Several years ago, Ron Rosenbaum wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times Magazine on “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” From the 1940s to the 1960s, it was routine at several Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools for incoming freshman to be photographed nude (or in some cases semi-nude) and pricked with special metal pins. The students were told this had something to do with posture, but it was really connected to research trying to establish a link between body types and intelligence, among other things. It’s of course astonishing that any institution of higher learning would find itself caught up in a line of research more commonly associated with the Third Reich. But admit it: it’s even more astonishing when you take note of the fact that the guinea pigs were, as Rosenbaum summarizes, “whole generations of the cultural elite.” We can’t help but be fascinated when our alleged best and brightest end up stripped bare, literally and/or figuratively.
I’m reminded of this by a more recent (albeit far less disturbing) story of naked Ivies making the media rounds. The subject is a skin flick called The StaXXX, and if it’s fair to say that titillation is part of the point of pornography, then The StaXXX has been remarkably effective, particularly so for a film that does not even exist. Reportedly conceived by a group of college students who enjoy watching X-rated videos together on a regular basis, The StaXXX was recently the subject of a New York Times article, and its erstwhile creators have apparently been sought out by journalists from Fox News, The New Yorker and all points in between. And of course Hollywood is said to be interested. But why, exactly?
The most likely answer, is that, once again, these aren’t just college students, they’re Yalestudents. There’s little news value to a group of naked young people pointing digital video cameras at each other, perhaps a wry end-of-the-broadcast piece to be done if the young people happen to be students at some zany liberal arts college, or maybe some hand-wringing if the participants are scholarship holders at State U. But I suspect this particular media pile-on says a lot less about the waves of judgmental leering that occasionally ripple through American cultural discourse than it does about the surprisingly widespread Ivy League fetish.
Here is the StaXXX story, such as it is, so far. The core of the porn-watching, and possibly porn-making, crew is said to be made up of four Yale seniors, all males. This “student group” or “society,” if you prefer, calls itself Porn ‘n Chicken, owing to the fact that fried chicken is served at the meetings. Also biscuits. Anyway, in November the group posted fliers around campus soliciting participants in an original X-rated film. This was meant to be a prank, but interest was intense, or so the fillmmakers say. One scene was filmed not long after, but it was subsequently destroyed. Still, The StaXXX is supposedly moving ahead, a story appeared in the Yale student daily, that was echoed by the one in the Times.
If the facts are slight, then the range of opinion is . . . well, pretty narrow. “Reaction on campus has been little more than intrigued chatter,” the Times says, adding that stories in the student press had resulted in “no outcry,” or even, to that point, a letter to the editor. A Yale professer goes on record as being not shocked, and describes the emergence of a student porn film as “hardly surprising.” Given all this, you could be forgiven for wondering what the actual story is supposed to be. Which brings me back to the Ivy fetish. Part of what’s lurking here is some variation on the Belle du Jour theme. That is, the fantasy that the girl (or boy) talking hot and dirty over the 900 line, or the stripper, or the prostitute, or the sex industry worker is in reality a nice little bourgeois making an exotic detour on the road to some sort of mainstream where he (or she) will remain forever eroticized by having dabbled in that Other World. Add Yale to such a resumé and it’s that much more interesting. It’s also that much safer, making sex work in general seem more like a lifestyle choice and thus neatly eliminating any nagging worries about exploitation.
Just-add-Yale works to add spice to plenty of other “news” contexts, too. A murder on a college campus is news, of course, but a murder on an Ivy League campus is fodder for Vanity Fair. A “secret society” at a big state school might be interesting, but Yale’s Skull and Bones is endlessly scrutinized and puzzled over. No one who attends or holds a degree from an Ivy League school is ever identified in the press as a “college student” or “university graduate.” And so it follows that while college flesh is one thing, Ivy flesh something else again.
There’s also a quiet undercurrent here that turns the Belle du Jour fantasy on its ear. Even among those who complain about the trumping up of all things Ivy, there’s some kind of assumption that these porno-producing Yalies have a better shot than most at joining that “cultural elite” that Rosenbaum referred to. There’s the chance, in other words, that some future cabinet member or New York Times editor will have a porno in his or her past. Imagine, if you can stand it, digital evidence of Al and Tipper’s earliest ardor, captured in a long-forgotten fit of documentary passion, rescued from some hard drive and streaming out over Drudge into a million living rooms. Love Story, indeed.
There’s no shortage of Ivy Leaguers making decisions in the press. It’s no surprise that members of both these tribes are forever fascinated with the latest in New Haven or Cambridge. And it’s at least plausible that a wider swath of the general public is interested in the idea that some of the future leaders of America are currently producing and starring in pornography. Not least because it suggests that some of the current leaders of America might well have done the same thing if only the technology had been so cheap and easy back then.
But some things never change, and the typical Ivy Leaguer’s exaggerated sense of self-importance is one of those things: Rest assured that the makers of The StaXXX are supposedly conducting themselves with elaborate efforts to protect the privacy of their actors. (When one participant complained about a leak, the November footage was supposedly destroyed.) The Times quotes an email from the producers that is on point, even if it raises questions about the average Yale senior’s command of English syntax: “Confidentiality would be assured if requested, as many Yalies have future ambitions towards the political sphere.”
It would not particularly surprise if it turns out that The StaXXX had never actually stopped being a prank, or an elaborate hoax to make a mockery of precisely the discourse that it seems to be inspiring. A Yale porn insider quoted under the pseudonym “Baby Gristle” in a student publication declares that his crew is “about as anti-Yale as anything you’ll find at Yale,” driven by a “slightly radical, slightly anarchist view of contemporary society that is equal parts Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Timothy Leary and Ron Jeremy.” And further: “Our greatest protest of contemporary society is to sit around and watch skin flicks for two hours a week. We are not a pre-professional club, we reject the Goldman Sachs, Lexus-driving, country-club lifestyle. We would rather hang out with Bob Denver and Jenna Jameson.” Can that possibly be for real? I suppose we won’t know that for sure until after The New Yorker has filed its Letter from the Porn ‘n Chicken Society.
Anyway, if The StaXXX really does come to pass, it will be slightly interesting to see what sort of reaction it inspires, but far more interesting to see if it takes on a life of its own. I’m not an Ivy Leaguer myself, but a friend who is versed in such things suggests that if Yalies really are taking it all off for The StaXXX, it’s because they’re pretty sure that they are somehow untouchable, so safely above the fray that they can walk away from such a production in a way that an out-of-work actress from East L.A. never could; that when they sip port with their law partners (or whatever) a decade from now, they can laugh it all off as a collegiate prank, not an actual marker of who they were, or are. And if there is any damage, they believe (my friend goes on to say) that part of what Ivyness confers is a power to undo it.
Commenting to Rosenbaum about the “posture photos,” Sally Quinn said: “You always thought when you did it that one day they’d come back to haunt you.” Clearly the differences between those pictures and The StaXXX are considerable, the primary one being that the latter is strictly a voluntary affair. But in evaluating the risks to those with “future ambitions towards the political sphere,” it’s worth noting the postscript Rosenbaum adds to “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal” in his recent collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune. A “minor furor erupted” when that story came out, and the upshot was that while most of the photos had already been destroyed, the quick chain reaction of elites leaning on their elite alma mater leaning on the relevant government agency resulted in the one cache that he tracked down being incinerated within a week. Rosenbaum records the reaction of a “cynical friend” of his: “When does the federal bureaucracy ever take swift action? Everything, no matter what, no matter for whom, takes forever. But when a few Yalies get their naked butts exposed . . . ”