The College Sex Magazines: Flirting with the Shock Barrier

In the 1960s, young women would go bare-breasted in public in demonstration of their feminist politics and their liberation from stifling, outmoded sexual taboos. Streaking was another practice about this time challenging conventional social and sexual mores. Both the bare-breasted women and streakers would choose the most public and most crowded location possible to flaunt the rules to draw as much media attention as possible. The streaking incident of the 1974 Oscars hosted by David Niven is legendary. In 2007, young women and men at elite universities are posing in various states of undress often picturing or suggesting any sex act imaginable. Harvard University has its “H Bomb”; Vassar, its “Squirm”; Columbia University, its “Outlet”; the University of Massachusetts-Boston, its “Boink.”

The publishers and editors of these and similar mags are committed, the young men and women being pictured persuaded they are doing something positive, the mags’ quality, good. But it is unlikely they will put a dent in the shock barrier. The mags are more a media phenomena than a trail-blazing enterprise such as “Playboy” and “Hustler” when they first came out. For the most part, the pictures and even their suggestiveness do not go much beyond many ads commonly seen in popular mainstream women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines. So far at least, they have not touched on bestiality, for instance. Nor do the pictures come close to the in-your-face, so to speak, sexuality of pole- or lap-dancing at a strip joint or the porn flics readily found at numerous websites. In fact, those involved in the publication of the magazines are trying to control their distribution and accessibility as much as possible. They don’t want their mags straying off the campus into the public domain. They are plainly trying to protect the reputations and future employment possibilities of those who are pictured in the mags or contribute stories, as well as themselves.

Since the student publications are pretty tame compared to lots of contemporary pornography, contain images which are common in today’s media, and the publishers and editors themselves try to limit their audience, this raises the question of why they are being done at all. Normal college high jinks is part of the answer. But more than this, the mags are done as some relief from childhood and adolescent lives which have been heavily, in many cases meticulously programmed. This generation of college students, especially those who have made it into elite schools, are the children of high-achieving baby boomers who since the students’ preschool years have crammed their lives with all sorts of courses, extracurricular activities, vacations, relationships, tutoring, and experiences to give them an edge in getting into the best schools to get good jobs afterwards.

Involvement in one way or another with the sex mags is a measure, a limited and tentative one, to find some variability and genuine color in a life that has been overly programmed and for the most part willingly accepted. The students are not rejecting this life, not coming close to this. If this happened, the parents would be up in arms; and the respective universities would tarnish their image as exceptional preparatory schools for prestigious, high-paying professional jobs and also jeopardize future tuition income among other well-to-do families aspiring to send their children to the outstanding schools. In fact, while not exactly encouraging the sex mags, college administrations have been accepting of them.

At this time, the magazines are striking just the right note in enabling students to act on their urges to break out of the mold that has contained them since their early childhood in ways that most will not eventually regret or that will not be self-destructive. The many burnt-out survivors of the drugs, experimental lifestyles, radical political activity, abandonment of college, and rejection of the Establishment and authority in any form of the 60’s generation are a cautionary lesson for both students and their parents. The college generation of the 60’s was rebelling against the imposed conformity and facelessness of large corporations and big government of the post-World War II years. This generation of college students with its sex magazines is not rebelling against anything, but rather within its own domain reflecting widespread activities and values of the society. There is plainly a different social dynamic at play in the behavior and ends of the 60’s generation of college students and that of the current generation. Whereas the relationship between the 60’s students and college administrators was often confrontational, the relationship between these groups today is usually cooperative.