As Tanya V. Bezreh ’95 walked through Harvard Yard last Saturday, a friend asked what it was like to be a Harvard graduate.
“Doors really swung open for me,” Bezreh joked. “I had to make a lot of porn to get those doors to stop swinging open.”
An alum who has made her name creating and starring in short erotic films, Bezreh is one of several Harvard students, past and present, who have embraced an industry not usually associated with the Harvard brand name.
“There’s a persistent stereotype that Harvard isn’t about pleasure. It’s about brains,” said Michele S. Jaffe ’91.
Now an author of young adult novels, Jaffe entered the world of fiction through her romance novels, which Amazon.com called “steamy… Do not lend this to your mother.”
“The sex scenes are designed to turn you on,” she said. For Jaffe, the fact that she was a Harvard graduate served to help market her books because of the perceived incongruity between sex and intellect.
Camilla A. Hrdy ’04, co-founder of the undergraduate sex magazine H Bomb, encountered a similar stereotype when launching her publication.
Much of the publicity around H Bomb, she said, came from “the cool dichotomy about Harvard being about being smart and not thinking about sex.” But, continued Hrdy, that perceived dichotomy is not reflective of reality. “At least not for my friends,” she laughed.
Bezreh said that, like Hrdy, she contemplated producing an erotic magazine during her years at Harvard. But in Bezreh’s case, the stereotype held her back.
“It just didn’t seem appropriate,” she said. “Harvard is like, the most privileged thing that can happen. And making porn or making erotic stuff can be very stigmatizing... I was scared that it would mess up my career.”
Bezreh later confronted her fear by creating the short film “Naughty Garden” and starring in the HBO special “Real Sex: Porn 101: XXXtra Credit,” a documentary about her making the film.
“For me,” she said. “I had to go overboard.”
“Naughty Garden,” which cast several MIT and Harvard students, is “very spanking-oriented,” she said.
Bezreh has followed up “Naughty Garden” with “Coming Out Spanko,” which portrays Bezreh’s process of confronting her fear and coming to terms with her sexual fantasies. It won Best Documentary Short in the 2008 CineKink Film Festival.
For Bezreh, creating these films is part of a personal mission to come to terms with the shame she has felt about her fascination with sadomasochism and her greater mission to dispel the stigma associated with kink. Bezreh works as a life coach for people dealing with similar issues. She is also working toward a Master Degree in health communications through a joint program with Emerson and Tufts.
Although Bezreh is not alone in experimenting in erotica, other Harvard students and alumni have had different motivations for their participation in the industry.
Matthew di Pasquale ’09 made waves last September by publishing Diamond Magazine which featured him posing nude. When asked why he founded the magazine, Pasquale said, “for attention, I guess.”
“I wanted to make a statement,” he said. “Sex isn’t a bad thing. Sex can be fun.”
Pasquale originally envisioned his magazine as “a Playboy for Harvard”. He said he chose not to join the existing campus magazine on sexuality, H-Bomb, because he wanted to make a magazine that was less artistic.
H Bomb, on the other hand, has another purpose. “It was intended for the enjoyment of undergraduates,” Hrdy said. “I think we had a purpose to push social boundaries to some extent.”
Co-founder Katharina P. Cieplak-von Baldegg ’06 said the creation of the magazine was driven by the importance of having a conversation about sex and sexuality on campus. “We wanted to cover every kind of context,” she said, “Whether it was social or artistic or biological.”
Harvard students and alumni have confronted different responses to the work they have done in erotica.
“It was interesting to see how it didn’t really matter to a lot of people,” Di Pasquale remarked. “A lot of people didn’t care.”
As for H Bomb, “I think some of the boys were upset that it wasn’t more erotic,” said Hrdy of its first publication. “I heard some say that there weren’t enough raunchy photos… But you know, our mothers really liked it.”
Bezreh said that the reactions to her first film were, in general, not what she was looking for. “I had a lot of really high concept, theoretical ideas about what I wanted to say and what I wanted that gesture to mean,” Bezreh said. “I got a lot of fan mail, ‘Oh your movie was really fun and hot.’… I wasn’t very interested in that.”
Her second film elicited reactions that were more in tune with Bezreh’s intentions. Speaking of her fans, she said, “They responded from a vulnerable place instead of from a sexual place.”
Bezreh said that she intends to continue making art in the erotic arena. Hrdy and Cieplak-von Baldegg have, since H Bomb, left erotica behind them.
Cieplak-von Baldegg, who went to work for Current TV after Harvard, said that her work there continued addressing relationships and sex. She credits her involvement with H Bomb in helping to secure her job with Current, where she has worked with other Harvard alumni, including Kyle A. Gilman ’02, creator of the 2008 documentary “Awkward Webcam Sex”. The film chronicles the webcam interactions of his fictional long-distance relationship, and the reactions of people when he posted the clips.
Hrdy is now in law school, and said that she doubts she will have enough time to ever get involved in something like H Bomb again. Yet she did not dismiss the possibility.
“If the law market goes down,” she said laughing. “I’m going back into the erotic industry.”
As for Harvard students who contemplate deviating from the expected “Harvard path,” Cieplak-von Baldegg encourages them to pursue their original ideas. “It’s what [you’ve] worked on and… produced that people are going to be interested in,” she said.
Bezreh’s advice was more cautious. “I think that pornography/erotica is the medium, and it really depends on what you’re saying,” she said. “You could have the most misguided reasons for being involved with it or you could have almost the most beautiful reasons for being a part of it.”
“I don’t mean to be the voice of caution,” said Bezreh. “But I think the stigma is real.”