On the response to professor Kirk Nesset’s arrest

Like everyone else, I was shocked to hear about professor Kirk Nesset’s arrest last week on child pornography charges.  However, I was equally puzzled by the response.

Let’s set aside for the moment the confusion as to why Allegheny would cancel classes in this particular circumstance, especially given its past failure to do so in the wake of (equally if not more traumatizing) events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Ferguson, or closer to home, the handful of officially reported cases of sexual violence that occurred on campus last year, the suicide of Allegheny student Chuck Mahoney in 2002, or the more recent death of Gregory Sadler, whose body was found in North Village in April 2013.  In none of these cases did the College see fit to cancel classes or hold a campus-wide event to collectively “share our thoughts and emotions.” As one of my senior students put it in reference to Sadler’s death, “if there was a time when we [the students] needed counseling, that was it.”

The same student expressed confusion as to why he was being solicited by administrators and faculty to seek counseling in the first place, to be made to feel as though he might “need someone to talk to” about Professor Nesset’s arrest.  It’s a valid question.  After all, most students (and many faculty, myself included) didn’t know Kirk personally.  Yet, there’s certainly a level of distress involved in having someone who many considered a friend, a mentor, a teacher, and a talented artist turn out to be a connoisseur of child pornography.  It’s a disconcerting situation that provokes a whole range of emotions—anger, betrayal, fear, paranoia, astonishment, disbelief.  But the question I keep asking myself is: does it really warrant a campus-wide shutdown?  Isn’t it more suitably approached as a “teachable moment”?  And if so, what are we teaching?

So far, all I’ve heard is it’s “a time to reflect,” that we, as a community, need to come together to share, listen, and express how we personally feel.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for voicing opinions and frustrations.  But why do these conversations always seem to happen at the level of personal experience and therapeutic discourse?  As if the problem can be addressed (or smoothed over) by handling it in the manner of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Is it really possible to have a “frank and open discussion” when anything that falls outside of this mode is made to seem either inappropriate or insensitive?  So long as our discussions take place solely at the level of individual feelings, are we leaving something out or limiting the possibilities for understanding?

What hasn’t been acknowledged is that child pornography is hardly unfamiliar.  It’s unfortunate, to be sure, but certainly not uncommon (at least not for readers of the daily newspaper).  In fact, the same day the news broke about professor Nesset, there were similar stories in the New York Times (about a Brooklyn Tech teacher who was accused of preying on and taking pictures of female students) and the Erie Times-News (about a group of Pennsylvania state officials caught exchanging emails containing pornography).  In the same vein, we’ve been deluged in recent weeks with high-profile stories of male sexual assault and domestic violence involving NFL players.  Certainly, we shouldn’t conflate these incidents (there’s a significant difference between downloading and distributing child pornography and engaging in sexual abuse, rape, and molestation), but we shouldn’t separate them either.

So how does this relate to the case of professor Nesset?  Partly, I think it has to do with our willingness (or lack thereof) to make connections to the broader culture, and the swiftness with which we seek to demonize him as a social pariah in order to wipe our communal hands clean.  Thus, we might proceed to speak in the language of personal experience, while also participating in collective displays of moral outrage, disgust and distanciation.  But I wonder, to what extent does this have the effect of blinding ourselves to the fundamental role that broader cultural and economic systems play in all this?  How does the practice of consuming child pornography, for example, relate to other, equally exploitative and immoral practices, such as consuming products of child sweatshop labor?  How does the former resonate with the mentality of a broader commercial culture that regularly depicts women in sexually infantilized ways?

Of course, the dominant discourse doesn’t allow for such questions.  All we’re instructed to do is express our own personal outrage.  Nonetheless, we might also “reflect” on the ways child pornography is hardly outside the realm of cultural normality.  Surely, no one would disagree that women are routinely eroticized as submissive and powerless within our commercial media system.  Moreover, images of female passivity, vulnerability and fragility appear endlessly, not just in pornography, but countless music videos, magazine ads, and cable TV shows.  Ours is a culture where young female bodies are constantly on display for visual pleasure, or used as props for male power and prestige. 

As advertising scholar Sut Jhally puts it, the cultural environment in which we live generally encourages a “pornographic imagination”—an unquestioned and automatic point-of-view that persistently positions women as sexual beings to be gazed at.  Surely, this “normal” way of seeing can’t be separated from the more (acceptably) troubling incidents of girl-child pornography.  As Jhally says, “in the world of commercial realism, women never seem to leave girlhood behind.”  They are ceaselessly represented in infantile ways (from lingerie ads to beer commercials to Miley Cyrus to reality shows like Girlicious), and these “rituals of subordination” are a conventional aspect of media culture.

Perhaps the conversation we ought to have, then, is not about deviant or monstrous individuals—although that’s certainly an easier one, as it allows us to avoid asking difficult questions that implicate everyone, while expressing righteous indignation.  Rather, we might consider the more disturbing possibility that our social codes of gender and sexuality are to blame as well; that there is something at work here that reaches beyond personal experience or how we feel, and includes the eroticization of women and girlhood as a taken-for-granted aspect of dominant culture.

Certainly, there’s nothing to excuse people who participate in child pornography.  But we should ask ourselves, are these “sexual predators” simply outside the realm of civilized behavior, or are they actually over-conforming to the cultural norms—norms that result in all-too-frequent incidents of not only child porn, but related instances of pornographic media, male violence and sexual assault against women (of which, again, there have been numerous cases at Allegheny)? Indeed, we’re fooling ourselves to think these are completely unrelated matters, or that having an open auditorium gathering to share our feelings amounts to “dealing” with the problem.  It might make us feel like we have a voice, but it’s not until we connect that voice (and the corresponding language of personal experience) to broader social, cultural, and institutional systems of power that we move toward addressing the root causes of our sanctimonious outrage.

Joe Tompkins is an assistant professor of communication arts at Allegheny College.