Val Elefante: “The One Who Is Writing Her Thesis on Porn”

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Val Elefante: “The One Who Is Writing Her Thesis on Porn”

An insight into the power of Harvard students who question the current sexual culture

By MIMI TARRANT

 

For the Sex Edition, the Indy connected with Val Elefante, a senior in Leverett House who has spent her four years at Harvard exploring the medium of pornography and its implications regarding sexual culture. In this interview, Val explains why she chose pornography as the basis for her thesis, and how her experience at Harvard has shaped her views on sex as a whole.

 

Indy: What is your concentration at Harvard and what made you choose it?

Val: I decided to concentrate in Social Studies at Harvard. I have never really had one clear intellectual path; even in high school, I was always interested in a lot of things and loved using many different subjects to understand social phenomena; I remember being interested in government and history in high school, especially social science. This meant at Harvard I loved Social Studies and how it kept open so many doors. It is a concentration that combines history, government, sociology, anthropology and economics, so within that you can take a lot of different courses; I knew that social science generally was of interest to me, but I wasn’t quite sure what route I would want to take. Social Studies enabled me to keep my options open and discover a wide range of different methodologies to explore different academic paths.

Indy: Turning to your thesis, can you give us an overview on the topic?

Val: So I was happy with my decision to study social studies as it enabled me to write my thesis on a topic that a diverse array of disciplines have analysed or looked at, which is pornography. The people who analyse porn range from psychologists (who look at porn and its influence on society) to historians and film studies people, but I was particularly interested in the feminist and queer theory approach. Feminists and queer theorists have been using pornography for decades as a lens into society’s sexual culture in a lot of different ways. My project looked at feminist and queer theory starting from around the 70’s, looking at what feminists were saying about pornography then, what pornography looked like then, and trying to trace their arguments through time, understanding how their approach to pornography, or their thoughts (what I like to call their ethics) have changed. What I think is super fascinating is that in the 70’s pornography was seen as the antithesis to feminism; it was the manifestation of patriarchy in concrete material form.

Going from that definition to now, sex positive feminists are much more open to the opportunities within pornography, seeing it as a tool for empowerment and a place where sexuality can be explored and experienced by people for whom sex has historically worked against (women, LGBTQ+ communities, among others). This has been a key component of my project and something I was really fascinated with. I think it is just a really interesting lens into sex and sex culture, as pornography is a super diverse medium but is often viewed as irrelevant smut, despite being so prevalent. Porn websites compete with websites such as Amazon and Yahoo, and are getting more traffic than some of the biggest players on the internet. That says a lot about our culture and its importance, yet people are unable to take it seriously, as porn is not often seen in mainstream discourse or as worthy of academic study. With all this in mind, I wrote my thesis with the title “Beyond Pleasure and Danger: Autonomy and the Ethics of Pornography”

Indy: What originally inspired you to pursue this topic for your thesis?

Val: Definitely feminist theory: in the social studies intro-level course you read about feminist theory, such as the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault and Judith Butler, which introduced me to ideas about sex, sexuality, gender, and how they manifest in complex ways in our society. So I definitely took an early academic interest, as I took that class sophomore fall and sophomore spring. Also, classes like “Money, Markets and Morals” and feminist classes in the French department helped develop my academic passion and curiosity. I was also definitely personally influenced by sex culture; we live in a society where, depending on who you are and where you are, individuals have a complicated relationship with sex, such as with your own sexuality and figuring out what and who you like or don’t like.

Obviously there is a huge personal component to all of this; I grew up in a relatively conservative town in Long Island, New York, and I remember in 7th grade sitting in my sex-ed class and having to repeat “The only safe sex is abstinence,” with that being the main takeaway from that day’s lesson. It’s crazy to think of me as a young person learning that and having it so deeply ingrained in my head, and I am not quite sure how that has influenced me in my life but I definitely think that I realised coming to college that sex was a topic that was shut down really quickly. Most people are having sex, but most people aren’t learning what they need to know before they go into their first sexual experiences. I was lucky in that I had a boyfriend in high school and got to experience that with him for the first time, so I was with someone who cared about me, but I got to Harvard and couldn’t believe how no one was really on the same page. I guess no one’s ever on the same page when it comes to this, as maybe we all learn “Intro to Biology,” but when it comes to sex everyone is different depending on who you are, where you’re from, and so many other variables.

