Students strive to ban pornography, rekindle debate over University filter
Peter Breen and Gabrielle Beechert | Wednesday, April 12, 2023
Editor’s Note: This story contains mentions of sexual violence. Resources are available for Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students.
Last month, four Notre Dame student senators proposed a resolution to ban pornography on campus Wi-Fi. The resolution appealed to the University’s Catholic character, linking frequent pornography use with sexual violence.
“Research indicates ‘frequent porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others, more likely to express an intent to rape, less likely to intervene during a sexual assault, more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual violence, more likely to support violence against women, more likely to forward sexts without consent and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence,‘” the resolution said.
While Notre Dame’s Responsible Use of Data and Information Technology Resources policy prohibits the use of University resources “to post, view, print, store or send obscene, pornographic, sexually explicit or offensive material, except for officially approved, legitimate academic or University purposes,” the policy is not widely enforced.
The March resolution is the latest student-led attempt to filter pornography on Notre Dame’s Wi-Fi. The dialogue surrounding pornography on the tri-campus has garnered attention within and outside the community for years.
SCOP and the pornography filter
Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), a Notre Dame student group, has spread awareness about pornography’s dangers on campus for about a decade. SCOP’s mission is to advocate for children “by promoting marriage, education and adoption and defending against the harms of pornography and drug/alcohol abuse.”
“[SCOP] works in a lot of different areas that all kind of center on the family and upholding the dignity of every child — and a big part of that is supporting healthy relationships and healthy marriages, and a huge indicator of divorce is pornography use,” co-president Kylie Gallegos said.
On Oct. 23, 2018, SCOP kicked off its third-ever White Ribbon Against Pornography (WRAP) Week, an annual series of events to initiate conversations about pornography and addiction.
The next day, 81 male students signed a Letter to the Editor in The Observer requesting a porn filter on University Wi-Fi. One day later, 63 female students responded, standing in solidarity with the male students’ request.
Throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, a petition backed by SCOP garnered over 2,400 signatures after a shower of Letters to the Editor in The Observer and coverage from national news outlets.
In February 2019, SCOP’s leadership met with University President Fr. John Jenkins, presenting their policy proposal for a porn filter.
The University addressed SCOP’s concerns short of filtering pornography on the institutional level, implementing an “opt-in” system instead. Notre Dame now provides students, faculty and staff services to filter pornography on personal devices, as well as resources for those who struggle with pornography addiction.
“We are disheartened to see that Notre Dame has rejected the call of thousands of members of the Notre Dame family to adopt a campus pornography filter,” SCOP president Jim Martinson and vice president Ellie Gardey wrote in May 2019 after the University failed to fully address their concerns.
SCOP still supports enacting a porn filter and the group continues to encourage dialogue surrounding pornography at Notre Dame.
This February, SCOP held its annual WRAP Week and hosted events that included a lecture, tabling in Duncan Student Center and chalking messages like “porn kills love” and “porn fuels sex trafficking” on sidewalks outside Duncan and LaFortune Student Centers.
“It’s super awkward,” Gallegos said. “It’s not very fun to table and to have to be like, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about pornography?’ No one wants to do that. But also [we recognize] how important that is and that if we’re not doing it, no one else is going to do it.”
Gallegos said SCOP knows a filter would be symbolic, as students would still be able to get off the University Wi-Fi and access pornography.
“[A filter] would say, ‘We as Notre Dame have these values, and we’re not going to allow this behavior or activity on our Wi-Fi that we pay for,” Gallegos said. “I think the sexual assault aspect of it is the most important.”
Though SCOP is not officially religious, Gallegos said the organization follows a Catholic sexual ethic.
“The Catholic Church [believes] sex is for inside of marriage, and it is for both procreative and unitive purposes,” Gallegos said. “It’s very contained … anytime you step out of that, sex within marriage for those two purposes, I think that there are a lot of consequences.”
After Notre Dame rejected SCOP’s petition in 2019, Gallegos said SCOP’s leadership was informed that the University might be more willing to consider a porn filter if a student government initiative was behind it.
Upholding the Catholic character
University spokesperson Dennis Brown confirmed via email that after hearing concerns four years ago about the impact of pornography on campus, Notre Dame explored ways to address the issue short of filtering on an institutional level.
“Pornography is an exploitative menace that Notre Dame condemns in no uncertain terms,” Brown wrote.
Brown wrote that Notre Dame does not filter pornography on an institutional basis, as doing so may interfere with legitimate research on the subject.
Notre Dame’s policies are targeted toward instances in which the University is informed of inappropriate use, Brown added.
“The University has enforced our policy against downloading of pornography in specific cases, including criminal prosecution,” Brown wrote. “It is important to note, however, that these interventions occurred in connection with individual cases or complaints, and not as a result of wholesale surveillance of nd.edu users.”
On March 8, a group of four students, led by John Soza of Morrissey Manor and Ayden Ellis of Siegfried Hall, introduced SS 2223-15 to the student senate floor.
