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Let's Talk About Sex, Harvard

Freedom from censorship lets students explore erotic art

Freedom from censorship lets students explore erotic art
Freedom from censorship lets students explore erotic art
By Molly O. Fitzpatrick, Crimson Staff Writer

If you want to read Harvard’s copy of Poul Gerhard’s “Pornography or Art,” you’ll have to ask permission. The Fine Arts Library limits access to this book, among others, to the “Cage”—which is, thankfully, not nearly as intimidating as it sounds. Should you ask, you’ll be escorted to the back of the library into a series of offices that most patrons never see. Fill out the appropriate form, and you’ll be seated at a long conference table to read. As you flip the pages, the avuncular man in the corner office will chat about what he’ll have for lunch.

In “Pornography or Art,” the precise Art Nouveau illustrations of Oscar Wilde compatriot Aubrey Beardsley are juxtaposed with rough-etched instructional diagrams from Japanese bridal books from the Middle Ages. The text that accompanies these images, in its unwaveringly academic tone, makes the artwork all the more shockingly graphic. It’s clearly not intended to titillate the reader, but one can see how it might nonetheless.

The book is part of a growing collection of explicit material housed by the Harvard College Library (HCL). Encouraged by Harvard’s tendency to avoid academic and scholastic censorship, a surprising range of erotic art has appeared on campus in libraries, classes and student publications. Some of this art implements explicit content to achieve a higher social or artistic purpose, and some encourages us to enjoy the explicit for its own sake.


Dan C. Hazen jokes that he’s worked for HCL forever—more precisely, twenty years. For the last six, he has served as Associate Librarian for Collection Development.

Harvard’s libraries maintain no special collections devoted exclusively to sex and sexuality. But, according to Hazen, “Explicit stuff? We’ve got a lot of it.” Search on HOLLIS for “Erotica” or “Pornography,” and you might be surprised by the results.

“We’ll have a representative sampling of that kind of material as we would of regular women’s magazines, sports publications—any realm of popular mass activity,” he said. However, he added, “[we’re not] dirty old men pushing pornography on innocent students.”

Responsibility for collection development is distributed among HCL’s bibliographers, each of whom is assigned to suggest new collection items from a specific part of the world. Hazen said, “[We take] pride in being able to ferret out both the mainstream and the fringes, presenting a full spectrum of what’s being said and thought and argued.” There are no particular rules by which bibliographers must abide, provided the material is legal. For proposed collection additions, price is more often an issue than objectionable content.

About fifteen years ago, a professor offered to donate a complete run of Penthouse Magazine to Widener Library. (Which professor? “I probably shouldn’t say,” Hazen laughed.) The collection was to be stored behind the desk in the Periodicals Room, requiring patron request for use. This ultimately didn’t work out, but only because, as Hazen put it, “The older women on staff were extraordinarily uncomfortable with the notion they’d have to be handing that stuff over.”

As scholarly interests have shifted toward legitimizing the study of sexuality and pornography, explicit literature has grown increasingly accepted in research library collections. In fact, Hazen said, the difficult question is more frequently where to store material, not whether to accept it in the first place. Pornography is typically housed in closed circulation areas—not for moral concerns, but because, in Hazen’s experience, “it disappears almost as fast as you put it on the shelf.” When the books and magazines themselves aren’t stolen, explicit images are often razor-bladed out of them. But even restricted material is no more difficult to obtain than items stored in the Harvard Depository. Otherwise, it is simply contained within a controlled reading space—the Fine Arts Library Cage, for example.

Harvard takes a similarly laissez-faire stance regarding the content of students’ work. Julia A. Rooney ’11, a Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) concentrator, paints—and paints whatever she wants. “Most professors are completely, completely open to whatever you have to throw at them,” she said. “They’re artists themselves. Everything is fair game.”

Rooney has taken classes with people pursuing independent projects involving everything from nude photography to polemic political content. “I think it’s more about how the thing is dealt with than what exactly it is,” she said.