Indy: How do other students react when you tell them the topic of your thesis?

Val: I think for the most part people are really intrigued right away, and I’m known as “the one who is writing her thesis on porn.” I think people definitely want to know more, and they love to ask me questions about my thoughts. I would say that I can tell that some people are surprised by how pro-porn I am, and how much I think it can do, and continues to do, good things in our world. People assume from the offset that I must hate porn, which is so untrue, and is not what I think and feel, so people are usually pretty intrigued by my topic and eager to hear more.

Indy: How are you looking to take the work you have done at Harvard beyond Cambridge?

Val: I am not quite sure what I am doing next year yet, but there are a lot of young women building technologies that deal with this space of sex and sexuality, such as dating apps, different porn platforms online, and vibrator companies. There are a lot of new companies that are dealing with these topics that I would be interested in working with, alongside, or for, but I am still working on post-grad plans. However, I do think that social media, technology and the startup culture is going to be conducive in the next few years to our changing sexual culture and norms as a society, so I look forward to all the incredible ways that technology is about to impact our sexual culture. I want to work somewhere where I am going to ensure, or at least strive to ensure, that technology will be a positive part of people’s sexual experiences.

Indy: How has sex culture on Harvard’s campus shaped your views on sex as a whole, if they have changed your views at all?

Val: I think that each of us experiencing Harvard’s sexual culture coming from where we come from is super interesting, and I am sure for some people it is a stark contrast from their very conservative upbringing, with events such as Harvard Sex Week, the CARE workshops, and the OSAPR workshops. I think that these are some amazing resources that Harvard has for dealing with sexual issues on campus and help to create a good sexual culture, and so going through that stuff in freshman year especially was great. I went to Harvard Sex Week my freshman year, where they were talking about vibrators and condoms, and found myself dealing with these things that I had never really heard people talk so much about, apart from perhaps when giggling with my friends in high school. Yet here I found these different workshops dealing with issues like consent, porn and masturbation, meaning that in coming to Harvard I was definitely personally (as well as academically) fascinated by Harvard’s sexual culture, and it was a big factor when deciding to write my thesis on a similar topic.

The social scene of Harvard is obviously hugely impactful in this conversation; I don’t think Harvard’s social scene is any better or worse than any other campuses across the country when it comes to this stuff, but it is obviously a complicated issue, especially when it comes to the night-time social scene. It’s complicated, and I don’t really want to delve into the Final Club argument right now….

Indy: If you could change anything about Harvard’s sex culture, what would it be?

Val: I think the problems we face start before Harvard – I believe sex education in high school is where people are learning most of the stuff regarding sexual ethics, and high school should be targeted as a place where people can think about sex in a critical way, alongside their own sexualities, to come to terms with sex. I just don’t think this happens enough in high school. In terms of on campus, I have personally loved my times with the OSAPR and CARE workshops, when you sit in a room of people who are all in it together, as Harvard students; whether in an organization together, or with some other form of connection, there is a level of care that you have for each other. Sitting and talking about these issues, such as how sex has affected us or how Harvard’s sex culture has impacted us in different and unique ways is super important for moving forward and improving our campus sex culture. Ultimately, I would say more of that sort of stuff is important on campus.

More generally, I would say people themselves can take responsibility; in the future, if better sex-ed happens, people will be able to talk more openly about this stuff with each other. But first, I think friends should look after each other and be able to think and talk about sex with each other, across gender lines, sexualities, race, class, everything. We are all living in this community together and all hold obligations to look out for each other in all forms of life. In thinking and talking about these things more, we can move toward a campus and societal sexual culture where we look after each other. Whether it’s a person that you’re sleeping with or a person that you are walking past on the street, it’s important that we are critical, conscious, careful and considerate of each other.

Sex is supposed to be something positive, something that we enjoy, rather than a weapon, so the more that we can make positive sex a part of our dialogues, the more we can improve our sex culture on campus and beyond.

 

Mimi Tarrant ‘21 ([email protected]) strongly encourages you to check out Val’s Indiegogo page for a short erotic film that she wrote and will be directing, titled “The Way We Are”. Go. Donate. Now.