These questions beg a more nuanced answer than one would think. The group that I co-founded and co-lead, Let’s Talk Sex, will host a lecture by feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. Her talk will end with the screening of a 10- to 15-minute clip of her films. Taormino, who spoke on campus last November to a packed lecture hall, will tackle what is admittedly a difficult question: Is feminist pornography a paradox, or can we really create sex-positive, empowering porn? The goal of the event is to spark a meaningful and intellectual discussion about whether such a thing as feminist pornography can exist, and, if it can, what that pornography actually looks like.
Taormino will be one of two speakers this spring who will provide unique perspectives on the porn debate. Though the logistics are not fully in place, Let’s Talk Sex has invited Pamela Paul, the author of “Pornified,” to give a talk titled “Why Porn Is Anti-Sex.” Paul has spoken on campus recently at the Love and Fidelity Network Conference hosted by the Anscombe Society, and we have selected her because we are confident that she will give a dynamic and convincing argument for her case.
By contrast, Taormino will speak from a very different angle. As a feminist pornographer, she will discuss the realities of the porn industry, which is often — as Paul will point out — disempowering to women and the perpetuator of a contrived vision of sex. Taormino’s particular type of porn attempts to rewrite these damaging conceptions of sexuality. Her films interact with the performers; the actors are given a chance to have sex on their terms, and the practical elements of sex, like condoms and lube, are not hidden from the audience. There may be no such thing as “realistic” porn, but Taormino claims to sidestep many of the elements of mainstream porn that underwrite conceptions of satisfying, mutual and loving sex. The clip reel is only a small part of the event itself, and students will have a chance to ask their questions and air their concerns after the lecture even if they choose to leave the room while the clips are shown. Because the lecture is intended for adult audiences, we will ensure that all attendees are over the age of 18.
The reason that we have chosen to screen clips of Taormino’s porn (we will not show a full film) is simple: We’re an academic community, and porn is a visual medium that needs to be seen to be understood. Despite the fact that many students on campus may have encountered mainstream pornography, the point of Taormino’s lecture is that hers deviates radically from the norm. For us to judge it without seeing it defeats our group’s mission: to attempt to understand the perspectives of as many different people as possible and to learn from each other, even if we don’t agree.
As a feminist, I am fully aware of the problematic and unsavory aspects of pornography, and I am personally undecided as to my stance. But clearly college students are interested in pornography. And while I invite students to attend both events and vocally articulate their ideas, I hope that we can move past knee-jerk emotional responses. These two events will be used as the springboard for an enriching academic discourse. We believe that it is only through open and honest discourse that we can achieve any kind of change. Since there has already been a reaction to the news that the student government has given us funding, this is obviously an issue that demands discussion.
My hope is that Princeton students will embrace this event as an example of the free and honest discourse fostered by a truly intellectual community. We expect that some students will disagree; indeed, the point is for students to express divergent opinions. But silence, inevitably, simply shows fear. And we believe that this medium, which is so closely tied to how many Americans view sex, should not be approached with fear. Rather, as scholars, we should engage with each other, and we should know what it is that we’re talking about.
Last fall, I attended a talk by Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who was lambasted by Muslims for his images of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban. I was also present for a panel that included Dr. Miriam Grossman, who has claimed that sexually active young women are more likely to commit suicide. These are both people whose views I find offensive, but I nevertheless attended the events because they represent what I love about Princeton: the fact that our university actively nurtures an environment that allows other students to challenge our preconceived notions and forces us to defend our opinions. And I hope that my fellow students will see our two events for what they are: an opportunity.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a religion major from Charlottesville, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.