Sex Out Loud is one of the most grossly overfunded student organizations on campus. So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I trekked Tuesday night to the Red Gym for a pornography debate for Sexual Health Week.

The rain and poor directions made for a bleak turnout, and an opening promotion for a “striptease class” Wednesday prompted unrestrained laughter from a human development professor and a fruitless battle with wayward eyes from a local priest — both on the panel. But Sex Out Loud should be commended for stimulating a thought-provoking debate on something often relegated to guilty jokes and fear-mongering.

The motley crew panel — including a sex and marriage counselor, a neopagan priest, two men involved in anti-sexual violence programs and a self-described “third-wave, sex-positive, fabulous queer feminist” — roughly divided into two camps: those who believe pornography is inherently destructive, and those who believe its good and ill effects are entirely dependent on the context in which it is consumed. While I left the debate unconvinced of any widespread tangible benefits or detriments pornography could have on human relationships, the wide-ranging personal reactions displayed point to pornography as a blank slate bordered with neon lights — it says, less tastefully, whatever you want it to say.

The deck was somewhat stacked against those with more black-and-white views, as neither grad student John Capuano nor Men Stopping Rape coordinator Stephen Montagna offered much substantive critique of the researched “pro-context” arguments of MATC professor Amy Gilliland. This is unsurprising, as there is little evidence to support any link, let alone a causal one, between pornography and sexual violence. The best Mr. Montagna could come up with was a head-scratching extended metaphor, comparing pornography to the “girl you have fun with.” Father Eric Nielsen, however, put forth by far the most focused and elegant argument of the panel members. He argued, without resorting to easy biblical quoting, pornography removes sex from the intimacy of partners and distinguished sexual practice between partners exchanging “base pleasure” from those engaging in a “reciprocal self-forgetfulness.” But this represents a fundamentally neo-Platonic view of sexuality; it is a critique of the simple pursuit of pleasure more than it is a critique of pornography specifically.

The theme that rang most true in the debate is that context determines the effects of pornography on the viewer. Ms. Gilliland pointed to numerous surveys of individuals who reported the anonymity of the Internet allows them to seek out others with sexual interests they would otherwise not dare speak of. This train of thought leaned toward caricature in her, well, fetishistic academic curiosity on the expanding world of fetishes, talking at length on how members of online communities assert their sexual freedom in choosing animals as their avatars. Ms. Gilliland and others cautious of passing judgment on pornography did not totally avoid the question at hand, though.

Many were troubled by the unrealistic body images perpetuated by pornography. As Ms. Gilliland said, if we were to draw our sexual expectations from most pornography, we would think, among other things, fat people don’t have sex, people over the age of 30 don’t have sex, condoms are accessories and good sex doesn’t require communication skills. A couple panelists made a distinction between “erotica” and “pornography,” the latter being objectifying and degrading, and the former “celebrating the human body.” Ms. Gilliland recommended Comstock Films as a “realistic” purveyor of pornography, for the curious.

The problem, of course, is what some find degrading, others consider normal sexual behavior. Those proclaiming doom and gloom on the multitudinous perversities of the Internet age would do well to take a historical perspective. Ms. Gilliland rightly pointed out “any activity you see in pornography today … you can see in a film 100 years ago.” Moreover, porn has proliferated at the dawn of every new communicative technology — there are medieval woodcuts that could make some blush. Whatever one believes about the influence of pornography, the only thing different today is the ease of access to it.

Some at the panel, including sex therapist Cara Hoffert, thought that is enough of a problem in and of itself. It’s true the possibility of addiction to online pornography is real, but so too with many other activities. In the absence of hard numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more people addicted to “World of Warcraft” than anything else online. More troubling is the overwhelming tendency of individuals to hide their consumption of pornography from their partners. The largest problem Ms. Hoffert hears from couples is a lack of interest in sex. But Ms. Hoffert said she could not put out a blanket warning against pornography. Pornography can revitalize a relationship and aid those without one, but it can have the opposite effect when used in secret and shame, she said.

So what are we left with, then? One danger of pornography, like sex in general, is our inability to talk about it. Turning the focus to college students, Ms. Hoffert asked the crowd how many had ever talked seriously with their parents about sex, with the expected result. Pornography may be out of sight, but it is not out of mind, and we cannot form our values in a vacuum.

Tim Williams ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English.