These College Guys Are Trying to Ban Porn on Campus

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The movement started at Notre Dame but has quickly spread to other universities.

Republicans and radical feminists have all but abandoned it, but the fight against porn has an unlikely new champion: college men.

Combining the energy of the #MeToo movement with a moral fervor, students at universities across the country told The Daily Beast they are working to get pornography off their campuses.

The effort started at Notre Dame University in October, when 80 male students penned an open letter requesting a porn filter on the campus WiFi. Since then, lead letter-writer Jim Martinson said, he’s received emails from more than 40 students at other universities who want to install a filter on their own campuses.

Georgetown senior Amelia Irvine, a conservative firebrand, told The Daily Beast that Martinson’s letter inspired her to push for something similar at her Catholic university. She plans to recruit support over the winter break and start an open letter or petition in the spring.

Students at secular schools like Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania also said they were excited by the idea, but were still figuring out how it could work on their campuses. At Princeton and Penn, students said they were already tabling and handing out fliers about the dangers of pornography on campus.

“I’m excited and I think we can really get this done,” Martinson said. “And I’m also confident that if we do get it done at Notre Dame, that other universities will follow suit.”

The proposal is simple: Install a filter on the campus WiFi that bars access to all websites that exist for the purpose of disseminating porn. Notre Dame’s technology policy already bans accessing pornographic, sexually explicit, or offensive material on campus networks, but Martinson said he was shocked by the amount of support for a digital barrier. A petition in support of the measure was signed by more than 1,000 men and women—more than a tenth of the Notre Dame student body.

Martinson’s open letter in the Notre Dame Observer claimed that pornography teaches men to objectify women, normalizes sexual assault, and exploits the men and women involved. The men of Notre Dame were calling for a filter, he wrote, “in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women.”

The letter was quickly followed by a response from more than 60 “women of Notre Dame,” who argued that pornography’s prevalence on campus was “preventing men and women from encountering the full personhood of one another in friendships and relationships.”

The proposal’s popularity made headlines in the conservative National Review and the frat-boy favorite Barstool Sports. The student senate discussed it at a recent meeting, according to the Observer, and Martinson said he broached the idea with administrators at the “top of the university.”

“The university has been very receptive,” Martinson said. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to get it done by the end of the year.” Notre Dame officials did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think that it’s much easier to objectify women and to not see them as people when you’re simply viewing them as objects of sexual pleasure.”
— Jack Whelan, anti-porn activist at Princeton
Campus porn filters aren’t a totally new idea. Michael Griffin, senior vice president of Holy Cross College, told the Observer the school had installed one 15 years ago to save bandwidth, but kept it in place for moral reasons. Northern Illinois University attempted a similar ban in 2014, according to the Northern Star, but later revised it to cover only employees. Private companies like McDonalds, Panera, and Starbucks have all installed similar filters on their public WiFi networks.

Whether porn is actually a problem on campus, however, is debatable. Martinson said he began advocating for the filter after hearing from male classmates who were struggling with pornography addiction. But a 2013 study found that the average college student engaged in “arousal-oriented online sexual activity” less than once or twice per month. A 2014 study of students across four countries found that 76 percent had viewed online “sexual entertainment” in their lifetimes, but showed “relatively infrequent experience” with the subject matter in the previous three months.

There’s also little evidence that porn consumption leads to negative treatment of women. A 2007 study from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that the amount of pornography viewed did not predict negative attitudes toward women. And as some experts have pointed out, the rate of sexual assault has decreased in recent decades, even as porn use has soared.

In fact, research shows that whether or not someone thinks of pornography as a problem is closely tied to how religious they are. A 2014 study, for example, found that religiosity and moral disapproval were the best predictors of perceived addiction to porn, but were completely unrelated to actual levels of use.

It’s no surprise then, that the push for porn filters comes from a religious segment of campus. The Notre Dame letter, for example, was part of a yearly anti-porn campaign by a campus group called the Students for Child Oriented Policy (SCOP). The group advertises itself as nonpartisan and nonsectarian, but has hosted several anti-abortion talks on campus and once circulated a petition asking Notre Dame to take a “clear stand” against same-sex marriage. Irvine, meanwhile, is president of a pro-heterosexual-marriage campus group that has been accused of promoting intolerance against LGBTQ students.

