Harvard - home of ethical porn

Carolyn Moynihan
28 February 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Parents whose offspring have achieved a place in one of the world's leading universities must feel a thrill of pride as they hand their fledglings over to the care of a housemaster at one of its hallowed halls of residence. It is going to cost them a fortune but with hard work and good mentoring a gilt-edged career for their son or daughter is almost guaranteed. It may not have occurred to them, however, that the moral environment their kids are entering leaves everything else to chance.

Let's say a girl is heading for Harvard, where she is going to do a pre-med course, and likes the sound of Pforzheimer House, a collection of dormitories in Harvard's Quadrangle. If her parents take the trouble to check out Pfoho (as it is affectionately called) they would be able to meet, at least online, the married couple who are co-masters of the house, Erika and Nicholas Christakis.

Mrs Christakis is herself a Harvard graduate and her profile on the Pforzheimer website reveals a warm-sounding person ("I love caring for young mammals…") who is a mother, teacher and a Master of Public Health who has been involved in development projects in Africa and Asia. She has "a longstanding interest in the intersection of health, eduction, and family" and is happy to talk with students who are also interested in teaching and public health, "or who are not sure what they want to do 'when they grow up'."

Mr Christakis is actually quite a famous academic, a physician and social scientist with joint appointments at Harvard Medical School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Department of Sociology). Formerly also a front-line hospice doctor, he is best known these days for his research on social networks and their influence on health. In his profile he says he wants students to feel free to talk to him "at any time, about any topic. I am especially interested in getting to know you as people -- to know about your individual interests, hopes, aspirations, quandaries."

Together they sound like pretty eligible stand-ins for parents, just the sort of people to guide emerging adults around the pitfalls of living in a large community of peers who are testing their freedom against new-found access to alcohol and sex. As Mrs Christakis says, "Nicholas and I feel connected to you. And we are eager to support you on your intellectual, social and moral journey at this stage of your lives."

Nice to hear that word, "moral". But hold on -- could this be the same Erika Christakis who thinks there is nothing wrong with pornography so long as one can find an "ethical" source for it? I'm afraid so. Writing in the Huffington Post early this month, the same "educator, public health advocate and Harvard College administrator" put "The Case for Fair Trade Porn". It's time, she argued, that we became as selective about "our" porn as about our coffee and pork.

Basically her view of porn is this: the urge to watch it is primitive (universal) but "relatively harmless", and with the advent of online porn the vast majority of Americans (if not the human race) indulge the urge -- including Evangelical Christians (important to mention that). Calls to regulate the content of pornography must be rejected because they would spoil the "buzz" which is the essence of porn for many people: "One person's degradation may be another person's kink…"

Nevertheless, consumers cannot be completely without standards when shopping for porn. Although some porn stars may actually like what they are doing, it appears that some are coerced and subjected to dangerous conditions, and it is important for consumers with ethical sensitivity to know which are which. People should be able to make an informed choice of filth that the actors enjoyed making or at least agreed to freely.

Feminist preoccupations lend a certain subtlety to her argument, in particular the idea that women are not getting their fair share of pornography. A lot of "so-called 'feminist porn'" is "sanitised" and "a buzz-kill". "Fair Trade porn", however, would tend to lift the aesthetic standard "which might, in turn, shift the skewed gender balance of viewership." Somehow, all this could put us in "a better relationship with the human body."

It's a reasonable guess that most parents of the 400 undergraduates for whose wellbeing Mrs Christakis is responsible do not read her blog on the Huffington Post. If they did, they might be thrown off the scent by three recent posts examining the Twilight series in which the Harvard House Master praises the films for exploring "female fantasy life" in a way that the movie industry generally fails to do. Exactly what depths that fantasy life might sink to is not spelled out; one has to read the porn post for that.

Still, it's out there and word must be getting around. It would be reassuring to think that parents, and students themselves, some of them, are engaging Mrs Christakis or her husband (who, presumably, goes along with her predilection for porn) on the subject of exactly how sexual degradation puts the consumer in a better relationship with the human body, and just what they understand by a "moral journey".

The Pforzheimer House Master(s) may reply that a moral journey is simply one that faces the "truth" that we are all beasts at heart ("primitive") and that most of us actually live that way. My guess is that most parents, if not students (who have already heard a lot of this stuff in high school), would vehemently disagree with this philosophy and be appalled at the thought of young people absorbing it within the apparently civilised environs of the leading Ivy League university.

But what does the university itself think of encouraging the use of porn? The authorities must know where its House Master of three years has set her ethical bar -- on this subject, at least. How many other people on the staff agree with her? How would it affect efforts the institution might make to discourage hooking up like beasts, or drinking like beasts?

Mrs Christakis is obviously a talented woman and she no doubt has a genuine interest in young people. Her views on porn are neither unique, nor, in the contemporary moral landscape, uniquely wicked. But they are horrible nonetheless and it is discouraging to think they may influence the next generation of top professionals.

There are more things to consider in choosing a university than most parents have dreamed of.