“Vaginas of the Harvard Community,” credited to Colette S. Perold ’11, is a collage of sixteen black-and-white photographs, laid out in a four-by-four grid. Half of the images depict vaginas and half other objects—a head of lettuce, an elongated flame—but even these, in context, take on a distinctly labial character. Now imagine this piece juxtaposed with “Expanding Consent,” a thoughtful, 8000-word interview with feminist activist Jaclyn Friedman, also by Perold. The two were sandwiched together in the same issue of H BOMB Magazine, a student publication explicitly focused on sexuality. Together the pieces seem sexy but smart, smart but sexy—just how H BOMB presents itself.

To co-editor-in-chief Christian L. Garland ’10, the magazine is anything but pornography, as some have labeled it. H BOMB takes itself very seriously, and we want students to as well,” he said. “I was really drawn to [H BOMB] because sex is something that is often not talked about in a thoughtful manner, at least at Harvard. I wanted to be part of that conversation.”

When it was founded in 2004, the magazine produced two issues and generated nationwide publicity. Resurrected in 2008—in what Garland calls a more “literary” form—the magazine has since published two more issues, with another to arrive in April. According to Garland, H BOMB enjoys freedom from editorial interference by the college: “Harvard has not tried and isn’t going to try to censor what we produce.”

As a relatively new publication, production costs have been an obstacle. To offset expenses, the current newsstand price is $10. The staff face further challenges in securing advertising from businesses reluctant to endorse explicit content, regardless of its artistic and intellectual quality.

And H BOMB strives to keep its quality high. It solicits all types of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork that reflect an interest in gender, sex, or sexuality. “The editorial board seeks out really cool and challenging material,” said Garland.

Nevertheless, he’s only mildly satisfied with the magazine’s reception on campus. “A lot of people appreciate it and are really passionate about it,” he said. “But a lot of people write it off as another iteration of smut produced by college kids.”

Garland added that the sexual politics of Harvard are complicated: “[The university has] pockets of really radical approach to sex and sexuality, but is also the site of incredibly reactionary and conservative thought.” Garland, who co-chairs Harvard College Queer Students and Allies (QSA), considers it the mission of H BOMB to combat this sexual shame. “The more people talk about sex,” he said, “the more comfortable they’ll be with it, and the healthier their sex will be.”

The theatrical equivalent of the “Vaginas of the Harvard Community” is, of course, “The Vagina Monologues.” The annual Harvard student production of the play is co-sponsored by the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) and the Women’s Center. This year’s show took place on February 11 in the Agassiz Theatre.

M. Amelia Muller ’11 is no stranger to Harvard theater. She appeared in the 2008 Freshman Musical, and in the last year, served as set designer for both “Big River” and “The Flies.” But this semester? “I wanted to do something that scared the crap out of me a little bit,” she said.

“The Vagina Monologues” is a series of—you guessed it—monologues, based on hundreds of interviews playwright Eve Ensler conducted with women of all ages and backgrounds. First performed in 1996, the play has garnered worldwide fame. The monologues unpack a cultural history of sex, rape, and female empowerment, with the universal catalyst being, naturally, the vagina.

In February, Muller gave voice to “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could,” a multi-part monologue from the point of view of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Muller played the 16-year-old version of this woman; three other actresses portrayed the same character at younger ages. Of these, Muller had the longest part, and she found it was anything but easy.

“I had to get comfortable with what I was talking about,” she said. But by opening night, Muller was ready. “It seemed totally natural to be up on stage talking about coochie snorchers.” She credits the support she received from the show’s audience and cast members, whom she now considers close friends.

To those who might be offended by “The Vagina Monologues,” Muller said, “in a lot of ways, that’s sort of the point. You have to be willing and open to be a bit shocked, and then think afterwards about why you were shocked. What the show reveals to you is all these different ways to appreciate your body, and what you’re capable of as a woman.”

Of all the monologues, “Coochie Snorcher” is especially controversial because it describes the teenager’s sexual awakening at the hands of a 24-year-old female neighbor—technically statutory rape. Not all respond well to it. Rachel L. Wagley ’11, Co-President of True Love Revolution—an undergraduate organization which promotes premarital abstinence on campus—expressed her group’s distaste for the production in an e-mail: “[This play] trivializes the legacy of women who have achieved great things with their intellect, dedication, and creativity by reducing them to the sexual. The Vagina Monologues glorifies perversion—including the rape of a 13-year-old child...” Wagley refers to an unrevised version of the script, where “Coochie Snorcher” was originally three years younger.

