Pornography

From Our Readers

To the Editors of The Crimson:

I applaud your decision not to print the Playboy advertisement and I must say I found the editorial page discussion (March 5) of the matter enlightening. But I have a rather different perspective on the issues involved.

I question whether principles of free speech or open expression are at all relevant here ("Ten Editors Against Suppression"). Historically, freedom of the press and free speech were meant to ensure the well-informed discussion of public issues. Writing these protections into the Bill of Rights, the revolutionary generation sought to prevent state control or censorship of political opinion.

How much does this really pertain to the present controversy? Of course, The Crimson is not the state, but the important matter is that this is advertising. Since advertising is paid commercial space, it's neither free nor open, by definition. In fact, those who can't pay, don't have a voice--in advertising--at all. (I doubt that Playboy will find itself in this position any time in the forseeable future.)

Advertising in any case, is not principally informative. At least since the 1920s--through the influence of theories drawn from social psychology and propaganda techniques developed during World War I--the world of advertising has involved the adroit manipulation of subconscious desires and fears.

In The Independent, the Playboy ad was about equally concerned with plugging the forthcoming college issue as with announcing "help wanted." This puts The Independent in the business of helping Playboy sell its product. Is this either necessary or desirable? Moreover, the size of the ad itself--a good half page--is an important statement about power.

To juxtapose The Crimson's decision--whatever that decision has been--with the efforts of Jean Genet or martin Luther king Jr. ("The Crimson's Hubris") is rather breathtaking. Yet in one important sense there is a common denominator--Genet and King confronted power and rejected its claims. Does Michael W. Hirschorn really mean to suggest that waving Playboy's flag--while taking its cash--could be somehow equivalent?

I have recently returned from an extended residence in Norway. Scandinavian social and political values, I found, offer a vital alternative to American liberalism. Certainly, in matters of sexuality and sexual equality, Scandinavia seems far ahead of us.

Norway, for example, prohibits the use of women in manipulative ways as sex objects in advertising. My impression is that this law works, and works well. Those ornamental lovelies who fill American ads, the psychic shills for everything from cigarettes to Sports Illustrated, have little counterpart there.

This is not to say that Scandinavians are prudish about sex per se. On any summer beach in Oslo fjord, topless swimming and sunbathing is common and unremarked. And the city has two nude beaches that are easily accessible by public transportation.

Living in Norway made me realize how much I am a part of American culture. And how difficult it is to transcend cultural inhibitions. When I went to the beach, I never quite escaped that thrill of the illicit. But with Scandinavian values as a catalyst, I have at least grown critical--and impatient with American sexual repressiveness. Playboy, as the most respectable buttress of pornography, is key among these repressive forces.

Pornography repressive?

For women this repressive quality is obvious. They are most clearly victimized, most clearly the losers in pornography. But more subtly, so are men.

Victoria G.T. Bassetti hopes that "one day our society will look at Playboy and Playgirl as sensual expressions of sexuality..." ("Don't Rationalize Away Sensitivity"). But these magazines, by their very structure and intent, seem antithetical to full sensual expression.

Sensuality is inseparable from real physical contact with real and complicated people. Playboy is first and foremost a magazine of unattainable fantasy objects. Its pictorials offer a world of anatomically perfect and nearly interchangeable surfaces. Mere flat images on a page. Such fantasies, of such predictable and derivative stereotypes, are pretty meager stuff for nurturing real intimacy and affection. The models' poses--depicting their subordination and submissiveness--offer little grounds for respecting women as equals and counterparts.

Pornography stunts the male imagination and helps preclude any creative alternatives to the status quo. With its puerile fantasies and its reduction of women to flat surfaces, pornography directly complements other forces of sexual repression in American society. Mutually reinforcing, they serve to dominate women, to deaden men and to denature sex itself.

The Crimson was right to refuse complicity. James C. Sellman   Graduate student in American social history