Monday, November 15, 2004

Daniel Engber: Surveying the Student Body

I've only seen Penitalia and it seems very tame...

Surveying the Student Body
Chronicle of Higher Education

Naked coeds and naughty angels, sexually explicit stories, and a full-page advertisement for Playboy all appear in the inaugural issue of H Bomb (spring 2004), Harvard University's glossy sex magazine. But in the words of its student editors, "It isn't porn, that's for sure."

An essay in the magazine struggles to explain: "When trying to distinguish between images that are artistic and images that are pornographic we find ourselves slipping into a discursive vortex of exceptions."

Fortunately, escaping the discursive vortex turns out to be as easy as a bus trip across town.

Alecia Oleyourryk, a senior studying journalism at Boston University, wants to start her own college sex-themed magazine, minus the tortured introspection: "We want it to turn people on, and we're not afraid to call it pornography." The first issue of Boink will appear in January, provided that Ms. Oleyourryk and her partner, Christopher Anderson, a photographer for H Bomb, can raise the $20,000 they'll need to publish it. "We're going to be honest and straightforward," she promises, "and it's going to be real sex."

Katharina P. Cieplak-von Baldegg, editor in chief of H Bomb and a junior concentrating in visual and environmental studies, calls Boink "a purely commercial venture to sell a magazine of nude photos of students." Campus pornography, she says, is a waste of time: "Students can get better porn online anyway."

Ms. Oleyourryk chides the H Bomb editors for trying to make the magazine "artsy and proper and Harvard-esque" (as opposed to Boink, which presumably will be dirty and sleazy and BU-esque).

"If our interest in intelligent art and writing about sex makes us 'artsy, proper, and Harvard-esque,' I guess that's a compliment," replies Ms. Cieplak-von Baldegg.

Far from Boston's dueling college-sex magazines, a creative-writing major at the University of Washington has recently started a journal of collegiate erotica. Though Penitalia is, so far, distributed only at Seattle-area bookstores, its founder, Michael Ryan, would like it to enter the national market. "We should get some sort of East Coast-West Coast rivalry going," he says, "like a hip-hop thing."

Mr. Ryan says he started the journal as a middle finger to the university for giving him "a crappy education for a lot of money," and as a response to the stories about "your Aunt Sally's suicide or your summer at camp" that students were expected to write for class. "My goal was to do something more commercial and mainstream," he says. "If 90 percent of the world wants to read this, then it's good writing."

Penitalia's editor in chief, Turi Fesler, says the goal of the magazine is to turn people on while proving that erotica is a legitimate art form. The first issue included a short story written by a creative-writing teacher at the university, and the second featured a work of creative nonfiction by a student who claims that she works as a prostitute.

Mr. Ryan and Ms. Fesler have had no difficulties with the university administration. While H Bomb struggled to get official approval at Harvard and Boink wouldn't even try at BU, Penitalia has been an official student organization from the very start. "At UW," says Mr. Ryan, "they said, What, porn? OK, cool."

At Bowdoin College, a project to take photographs of naked female students earned the full support of the administration. Some 50 women of all shapes and sizes volunteered to be part of the Naked Body Image Project and have their portraits displayed at an art show about women's issues. "The only naked bodies we see are those in magazines," explains the project's organizer, Bree A. Dallinga, a junior majoring in women's studies and government. "Why don't we battle this image on campus by showing people what real beautiful women look like?"

"Am I an advocate of pornography?" says Ms. Dallinga. "No. But talking about sexuality is something that's definitely needed."

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More on the Naked Body Project

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