Martinson said the religious aspect was important to him personally, but that he preferred to focus on the issues of addiction and objectification of women. “It’s really important to frame things from a secular perspective because you just appeal to more people,” he said.

One Harvard student who reached out to Martinson about the filter is a converted Catholic and co-president of the Anscombe Society, which advocates for “premarital abstinence and sexual integrity.” (The group is also strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.) Will Long—a computer-science and government major who recently penned an op-ed for The Harvard Crimson on “recovering the beauty of sex”—linked the use of pornography to campus hookup culture and dating apps, which he said corrode relationships between students.

This kind of moral disdain for porn isn’t new for religious conservatives, who’ve made it central to their political campaigns for decades. But the new campus anti-porn crowd is refreshing their moral arguments with the language of the #MeToo and anti-campus-rape movements, repeating familiar feminist talking points about the objectification of women and how pornography focuses predominantly on male pleasure.

Every student who spoke with The Daily Beast mentioned the levels of violence against women displayed in modern pornography. (A third of all porn scenes showed perceived physical or psychological harm to another person, one recent study found.) While the students never claimed that porn directly caused sexual assault, several said they felt it contributed to the current cultural moment.

Could Notre Dame University become a porn-free zone?
Jack Whelan, an anti-porn advocate at Princeton, pointed to a recent video asking men to distinguish between porn scenes and stories of sexual assault.

“It’s not hard to draw a connection between men viewing that type of pornography and men acting in similar ways towards women,” Whelan said. “I think that it’s much easier to objectify women and to not see them as people when you’re simply viewing them as objects of sexual pleasure.”

The words could have been taken from the mouths of second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who mounted protests against the burgeoning porn industry of the 1980s. In fact, Long said he thought he could partner on this fight with the women’s center or “other left-leaning women’s groups”—groups he said he usually would not count as allies. (The Harvard women’s center did not respond to a request for comment.)

“It’s really important to frame things from a secular perspective because you just appeal to more people.”
— Will Long, Harvard student
Today’s feminists, however, seemed largely unexcited by the porn filter proposal. In a response to the men’s letter, Notre Dame student Jackie O’Brien wrote her own letter to the editor calling the idea “patronizing” and “degrading” to sex workers. Anne Jarrett—a Notre Dame gender studies major and self-described “obvious feminist”—urged the letter-writers to call their legislators or work for a campaign around sexual assault, rather than wasting their time banning porn.

“Rather than judging these consensual acts, let’s celebrate that people are practicing consent and communicating openly with their partner (on screen or off),” she wrote.

The women weren’t alone. The original porn filter proposal sparked six letters to the editor against the idea, as well as one satirical column calling for a filter on food porn and a rebuttal entitled “Give Me Pornhub or Give Me Death.”

Peter Jeffery, a professor at the school, wrote to say that such a filter could prevent people with a porn addiction from speaking out and finding help. Richard G. Hoover, an alumnus from the class of 1974, said he disliked pornography but did not feel “censorship” was the answer.

Even the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—which previously advocated for SCOP when it was denied club recognition over its stance on gay marriage—said the filter would earn its “red light” rating for infringing on freedom of speech.

“Most pornographic, sexually explicit, and offensive material is protected under the First Amendment,” the civil-liberties group wrote. “As such, any institution that claims to protect free speech should not treat pornography substantially different than other protected speech.”

The students admitted that advocating for a ban on porn—or for more chaste sexual ethics in general—doesn’t make them popular on campus. Whelan said he largely confined his conversations on the subject to his close friends, while Irvine said she’d once ended things with a suitor who she learned was watching porn.

And Long said he’d received dozens of critical messages after writing his op-ed, though it didn’t curb his enthusiasm for the porn filter. Being the go-to person for these issues on campus was isolating, he said—though not necessarily in a bad way.

“I think learning to hold on to something that you believe to be true and that you believe to be important and good,” he said. “It can have good effects on individuals if they choose to hold on to that truth.”

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