lead to significant breakthroughs.

In fact, the UW-Madison’s program for advanced cell therapy aims to develop personalized cell therapies for immune and malignant disorders. It will follow protocols set by the university and the federal government in finding ways to test cell therapies that work in adults and children, using the patient’s own cells and tissues.

Until now, however, scientists have refused to open the Pandora’s Box of cell manipulation in embryos.

The reasons are practical as well as ethical. For example, such changes could be passed down from one generation to the next or open the door to “designer babies” that are modified for non-medical reasons, such as being taller or stronger.

The scientific world hasn’t reached consensus on how to safely and ethically edit embryos, nor is it sure it should be done at all. This is one Pandora’s Box that should remain shut for now.

Eric Frydenlund