Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Notre Dame Prep Sex Video Furore: What Really Happened

Not a Love Story Poster.jpg
Nearly 18 years ago, a “scandal” erupted over a purported “sex tape” used at Notre Dame Prep outside Baltimore. The media frenzy that followed is noteworthy, because to the sober and rational observer living in the Baltimore area, it was a storm in a teacup. A faux crisis had been manufactured by a tiny group of malcontents who couldn’t discriminate a true porn video from a documentary on the harm caused by porn.

Because of their interference, a program that had been taught by dedicated nuns as part of the school’s religion program was peremptorily shut down. A model for sex education was instead neutered as the moralist scolds had their way. The National Film Board of Canada, for example, describes the video thusly:

"A thought-provoking chronicle of the odyssey of two women, Bonnie Klein, the director of the film, and Linda Lee Tracey, a stripper. Together they set out to explore the world of peep shows, strip joints and sex supermarkets. Both are motivated by the desire to know more about pornography--why it exists, the forms it takes, and how it affects relations between men and women"

In other words, the video was emphatically NEVER intended as any kind of run of the mill porno video as the few detractors portrayed it.  It is true, as Wikipedia's brief entry notes, the film was banned in the province of Ontario on the basis of its pornographic content - a decision that was later reversed. I.e. the censors came to their senses and realized that high amp content ABOUT a subject is not the same as promoting the subject!  As Wikipedia also notes, it remains one of the landmark works from the Studio D, the women's studio of the National Film Board of Canada.  So why did it get removed as part of a seminar taught by nuns at Notre Dame Prep, at the behest of a tiny group of fearful, sex-phobic zealots?

This is a blog concerning those events and discussing what we’ve learned, if anything, as the ‘culture wars’ never seem to end.   I start with a quote from a piece by Michael Olesker, ‘Why Was Porno At Notre Dame Ignored for Years?’ in The Baltimore Sun, March 23, 1995, p. 2B:

“A lady friend who went to Seton Hall High School in the 1960s remembers a fine arts course where one of the nuns announced on a spring afternoon: “Today we’ll be looking at paintings from the Renaissance period. There will be a few paintings where women are not fully clothed. Those of you who feel uncomfortable with this are allowed to leave the room.

We think tenderly of such over-protectiveness now and wish to make our own innocence retroactive. At Notre Dame Prep, we discover a little belatedly, they’ve been showing their young ladies a porno movie that disguises itself as a documentary. They’ve been showing it for the past 10 years, during all of which time, it turns out, nobody desired to leave the room.

The movie, called ‘Not A Love Story: A Film About Pornography” – was part of a school workshop exploring the links between porno and sexual violence against women. Students needed parental permission to see the movie. But permission slips never hinted at the hard core sex.”

Olesker’s media  take above - along with others- rocked the Baltimore region, and led to nearly a month a recriminations and a “witch hunt” (I don’t know what else to call it) at the high school – Notre Dame Preparatory for Girls. The “Inquisition” itself was led by then Cardinal William H. Keeler, who wanted to get to the bottom of it all and especially how nuns at the school could be showing their charges a “porno” film as part of a seminar on sexual violence. This was part of the school’s Religion program.

In response to Cardinal Keeler’s announcement, Sister Christine Mulcahy – who chaired the school’s board of trustees stated:

‘We welcome the archdiocese to assess the outstanding religion program and we are open to their expertise” (Baltimore Sun, March 22, 1995, p. 1B) According to the Sun article, in parsing the origin of the furore:

“The long simmering controversy surfaced publicly because of a letter signed by Lucy M. Plowden, a Homeland resident who is the mother of two alumnae at the school. The letter, which charged that some faculty members have failed to support Catholic values, was mailed to parents of Notre Dame’s nearly 600 students in February.

Another complainant is Paul K. Van Sant, a Baltimore investment counselor who obtained a copy of the controversial sex video used in religious instruction. After reviewing it with several parents, Mr. Van Sant described himself as ‘flabbergasted’ over the film’s vulgarity.”

The Sun piece goes on to describe the video thus:

“The 68-minute video, a documentary entitled ‘Not a Love Story’, is described in promotional material as “the chronicle of two women, Bonnie Klein – the director of the film, and Linda Lee Tracey, a stripper, as they explore the world of XXX-rated peep shows, strip joints and sex supermarkets.”

Sister Christine, for her part, didn’t hold back with her disappointment in terms of the vile approach used, sending complaint letters directly to all the parents, as opposed to consulting her. As quoted in the article she said:

“We are deeply saddened by the manner in which the educational and moral values of Notre Dame Prep School have been distorted by a very small group whose identity is unknown to us.”

Who are these scolds, anyway? Or perhaps a better question might be: What manner of human sexual scolds and puritans are they? From what hidden or loose DNA strands or genome, do these mutants emerge?

In his book, ‘America’s War on Sex’, Marty Klein describes them as “Erotophobes”. In his preliminary summation of the putative sides of the never-ending “culture wars” he writes:

“Those who fear and hate sexuality (erotophobes) are attacking those who appreciate or tolerate sexuality (erotophiles). And while erotophiles are not attempting to force erotophobes to live more sexually adventurous lives, erotophobes insist that both sides – everyone – live according to their erotophobic values.

Erotophiles say: “If you don’t want to go to a nude beach, don’t shut it down to prevent me from going.”

