They designed H Bomb Magazine, they said, not as a pornographic outlet, but to start a dialogue on campus about issues of sexuality, with a special focus on literature and art with a sexual bent.
But for better or worse, H Bomb Magazine made national headlines in February for its concept.
“We had one line about nude photographs, and everyone assumed that would be the sole goal and purpose of the magazine—to parade Harvard’s sexuality around,” Cieplak-von Baldegg, also editor-in-chief of the magazine, said of the original proposal for the publication. “The real purpose was to have a verbal discussion of sex, because basically any intelligent discussion about it is really lacking from campus.”
The long-awaited magazine was released on May 26, replete with a total of about 28 full pages of text and 15 photographs of full or partially nude students.
In February, the media caught wind of the idea, Cieplak-von Baldegg and Hrdy said, not because the magazine was any different from publications that already existed at campuses around the country, but because of a fascination with the Harvard label.
“There are so many people doing amazing things at Harvard, and this is the story they choose to report,” said Hrdy, also H Bomb Magazine’s editor-at-large. “As Newsweek so generously points out, our magazine isn’t groundbreaking.”
“It was only because the idea of Harvard students naked is so intriguing,” added Cieplak-von Baldegg, a visual and environmental studies concentrator in Quincy House.
The co-founders said the misplaced attention hindered them from creating the magazine they originally envisioned.
“We had to really consider the attention we were going to get,” said Hrdy, a history of science concentrator in Adams House. “We did what we wanted to as far as we could, but we had to think about how it was going to be construed because, no matter our intentions, people were going to look for porn.”
The final product was somewhat “subdued,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said, and the co-founders had to pay particular attention to obscuring the identities of the models.
They said the Harvard Lampoon’s parody of the magazine, released on April 12, made some potential contributors reluctant to have their names attached to H Bomb.
“[The spoof] was good because it put the joke out there, but it did turn models off,” Hrdy said. “I had models lined up, and they were like, ‘I saw the Lampoon spoof, and I don’t want to be in this.’”
“We had to convince them it was good, and worth their time,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said. “It was totally possible that [our] magazine would have been a total joke—we had to show that it wasn’t.”
The initial media attention began with a Crimson article published in February after the magazine was approved by the Committee on College Life, a College student-Faculty group that oversees student extracurricular organizations.
That article stated that Cieplak-von Baldegg “does not object to H Bomb being called porn” and referred to H Bomb as a porn magazine.
Cieplak-von Baldegg and Hrdy said last week that they were not meant to be taken seriously when they told the Crimson reporter that she could “call it whatever you want.”
After the February Crimson article appeared, Cieplak-von Baldegg and Hrdy said they were shocked by the national interest.
“We were being naïve...we didn’t know it was a big story,” Hrdy said.
The hype was anticipated by some at Harvard, though.
Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, who sits on the committee that approved the student-run publication, said in February that he thought H Bomb Magazine might generate considerable attention, even outside the College.
“I guess I can’t imagine that it won’t,” he said at the time.
Though Hrdy said the attention hampered the artistic side of magazine, she added that it did help the magazine’s bottom line. The business staff of the magazine featured quotes from national newspapers on the magazine’s website in order to attract national advertisers, Hrdy said. The magazine ran full-page advertisements from businesses including Playboy and Daedalus.
“They’re the capitalists, we’re the artists,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said of H Bomb Magazine’s business staff.
But Hrdy said she hopes the media attention will diminish for the second issue, scheduled for release at the end of the fall 2004 semester.
“I’d love to have a room full of people interested in posing...but I’d hate to have a room full of people who are just interested in publicity,” Hrdy said.
POINT OF IMPACT
In the months leading up to its publication, the prospect of a Harvard sex magazine generated controversy on campus.
Debates raged in dining halls, editorial columns and Undergraduate Council meetings about awarding $2,000 in council funds to the magazine.
Cieplak-von Baldegg said that even when she distributed the issue in dorms, some students did not want copies of the magazine left at their doors.
“It’s so frustrating that people judge it and dismiss it without even opening it,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said. “We just hope people will read it, actually read it, and see that we’re actually trying to have a serious conversation—we’re not just exploiting Harvard’s sexuality.”
One of the most controversial pieces set to appear in the publication—a rape fantasy—never materialized.
“[The author] never turned it in,” Hrdy said. “I would have liked to have read it.”
And the co-founders took steps to avoid another campus debate about sexual exploitation; in each of the magazine’s 8,000 copies, they manually affixed stickers over photographs from the Eleganza fashion show after the show’s producers disapproved of the photos’ use in the publication.
“Everyone knows the stickers were useless, they just wanted to get across to everyone that they had objected,” Hrdy said. “That was supposedly going to prevent them from dealing with the whole controversy that their show was too sexual.”
Hrdy, who said she has received several e-mails with “constructive criticism” since the magazine’s release, said the co-founders are open to informed feedback about the magazine’s content.
“I would love an article in the second issue called, ‘Why I Hate H Bomb,’” Hrdy said.
Cieplak-von Baldegg added that the two were looking for a wider perspective from contributors in the initial issue, but that they simply did not receive submissions with diverging viewpoints.
They said they hope the next issue will feature photographs of models with a greater diversity of ethnicity and body type.
WHAT IS PORN?
Part of the uniqueness of H Bomb comes from its female perspective, Cieplak-von Baldegg said.
“Right now, all the commercial magazines, films, TV—I feel like they’re all run by men, and even if not, like Cosmo[politan magazine], they’re geared toward that perspective,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said. “I think they can tell that our magazine is created by two women, and geared toward men and women. It’s good to have a magazine that combines both of those things, instead of polarizing them.”
But Hrdy said she hopes H Bomb Magazine’s next issue will include more input from straight men.
“I’d like to know, what do they really want to see, besides porn?” Hrdy said. “It’s difficult to get to the heart of what they want to see.”
And Hrdy said nothing in the first issue can be classified as pornographic.
“It’s about, what are you trying to get across with this photo,” Hrdy said. “I don’t think there’s anything in H Bomb that can be called porn...If you have a girl lying on a couch looking out provocatively, and it goes with an article, people can be aroused by it maybe, but that’s not the intention of the picture.”
The co-founders said photographs cannot be classified either as art or as porn without considering other factors.
“Of course it’s fuzzy and subjective,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said. “It’s context and it’s also the relationship between the photo and the viewer.”
And in a society already saturated with pornographic images, H Bomb Magazine tries to address sexuality in a non-exploitative way, Cieplak-von Baldegg said.
“Porn is already all over pop culture—we really don’t need more,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said. “We’re trying to get away from it.”
And since neither Cieplak-von Baldegg nor Hrdy is graduating this year, both will have at least two more chances to continue publishing their sex magazine.
“It’s hard doing it for the first time, because you do everything wrong several times before you get it right,” Cieplak-von Baldegg said.
—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.