Last week the New York Times Magazine ran an article about the popularity of "sex magazines" on college campuses. Student editors at Vassar College, Boston University, University of Chicago, Harvard, University of Massachusetts, and Yale were interviewed for the piece.
These student produced magazines include photographs of fellow students posing nude, simulating sex with each other, or masturbating as well as "erotic" prose and poetry by students. The photographs are literally of the girl next door--one can find photographs of students from Shakespeare class, one's own friends, exes, and people you see at parties or in the library.
The editors of these magazines oppose the term "pornographic" to describe the publications; to their ears, the word denotes a non-literary and mainstream commercial venture dominated by men, and they consider themselves to be renegades. The editors also don't see themselves as producing material for the purpose of male masturbation, which is the primary goal of pornography. These college editors, many of them women, prefer the term "sex positive."
The magazines' target audience is supposed to be diverse: male, female, straight, and gay. The vision of a varied audience allows students to get away with publishing the magazines with support from mentors--the magazines have gained acceptance and respect from many quarters (and some student councils have funded them), because editors are supposedly not just targeting hetereosexual men. A recent issue of Boink, Boston University's sex magazine, displays a series of photographs of naked B.U. female students followed by a couple of images of male students, including one shown masturbating completely naked except for a silver cross around his neck.
One editor insists that her parents have been supportive of her venture. "'As much as they could be,' she said. `I was raised very Catholic, but they live in today’s world'." It seems that much of the parents, faculty, and administration of "today's world" are surprisingly comfortable with these college sex magazines. One professor who supports his college's magazine hopes that upcoming issues will explore "sexistential questions."
One student muddles through her feelings about Boink: “I believe Andrea Dworkin, that porn perpetuates violence against women...Most pornography is just women. Boink is different in that way, but because porn does feed into that system, I tend to be against it in general, and I don’t think just because we’re putting men in it that makes it O.K. But it’s a step forward that men are being put in it.”
Although using men for the magazines have made the publications hip, the choice to include men has not made the magazines profitable. The editors acknowledge that they lose financially when they include men. (It turns out that straight men prefer to buy pornography that includes only women and gay men prefer to buy pornography that includes only men.) Also, the editors receive little manual assistance from their peers when laboring to turn out the issues. Many students who first hear about their college's magazine want to help out. But, as one editor put it, "Their interest lasts about five minutes once they find out that they’re not going to be surrounded by naked girls. People have a very skewed view of what it’s all about. They think it’s going to be the Playboy mansion 24-7.”
Even though the sex magazines are supposedly counter-culture enough to include naked men in the face of financial pressure, women still end up losing at the game. Women get involved with the magazines, as editors or models, to gain power and control in an onversexed culture that has maxed out on objectifying women; but the enterprise backfires on them. Here is a story that The Times recounts: a male student, who modeled for one of the issues, met a female model at a party for the magazine. They briefly dated. But then he stopped calling her. He said, “She’s a porn girl, so ... I dunno. I assumed she wasn’t really looking for much from me. I’m a guy. There’s a lot less stigma attached to it. A chick, people think ‘slutty,’ whereas a dude gets associated with male bravado.”
The woman the male student referred to as the "porn girl" was then interviewed. The Times writes that the woman became distraught when asked about this relationship. She said, “That’s not why he told me he broke up with me...The reason we split up is because [he] was in a time in his life when he didn’t want to have a relationship.”
The personal stories that women submit to be considered for publication in the magazines are very telling. The editor at Harvard's sex magazine, H Bomb, sums up the short personal memoirs that come in from women this way: The women conclude their sad stories of sexual encounters with the realization that "they’re not fulfilled by casual sex, and yet they can’t find someone they can connect with.”
Although the editors deny that the magazines are pornographic, it seems that the magazines continue to be popular because men want to look at pictures of naked women; and women somehow feel that they can gain a kind of power in this system. Yet, no one admits to this dynamic, which hides behind the compelling veneer of equal opportunity objectification.
This is how one student describes her understanding of her college's sex magazine: “What really stood out is that there were male students in it. Because there were men in it, and gay men, under the same cover, it was sort of alternative. It kind of equalized it: gay men could look at it, women could look at it, and that was great. Women as objects, men as objects.”
Let me repeat that last line, "That was GREAT? Women as objects, men as objects."
Can anyone reading this post make a strong argument for the benefits of objectifying men? Comments by Katha Pollitt, a leading feminist thinker, on the post, Porny Poetry, published on this blog a year ago, reflect a thought process that seems to value just that. Pollitt argues that when true equality exists between men and women some day, men will also be objectified. Pollitt wrote:
Feminism hasn't gotten us far enough-- to economic, social, cultural equality. I think if women were not subordinate they would not be seen as the bearers of sexuality (more than men, that is) and men as the consumers of it. In that world, maybe there would be lots of naked photos used to sell poetry magazines, or maybe there would be none -- but it wouldn't be just WOMEN'S photos.
Is the success of college sex magazines a sign that we have achieved full equality between men and women?
To be honest, I am baffled, but it seems that many intelligent people support the notion that objectifying men is a step forward.
I can't think of an argument that would bring me to believe that the objectification of men could lead to anything positive, but, dear readers, I am willing to listen.