In October, a letter from 80 male students appeared in the University of Notre Dame’s student newspaper describing in the most alarming of terms something akin to a campus crisis, an “affront to human rights,” an imminent catastrophe for relationships.
It had apparently ensnared more than half the male population there, the men wrote. The letter alleged it perpetuated violence toward women, and was associated with sexually abusing children, male fertility problems and rape. And when the students wrote in to The Observer, it was with a demand that the university try to eradicate it.
This evil: pornography.
Students there, starting with the letter, have launched a campaign calling for the Notre Dame administration to block porn from the institution’s wireless network. They’ve raised such a firestorm that other campuses far beyond Indiana have noticed. Students at Harvard University, Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania, inspired by the cause at Notre Dame, have replicated their efforts, a contemporary push for an enduring, yet generally unsuccessful, goal.
For decades, colleges and universities have seen various crusades to ban pornography pop up. The Dickinson Press published a feature nearly three years ago about two self-described porn addicts, students at North Dakota State University, who created a “local street team” for national advocacy group Fight the Drug (the drug was porn). Sixteen years before that, a professor at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo who complained that she was unwillingly exposed to explicit content on her shared work computer tried to ban pornography from university computers.
But the latest effort at Notre Dame stands out as it comes amid the Me Too movement, when the argument that women (and men) should not be objectified carries more salience. Starbucks announced recently that it would filter porn on its public Wi-Fi, one of the first major companies to do so since McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A two years ago.
Still, most of the vigor behind the larger and oft-political war on porn has dissipated. Far gone are the days of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and lawmakers pledging -- as President Reagan once did in the late ’80s -- that the adult film industry’s “days were numbered.”
The student leading the Notre Dame effort, Jim Martinson, a senior, could not be reached for a full interview. But in his letter, Martinson, who is also president of a campus group called Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), wrote that more than 1,000 students, professors and staff members had signed a petition to block porn on campus:
Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years.
Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women -- violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.
Notre Dame’s policies prohibit accessing pornography on its network. Asked if the university would consider a block, spokesman Paul J. Browne told Inside Higher Ed that students are expected to “self-filter” and not patronize porn websites.
“We recognize that pornography is exploitative and not a victimless crime,” Browne wrote in an email.
Martinson, though, in an interview with The Daily Beast, claimed that top administrators were receptive to the filter and he expected one “by the end of the year.”
Officials aren’t the only ones apparently backing the proposal. Shortly after the letter in The Observer was published, a group of women followed with one of their own, led by Martinson’s vice president at SCOP, Ellie Gardey, who wrote that they wanted the university to block access to the top 25 pornographic sites. SCOP states on its website that it is a “nonpartisan, nonsectarian” group, but it clearly advocates for traditional causes. It promotes marriage between a man and a woman and other "certain human values."
“We want a filter because we want to be seen and treated by our Notre Dame brothers for who we are: their sisters in Christ who are worthy of the greatest dignity and respect. We want a filter because we want to eliminate sexual assault and sexual abuse on our campus,” the second letter reads.
Choosing which websites students are allowed to access on the campus Wi-Fi might be legal for a private college such as Notre Dame, but it might not be easy to enforce. As early as 1997, a federal court ruled that colleges (including public institutions -- the case involved University of Oklahoma) can legally restrict graphic and sexual content on their networks. And countless filtering services exist, but more commonly these types of digital barriers are exercised in K-12 schools or on a network in a workplace. But in an age when most college students own a cellphone, it’s a matter of simply disconnecting from the Wi-Fi and using data plans or making a hotspot to circumvent a porn prohibition.
Martinson acknowledged the limitations in his op-ed, which was rebutted by six other letters to the campus paper, including one called “Give Me Pornhub or Give Me Death,” a 1,800-word dissent that included a list of the suppressive countries where pornography is vastly restricted or outright illegal.
"Ah yes, to be a woman in Afghanistan! Censorship of pornography has done wonders for their liberation and progression!" the student, Jeffrey Murphy, wrote.
Another student, Joshua De Oliveira, dissected what he considered the misrepresented facts in Martinson’s letter, pointing out that a statistic that the letter cited on pornography and divorces came from a biased source, the conservative Marriage and Religion Research Institute, which had distorted the data.
“Instead of creating ineffectual policies against pornography, our campus should focus on the real issues that create a market for pornography and a culture that promotes rape, sexual assault and the inferiority of women,” De Oliveira wrote.
Other campuses, many of them religious, have forbidden pornography on their networks.
At Saint Vincent College, a Benedictine institution in Pennsylvania, pornographic material is blocked, said spokeswoman Suzanne Wilcox English.
English said that the college is obligated to ensure “good stewardship” of its resources in a way that reflects its Catholic identity. She noted that both time and internet bandwidth are examples of those finite resources, and so if employees or students abused that by streaming pornography, it would be “a misuse.”
Students who want pornography outlawed on campuses have identified many of the same reasons as Martinson: concerns that it objectifies people and undermines relationships.
Will Long is a senior at Harvard and said he was motivated by Martinson’s campaign to start his own at the Ivy League campus. Long runs an organization called the Anscombe Society that promotes “chastity and sexual ethics,” Long explained in a series of text messages, along the lines of the British philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe.
College students already deal with problematic “dating and hookup culture,” Long wrote in a text message. Long said he has heard stories from “tons of girls” who get drunk before going to a fraternity or sleeping with a guy. He lumps pornography into this category: something damaging to students and their ability to relate “to members of the opposite sex.”
“Porn is really the ultimate example of abstracting away a person, someone’s daughter, into an object of gratification,” Long wrote in a text. He added that while Harvard is obligated to educate men and women, the college does not need to provide access to porn -- and it “shouldn’t be promoting it.”
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities doesn’t have policies for its member institutions on their operations around pornography, spokeswoman Paula Moore said. But she noted that the U.S. church has been clear in its attempts to fix “the harm caused by pornography,” Moore wrote in an email. In that email, Moore included guidance on porn by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that she said the ACCU supports.
Titled “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” the article explains that pornography is wrong because sexual love is a gift meant for just marriage. It states that men are most susceptible to pornography, but that the church wants to heal those pornography has hurt.
“Its use is also often linked with other sins, especially masturbation but also adultery and the crime of human trafficking. Pornography objectifies people and brings hurt and pain. It is an illusory substitute for real relationships and intimacy, which in the end bring true joy,” the guidance reads.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog in academe, opposed the Notre Dame efforts to block pornography (FIRE was key in helping secure SCOP its affiliation in 2014 when the university initially denied it).
“A filter would not only censor protected speech, it would also be ineffective at preventing people from viewing pornography,” FIRE said in a statement in October.