If approved, the resolution would call on the University and its Office of Information Technologies (OIT) to prevent students from accessing pornography on campus Wi-Fi.
During questioning of the resolution, Soza and Ellis explained that Catholic peer institutions, such as Holy Cross College and the Catholic University of America, have taken steps to filter pornography from their networks. Soza defined pornography according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In debate over the resolution, then-off-campus senator Jack Davies expressed concern that the bill would threaten inclusivity at the University.
“The language in this bill is dangerous and sets a bad precedent,” Davies said. “Tying this to the Catechism is dangerous. Could we ban anything related to the LGBTQ+ community on campus, then?”
Then-student body president Patrick Lee said a filter would be a positive step forward.
“It might be accurate that there may be more fruitful ways to address sexual violence,” Lee said. “Maybe this won’t completely eliminate porn usage on campus, but students may ask, ‘Why is this banned? Is this a positive thing for me to be doing?’”
Griffin McAndrew, then-senator from Knott Hall, yielded his time to a constituent, Knott Hall residential assistant Spencer Koehl.
“There is value in the free will to choose not to watch porn instead of having someone else choose for you,” Koehl said.
In an anonymous, closed vote via Google Form, the senate voted down the resolution, 24-11.
Soza, who has followed SCOP since high school when the club appeared in national media, said he believed the resolution had a chance at passing.
“I didn’t go in thinking that it was going to absolutely fail,” Soza said. “But I think that there’s also the dynamics that go along with voting … publicly versus voting on a Google Form.”
Going forward, Soza hopes the University and its students remain vigilant of pornography’s dangers, he said.
“On college campuses, I feel like people are more inclined to talk about alcohol addiction, tobacco or nicotine addictions, even certain types of drug addictions,” Soza said. “But no one really wants to talk about the fact that pornography is literally the same rewiring of your brain. It’s just that everyone’s uncomfortable to talk about it.”
In addition to addressing sexual violence, Soza said the University’s Catholic character was important to the resolution’s four sponsors.
“All Notre Dame has to do is say, ‘We’re not going to allow our students to serve as the middlemen, to allow our students to engage in something that we obviously deem to be immoral and problematic in society,” Soza said.
A pornographized culture
Faculty members Gail Bederman and Pam Wojcik responded to the senate resolution, addressing the role of pornography in society.
In recent decades, Bederman says young men have turned to pornography to learn about sex: how to do it and how to perform it.
“The whole question of sex as performance has really arisen a lot, even in the last 20 years,” Bederman, a history and gender studies professor, said. “It becomes more and more a performance rather than something you do because it feels good. I worry about that. I think that comes from a pornographized culture.”
Additionally, Bederman said pornography tends to depict a version of sex not pleasurable to women.
“Women for a while were talking about how men were throwing them around, which is not something that makes most women feel good,” Bederman said. “It tends to look good in porn. So that’s the problem that I’ve seen, as well.”
Wojcik, a gender studies and film, television and theater professor, said she’s also “not personally a big fan of a lot of porn.”
“There have been feminist arguments against pornography that see it as misogynist, as rape-inducing, as leading to violence,” Wojcik said. “Those are different from the Christian arguments [against porn], which are anti-pleasure, anti-sex for anything but reproduction.”
And depending on the thread of feminism, Wojcik said scholars disagree about “what porn is, who it’s good for [and] who it’s not good for.”
While the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines pornography as “explicit material (verbal or pictorial) that is primarily designed to produce sexual arousal in viewers,” Bederman said the classification of content as porn has evolved over time.
“Between about 1932 and the mid-60s, Hollywood put in a code pressured by the Legion of Decency — which was a Catholic group — to leave out everything that they thought was pornographic, and that included any mention of birth control, any mention of abortion, any mention of homosexuality,” Bederman said. “Two people sitting in bed had to be in twin beds.”
During this period, Bederman said movies currently considered normal or even high art, such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl,” were banned as pornographic. U.S. courts had to step in and say, “That’s too far,” Bederman added.
Wojcik spoke about the difficulty of defining pornography and how the label of pornography has been applied to sex education and LGBTQ+ content.
“Lots of shows now have full-frontal male nudity that they didn’t used to have,” Wojcik said. “Is that pornography? Is everything on HBO pornography? If there are people who count representations of trans bodies as somehow pornographic, if they consider certain medical imagery as pornographic, the expansiveness seems to make [defining] it impossible.”
The senate resolution to ban porn, Wojcik argued, suggests a cisgender, heterosexual framework.
“Frequent porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others, more likely to express an intent to rape, less likely to intervene during a sexual assault — I question a lot of this research,” Wojcik said. “Are you talking about straight porn viewers? Are you talking about queer porn viewers? Are you looking at race? Are you looking at class? Are you looking at education?”
The resolution failed to think about “who might be accessing porn as a way to access a different imagining of their sexuality,” Wojcik added.
“If statistically the number of students who watch porn on campus is what they say, and if the link between porn and rape is what they say, you couldn’t walk down the campus without rape, rape, rape,” Wojcik said. “It’s assuming a heterosexual [and] violent porn.”