Erotophobes say: “I don’t want to go to a nude beach and I don’t want you to have the option to go either!”

In other words, a moralistic sex scold and erotophobe. But even more critically, a scold whose conscious mind is so taken up by the fear of sex that s/he won't even allow a documentary film to be shown to young people which highlights the pitfalls of porn and misdirected sex!

Quite obviously, the nuns that ran the seminar on sexual violence were more erotophiles but in the most positive, constructive way : they viewed sex as a positive aspect of humanity but were also aware of the negative effects of certain kinds of porn, and found that their charges needed to be aware of them. They might have selected a ‘Mary Poppins’-ish  video by which to try to gain their attention, but understood more realistically, that a more genuine video would have a more salutary and long term effect. No one complained about it over ten years, not one of the girls, so why the big fuss? Well, because one or two parents who managed to see the video got their panties in a bunch about it ….eroto-PHOBES!

Nor is this issue passé, though it happened 17 years ago, going on 18. In her book: ‘Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics’, Sister Margaret Farley – also a target of pea-brained Inquisitors, courageously explored dozens of sexual-moral cultures from around the globe. Her results were startling in their finding that (typically) white Americans of the Catholic mold were amongst the most sex averse in the world.

Why is that? Or in the context of the Notre Dame porn video furore: How is it Canadian and European sexuality classes could show the same porno documentary with no fanfare or outrage, but all hell broke loose in Maryland, USA? Inquiring minds want to know!

Sister Farley for her part in the book section on 'The Negative Potential of Sex' (p. 237) surveys a couple of the negative agents (e.g. prostitution and pornography) that might impact the relational norms in her defined sexual ethics (Chapter Six, 'Framework for a Sexual Ethic'). As opposed to hysterical, irrational treatment, she observes (p. 239):

"Not all use of pornography is harmful to individuals, no doubt, and it is all too easy for zealots to lump even great literature and art into the category of pornography."

Indeed! Tell that to the sex scolds in Maryland, over the ‘Not A Love Story’ video! Who came out frothing at the mouth over a documentary exposing the harmful effects of porn on the relationships between men and women!

But let’s probe this issue at a deeper level based on Klein’s own insights (Battleground: The War on Pornography, p. 136). He writes as a sex positivist (and note that although 'Not a Love Story' is not porn, the category of media under which it was attacked was interpreted as porn. Also, condeming all porn as vile - as Sister Farley notes, is whacko crazy, since much of it is useful, for example in showing men and women how to gain more sexual fulfillment and diversity):

“Pornography is NOT a love story but it does tell some truths. Not literal truths – few of us look like porn actors- but more philosophical, eternal truths. Politically relevant truths. That’s why porn is ultimately subversive, a key reason it’s under siege.”

Once the truths are exposed, this take is validated. Some of the truths Klein identifies are:

- Anyone can feel sexy

- Nothing is inherently non-sexual or erotic.

- The only rules in sex are arbitrary

- Many, many people love sex.

- The erotically ‘nasty’ can be life-affirming

- Even ‘nice people’ enjoy nasty fantasies and games

- Neither intercourse nor orgasm is the center of sexuality

- Focusing on sexuality for its own sake is legitimate

- Men and women who feel secure in their dignity can enthusiastically submit erotically because they don’t fear others’ judgments.

All of these are powerful statements. Most critically, nearly all are at odds with standard Catholic sexuality teaching which places the act of sex beneath the priority of procreation – never mind our planet can’t handle any more CO2 generating humans! Given this, it’s not hard to see why the anti-Notre Dame sex video scolds would feel that the nuns “failed to support Catholic values”. What they evidently forgot in their zealous haste, is that the nuns at Notre Dame – like Sister Margaret Farley – were trying to support HUMAN values.

And they saw that HUMAN values trumped the limited, dumbed down Catholic values. Extrapolate that now to American sex values and one finds a remarkable coincidence despite Catholics making up barely one third of the population. Thus, to recite Klein’s litany of dopey authoritarian axioms pushed on the unthinking:

- Traditional external rules are paramount – if mommy tells you not to play with thingie, she MEANS it!

- Body parts are either sexual or non-sexual (“Don’t even think of involving feet in any sex!”)

- “Nice” and “nasty” sexuality are worlds apart – transl. We don’t do erotic spanking here!

- People who look at porn are nasty, perverted degenerates!

Note that in each case above the transgressive option entails more freedom, true liberty, not less. While Americans are endlessly bragging about how “free” they are, the fact is most Europeans laugh – because they know in things like sexuality Americans are by and large trapped in limited, puritanically -dictated levels of mental servitude. They might read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ but few if any would actually incorporate whips or paddles into an authentic sexuality or erotic expression. They’d dismiss it as degraded – hence they aren’t free to pursue it, even experimentally.

Like Sister Farley, Betty Dodson the sex therapist has also appealed to Americans to broaden their sexual perspectives. She argued that if more people, more Americans – pursued currently despised sexual expressions such as masturbation – they’d be much better off. Healthier and more open minded. (Sr. Farley in her own book, makes the case that ‘solo sex’ can be a boon to saving a marriage.)

Perhaps if the Maryland sex scolds had taken this advice the Notre Dame scandal would never have erupted, and the Europeans wouldn’t still be laughing at us now!

The link to the video documentary discussed above can be found here:

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