I saw my first porn flick in college during the 1950s. Shown by a fraternity in the hope of enticing new members, it was in black and white, featuring a dentist, who was naked except for his socks, fucking a patient in the same chair where ordinarily it would be her tooth that was being drilled. This time the dentist was dealing with a different kind of cavity. Anyway, I enjoyed the camaraderie of defying the law against a victimless crime, though I never did join that fraternity.
Flash ahead to 1999. The cultural and legal acceptance of porn, as well as the content and technology of porn itself, had evolved along with everything else. A national taboo had morphed into a subject of academic interest. The Center for Sex Research at California State University sponsored the World Pornography Conference, a four-day affair that cost a mere $175 to attend.
“I’m orgasmic to be here,” said veteran sex educator and activist Annie Sprinkle. “It’s a wonderful experience to be taken seriously. I love the combination of lowbrow and highbrow.”
Annie was on a panel titled “Women and Pornography: Victims or Visionaries?” There were several other panels, including “The Commercial Environment for African-American Pornography” and “The Money Shot in Pornography Movies.” The keynote speech was delivered by Nadine Strossen, the first female president of the national ACLU, and an award was presented to renowned defense attorney Stanley Fleishman, who said that he began working for 1st Amendment rights when a man died in an American prison, serving time for the harmless act of selling books that were considered obscene.
While all the intellectual dialogues were occurring at that conference, other rooms were set aside for the continuous screening of actual porn movies, without the benefit of any theoretical analysis. So yes, porn, as a subject and as recreation, had become respectable even on campuses. But now, a decade later, politics has been rearing its ugly head. It began with a shrewd marketing move by Digital Playground, offering free copies of their 2-1/2-hour production Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, the most expensive hardcore porn movie ever made at $10 million, to students at 100 colleges.
Screenings across the country have gone smoothly. An overflow crowd was turned away for lack of space at a screening at UC Davis. But after the student union at the University of Maryland announced plans for a midnight Saturday screening, the chaplain of the Catholic Student Center objected.
“We’re trying to promote greater respect on campus of all people,” he said, “and something like a pornographic film is not contributing to the build-up of the human person.”
The student union had asked Planned Parenthood to make a brief presentation on safe sex practices before the film. The head of the local branch explained that the invitation was accepted because it would be a chance to reach a population it doesn’t normally have access to. Information on abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, condom use and emergency contraception would be provided, but Planned Parenthood “does not endorse or support the making or showing of pornography.”
Although university officials acknowledged that it was “not for everyone,” they said that the idea was to provide students with an alternative to late-night drinking and other dangerous activities. However, when State Senator Andrew Harris threatened to amend the state’s annual budget to deny any funding to a higher education institution that allows a public screening of a movie marketed as an XXX-rated adult film unless it was part of an official academic course, thus denying the University of Maryland $400 million, the university president chickened out and canceled the event.
Students argued that it was not only a matter of free speech but also freedom of assembly, as indicated by bumper stickers that stated “Freedom: Some Assembly Required!” Protesters decided to defy authority and screen the forbidden film. “What we’re upset about,” said a member of Feminism Without Borders, “is that somebody is trying to control what goes on, on campus.”
Another group, the Student Power Party, reserved a lecture room that filled with laughter when some 200 students watched a half-hour of excerpts from Pirates II. This “Pirates Screening Teach-In” was preceded by a panel discussion about government censorship.
One individual delivered the most sensible, and ironic, statement of the evening: “While I may not agree with screening a porn movie on a college campus, objecting to it is useless. Why would any rational person think for one minute that, at a college campus where all of the students have computers and Internet access, that they aren’t watching all of the porn they want? If anybody thinks the filters that exist, which supposedly stop people from visiting porn sites or downloading porn will stop them, they need an education in reality. This is just a public showing of what they are watching with their friends in private.” As for Senator Harris, he has temporarily withdrawn his budget threat.
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of AVN Online. To subscribe, visit AVNMediaNetwork.com/subscribe.