My student’s penis

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For some years, I was a Visiting Professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin.   I learned enormously from my colleagues there—and the great state of Texas paid me for it!  Admittedly, I also had to teach for that privilege, but my students were smart and ambitious, and the fizzing intellectual atmosphere  at UT Law made it all a pleasure.

I also fell in love with Austin: South Congress, Zilker park, Alamo Drafthouse, Ruby’s, South-by-Southwest, and also (the following are minority tastes) Hippie Hollow, Oilcan Harry’s and, especially, the late and lamented Charlie’s—which offered cheap margaritas and handsome men who, if you were not a racist asshole, would let you flirt in your high school Spanish and who might give you tips on East Austin restaurants.  It was, and I hope still is, a brilliant city.

But Austin was also the first place I was confronted by a student’s penis.  (I mean outside gyms, locker rooms etc.: such banal encounters never rose to proper confrontations.)  And this was long before ‘dick pics’.  Now, pretty much anyone might receive an uninvited penis or two in their inbox.  Their frequency increases with one’s location along the male-female axis and decreases along the age axis—though some of my middle-aged, straight male colleagues tell me that even they have received (fully confrontational) penises in statu pupillari.

My first dick pick was actually a dick flick.  I did not invite it, expect it, trade for it, pay for it, or hit on the student who sent it. It was purely donum gratis.  I did have a strictly platonic crush (in the English, rather than Platonic, sense of ‘platonic’) on a graduate student who had a very non-platonic crush on the penis-guy.  My platonic friend sent me a (disguised) link to his colleague’s penis performance, which was posted to a well-known ‘amateur’ porn site.  (My friend also sent it to many UT law students: I called him out on that, but too late.)

In the flick, the law student masturbated while scrunching his face into a leer that he may have considered sexy.  He was not good at any of this, but evidence suggests his flick was, for a while, popular.  In a couple of days, many UT students and faculty were tittering about it. (This was before they could have been Twittering about it—things would have been much worse for penis-guy today.)

Now, I had written academic papers on pornography and sexual objectification but I never  considered whether they had any bearing on students. I had argued that the post-modernist reductionisms of the 1990s (‘sex is gender’, ‘woman is a performance’) were poor guides to the conceptual or moral issues raised by same-sex pornography.  But I did not yet see that that these theories were also cocked, primed, and ready to blast away at  compromises between the conflicting interests of women and trans-women.  If there is no material reality or significance to a penis, if it is merely a production of  ‘discourse’, then a lesbian has little ground for complaint if her Tinder hook-up arrives wielding a penis, even one less striking than a vegetable marrow.   I did not welcome videos of an actual, material penis–especially not one attached to a student I knew–but I did not reflect on the fact that there are many other places that unexpected penises do not belong.

The other penis-fact that I missed yanked in a different direction.  Much pornography studied in the 1990s fell into a familiar paradigm: commercially produced imagery of women, displayed as masturbation material (as Catherine MacKinnon usefully put it), to serve men, often exploiting and dehumanizing the ‘actors’.  There is still lots of that  around.  But the dick flick was contemporaneous with the rise of what I call  ‘auto-pornography’:  masturbation material produced by the ‘actor’ himself,  not for commercial reasons, and not a result of exploitation, but perhaps a prelude to or substitute for, sex ‘in real life’.  Now, most of it is made by adolescent boys and young men using only their phones and it is intended for a limited audience.  (My student’s penis should remind them, however, they cannot count on that: any online penis is a free-range penis.)

We partly address these cases through consent: uninvited ‘dick pics’, to say nothing of ‘revenge porn’, clearly violate that principle.  However, I have also come to think that there may be other issues here, including this one:  What does it do to a boy to objectify himself, to produce himself as sex toy or masturbation aid, even donum gratis?  I did not notice this owing to the dialectical focus in the literature on ‘typical’ pornography, and owing to my then-exaggerated reservations about paternalism.

I had argued that ‘sexual objectification’ is not necessarily a bad thing–Martha Nussbaum made the same point, more eloquently.  Perhaps I advanced the discussion a little by calling attention to the fact that access to sexual objectification, when it is a good or benign thing, is unequally distributed, and that may be of moral concern.  Gay children, disabled people, and the elderly do not find it easy in our societies to imagine themselves as sexual objects, and few feminist writers took any interest in whether they had needs that might be served by the liberty to use pornography.

Auto-pornography, however, raises new issues.  Some are matters of law.  I don’t want teens prosecuted (and they have been) under sexual offences provisions for making or possessing dick pics.  Some of those prosecutions relate to the alleged possession of child pornography (imagery of people under 18) which is in England a strict liability offence, and conviction for which can lead to a life-  and career-destroying entry in the sex offenders register. I also don’t want the UK to require all users of porngraphy to identifiy themselves in a pointless interference with the personal liberty of teenagers, and one that is anyway bound to fail.

But I have also come to wonder whether we spend too much time worrying about the (mostly conjectural) harms, or benefits, to others from consensually made and used ‘ordinary’ pornography, and not enough time worrying about the self-harm, or benefits,  that may be caused or constituted by teens making pornographic videos of themselves.  Even a Millian who doubts that paternalistic considerations ever warrant interference with liberty should be open to non-coercive protection of teens from harmful activities that they have every right to do.  As far as I know,  philosophers are not discussing this.

I never knew my student well enough to know why he made porn.  He was well-off, smart, and (penis aside) pretty good-looking, so I assumed maybe it was just a lark; anyway he seemed like someone who could handle whatever he was letting himself in for.  But maybe he was struggling to capture something he felt lacking in his life: admiration, approval, lust, or as we might say now, ‘likes’. I don’t know.  But I do know that moral and political philosophers have spent too long developing increasingly intricate briefs for the prosecution, and not enough time thinking about cases where harm to others is not the only concern–and maybe not a concern at all.  I don’t think that penis-guy harmed anyone else in making his flick.  But I now regret that I took so little interest in whether he had in any way harmed himself.

2 thoughts on “My student’s penis

  1. How might we be able to ensure as you suggest that the protection of teens is and would remain ‘non-coercive´? Slippery slope concerns?


    • I don’t know. A start: get rid of the criminal sanctions that I mention. Then think about education. Many jurisdictions put energy into teaching teens about the harmful effects of using porn. How about 50% as much effort into warning them about the harms to themselves of auto-pornography? 40%?


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