Wojcik said the idea of shutting out pornography is unrealistic and against the idea of a Catholic university, which would involve conversing about porn in a moral context rather than imposing Catholic doctrine onto students.
“They keep linking it to sexual assault, and I think that is a conversation that has to happen on this campus,” Wojcik said. “But getting the filter isn’t going to solve it. A filter is a restriction on freedom of speech. A university needs to be a place where there is freedom and access to information, and it should be a place where you can have conversations about difficult subjects, and porn is a difficult subject.”
Instead of eliminating pornography, Wojcik said there are alternatives that could be done on campus to address sexual violence.
“You could talk about the culture of the dorms,” Wojcik said. “You could talk about the culture of drinking on this campus, which is seriously problematic and really tied into sexual assault. You could talk about the way parietals prevent students from being able to say yes in a clear-cut way, so that situations get more blurry than they should. That also leads to sexual assault.”
Bederman, a member of the University’s Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention, said she wasn’t sure if the resolution would be productive. Watching pornography could become another “cool thing to get around, like parietals or drinking,” she added.
“Assault is out there,” Bederman said. “People are confused about what consent is — some people think they haven’t consented when other people think they have — it’s a mess. That’s a mess. I don’t think closing down on pornography would [fix] that.”
The resolution could serve as a positive conversation starter, Bederman said.
“When I looked at the resolution, I mean, nobody’s for assault,” she said. “That seems to be the issue — that maybe they weren’t talking about assault. Maybe they’re just using assault as an example of why they wanted things to be more shut down as far as understandings of sex and porn.”
Wojcik said prompting students to think about gender and sexuality in complicated ways might help them see pornography differently and avoid participating in porn culture.
“I think it should be part of orientation,” Wojcik said. “It should be an ongoing conversation. A filter isn’t going to do anything. It’s just going to make people mad. And they can do workarounds. Insofar as they’re thinking, ‘What does this do to the dynamic on campus in relation to sexuality?’ That’s a good question. I think it’s a mistaken effort. We’d all like there not to be assault.”
Censorship, community and support
At Holy Cross, pornography has been filtered on the College’s network since at least 2009, student government association president Bradley Szotko and vice president Joseph Stokes said.
“Looking at the positives versus negatives of [porn], ‘Is it going to increase human flourishing?’ is sort of the framework that [we] like to use,” Szotko said. “The answer is no.”
While Notre Dame’s undergraduate population approaches 9,000, Holy Cross has around 500 students enrolled, and most identify as Catholic, Szotko said.
“Naturally, [Notre Dame] is going to have a lot more diverse belief sets,” Szotko said. “You’re going to have a lot more people who don’t identify as Catholic … Holy Cross hasn’t necessarily had the kind of pressure to move away from that Catholic identity that Notre Dame has.”
Szotko said most Holy Cross students find out about the porn filter through word of mouth as first-years, and the College’s handbook mentions it, as well.
“[Holy Cross] made the determination that they felt that it was better for everybody involved on campus to not have [porn] available,” Stokes said. “So we won’t know the other side of the coin, just because that decision has already been made a long time ago.”
Saint Mary’s internet policy prohibits students from accessing, viewing, printing, storing, posting, sending or creating pornography on campus networks and devices. No official filter appears to be in place on Saint Mary’s Wi-Fi.
Lane Obringer, former Callisto campus champion and student government’s former director of gender relations: Title IX and women’s initiatives, said she was aware of prior attempts to enact a pornography ban on University Wi-Fi.
“Banning porn will not ban sexual violence,” Obringer said. “To truly address the issue of sexual violence on college campuses, I think Callisto and I believe that it is important to make a more holistic approach, to focusing our efforts on campus-wide integration of holding perpetrators accountable, providing robust resources to survivors including the Callisto vault and then dismantling rape culture and engaging students in consensual sex education.”
Speaking on behalf of former student body president Patrick Lee, vice president Sofie Stitt and herself, former chief of staff Nicole Baumann said her executive administration supports the pornography filter.
“Patrick, Sofie and I stand strongly in support of the pornography filter on campus,” Baumann said.
Baumann said the pornography industry is known for its degradation of women, rape culture and disrespecting the human person.
“I would say at its best, pornography would still be the purchasing of consent,” Baumann said. “And in that transaction, a woman’s livelihood is still dependent on her ability to complete an act … We can’t un-muddle consent from pornography, even when it’s not the 16-year-old who was trafficked into a Pornhub scene or something of that nature.”
Allowing access to pornography on campus Wi-Fi defies the University’s mission, Baumann added.
“Notre Dame is designed to be a force for good in the world,” Baumann said. “That can’t fully happen if Notre Dame resources are used to support industries which ignore the dignity of women, muddle consent and ruin lives of both the consumers and those who participate in the industry.”
The terms of many student government officials referred to in this article ended on April 1. Current student body president and vice president Daniel Jung and Aidan Rezner declined to comment on this story.