Nina Hartley.
Photo: Getty

A couple weeks ago, longtime porn performer Nina Hartley went to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to give an optional lecture to students. The 59-year-old spoke about STI testing, the importance of consent, and the potential pitfalls of learning about sex from porn. The talk was soberly titled, “Fantasy vs. Reality: A critical view of adult media.” There were no explicit images or videos, just an informational Powerpoint slide.

And yet, of course, conservative media outlets are losing their shit over it, because a porn star (who is also a sex educator and activist) spoke with our kids (who are actually legal adults) about fucking (but really much more).

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Hartley was invited to speak by Joe Gow, the chancellor of the university. She gave a 90-minute talk that “touched on everything from female empowerment, to the necessity of consent, to the importance of differentiating porn from reality,” according to the La Crosse Tribune. Hartley reportedly told the audience of roughly 70 students, “It’s important that you view all media with a critical eye,” and emphasized that this was especially so for porn. She also told the crowd that communication is key during sexual encounters, that it can preserve feelings and personal safety.”

For this, she was paid $5,000 from Gow’s office fund, as opposed to with state tax dollars. Word spread and then began the sensationalistic headlines that desperately attempted to turn it into a tawdry sex scandal—for example, “Chancellor gives porn star $5,000 to lecture students, hides it from the public.” It was only hidden in the sense that the university didn’t alert the press or put the event on its public calendar, fearing that some might, in Gow’s words, “sensationalize it.” (Which they did. Before the speech even happened, the La Crosse Tribune reports that it was fielding calls from outraged community members.) Instead, the event was actively promoted through signs around campus. Then Fox News jumped into the fray.

The outcry was such that Gow felt the need to pen an op-ed in the La Crosse Tribune titled, “Why Nina Hartley spoke at UW-La Crosse.” Gow explained that he was motivated to invite Hartley to campus as a means of promoting the university’s newly-implemented “commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.” A few days later, though, amid continuing outcry, Gow was compelled to tell the same paper that he had been “naive” about the potential for backlash, and he offered up a compromise.

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“He agreed to personally compensate the university for Hartley’s $5,000 appearance fee,” reports the Tribune. “He is also booking a speaker from Fight the New Drug, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit dedicated to ‘raising awareness (of porn’s) harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts.’” Fight the New Drug is infamous for using bad science, shoddy data, and alarmist first-person stories to demonize pornography.

All of which is to say: the attention paid to this non-story by conservative outlets has led to the chancellor—who says he just wanted to show students that sexuality, and I quote, “plays a healthy role in people’s lives”—having to expose students to misleading pseudoscience around sex and porn, and forking over $5K of his own money.

Conservative rhetoric in recent years has turned to porn as a “public health crisis.” This language was even added to the GOP platform. If you’ve ever wondered about where, exactly, anti-porn conservatives draw the line when it comes to bad porn of the public-health-crisis variety, the fracas over Hartley should clear up any confusion. The line is nonexistent, because all porn is bad. Not only is all porn bad in this view, but anyone associated with porn is bad, in any and all contexts—even when the context is “a critical view of adult media.”