Muller would disagree. “When it comes down to it,” said Muller, “[the monologue] is about a girl learning that pleasure is natural, and understanding that her body is a good thing.”

Sarah A. Rankin, Director of the OSAPR, assesses openly sexual art based on its purpose or intent. “It’s not that the erotic is bad per se,” she said. “Who’s telling the story and how it’s being depicted is very important.”

A co-sponsor of the production for three years running, OSAPR provides the “The Vagina Monologues” student staff with funding, publicity, and a supportive organizational structure. Rankin acknowledged that “The Vagina Monologues”—the proceeds from which were donated to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Haiti relief—is sexually graphic. “[But] the intent of the show is to give women a voice,” she said.

In conjunction with Women’s Week, OSAPR recently organized a screening of the documentary “The Price of Pleasure.” The film surveys the state of mainstream pornography, ultimately speculating that the problem with most erotic film is that it depicts sex, quite literally, through a single lens. Instead, Rankin suggests, we should be exposed to a plurality of sexuality and sexual experience.

“When I’ve heard sexuality experts talk about the erotic, it’s a critique of what’s happening, not that it is happening. They’re not saying ‘Let’s be puritanical and avoid all images of sexuality,’ but that we need more perspectives and more thoughtful discussion,” she said.


For some artists, such thoughtful discussion is decidedly optional. When Matthew M. Di Pasquale ’09 was in middle school, his babysitter gave him a copy of Hustler. He found the nudity unpleasant at first, but nevertheless smelled opportunity. He began to buy issues for $20 from his babysitter, and then resell them to his classmates for $40. “I’ve been in the business for a while,” he joked.

Di Pasquale is the founder and editor-in-chief of Diamond Magazine. While not technically affiliated with Harvard, the publication is famous—or infamous—on campus. Very much in the tradition of men’s magazines like Playboy, Diamond contains editorial features on sex and dating as well as—the ‘money shot’—nude photographs of students. The Crimson’s own FlyByBlog has facetiously characterized Diamond as a reinvention of H BOMB including “all of the nudity without that stupid artsy shit.”

Funded largely by Di Pasquale himself, the first issue of Diamond was produced by a team of 15 students—mostly Di Pasquale’s high school friends who attended other colleges—and a photographer they found on Craigslist. In preparation for its September 2008 debut, Diamond advertised only through word of mouth, but coverage on blogs like Gawker and IvyGate quickly heightened the buzz. Di Pasquale estimates that the first issue, available for free online, was downloaded 10,000 times in the first three days. The second issue—which cost $9.99 to read beyond a free sample—sold over 100 copies.

Di Pasquale himself has achieved a certain measure of personal notoriety as the only model to pose nude in the magazine’s first issue. He doesn’t regret the decision, but admits he wasn’t fully prepared for the consequences. “Now I let models know from experience,” said Di Pasquale, “Your picture’s going to be on the internet and shit and you might get a lot of attention.”

Diamond seeks to recruit Ivy League models, though the staff have received an excess of submissions from students from other schools. They have also heard from Ivy League students “[who are] maybe not really beautiful or whatever.” Di Pasquale thinks this qualification is key to the magazine’s appeal—“[Readers think,] ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe [an Ivy Leaguer] would do that.’ When people think Ivy League, they think of someone ready for a career in finance, pretty conservative.”

He doesn’t worry too much about the ideological implications of his product. “[Diamond is] not really artsy, but I wouldn’t call it porn,” he said. “But who really cares?” Overall, Di Pasquale considers Harvard to be quite liberal in its acceptance of sex. And University censorship? Di Pasquale doesn’t think it’s a problem: “According to the First Amendment, they don’t limit speech and stuff.”

But maybe we’re not all the way there yet. “[Harvard should have] a wild sex show in the Agassiz Theater,” he suggested, “That would be the most badass fun ever.” It seems—if we can justify its scholastic purpose—the University might be up for the challenge.

—Staff writer Molly O. Fitzpatrick can be reached at

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