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Whitney Strub

Strub

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.

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Whitney Strub is the author of “Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right,” and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Rutgers University-Newark.

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(2) comments

oldhomey

This is the most intelligent and verifiably truthful thing written yet by this silly and needless controversy.

capedcrusader

Yep. I wonder if all would have went smooth if Gow would have gotten Trump's blessing...

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