Students disagree on extent of sex exploitation Notre Dame assembly speaker accused of being 'anti-male'

November 02, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

It was no ordinary assembly at Notre Dame Preparatory School. The topic was sexual exploitation -- prostitution, rape, sexual harassment, casual sex.

Among the discussion questions: Do you know anyone who has had sexual intercourse with someone he or she has known for three hours or less?

Among the issues: Just how bad is pornography?

"We tried to do something new today -- to address young girls on sexual exploitation and sexuality," religion teacher Ed Donnellan said of last week's assembly. The purpose of the session, he said, "was to empower them -- to show them that their decisions about sex can wait."

To do that, he invited Kathleen Barry, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who has written books on prostitution and sexuality, to talk to 450 students at this all-girls' Catholic school in the woods along Providence Road.

She talked and they listened. Then, they talked and she listened.

They didn't always agree. The young women certainly seemed empowered -- if not to delay sexual activity, then at least to disagree with the speaker about the evils of pornography, the right to make choices and just how exploited they felt.

Some students went so far as to accuse Ms. Barry of male-bashing.

And some were upset by the program, said parents who attended an evening session. "My daughter thought it was too negative about men and boys," said one mother.

"I don't want them to be scared into asexual behavior," said a father, who conceded that his freshman daughter told him she was "bored" by the program.

It was a far cry from Catholic girls' school assemblies of a generation ago.

Or even a year ago.

"We're so conservative. This is a positive thing," said Notre Dame junior Linda Zimmerer. "I agree with what she said. We have to deal with ourselves first."

Some of her schoolmates took issue: "It was anti-male. I don't think all men treat women that way," said a sophomore who declined to give her name. "Everyone agreed that she did degrade men."

Dr. Barry, who is also executive director of the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, started her lecture with some extreme examples of exploitation -- tales of girls and women being taken from their homes in Third World countries to live in "sex towns" used by soldiers and businessmen from the West.

She eventually brought the tales of exploitation home. She talked about boys frequently using the word "slut" to describe their girlfriends. She talked about a society that treats sexual activity as a mechanical process rather than a human experience. She talked about teen-age sexual activity holding girls back, keeping them from developing identities and goals.

"In the world around you, what you see is sexuality that is promoted" through advertisements and television and pornography, she said. "There's not much equality in it."

There are, in fact, few role models, she said, for women as the sexual equals of men -- a condition she considers necessary for sexual activity to be rewarding and enhancing.

"Sex is a human experience that enhances one's life when it is done in equality. Sexual experience . . . with anyone who thinks he is superior just because he is born male is degrading," she said.

Ms. Barry spoke out strongly against pornography, saying it ruined boys' images of girls, turned women into objects and "most likely" led to behaviors she considered exploitative. "My generation has tolerated and in some way promoted pornography. I'm hoping your generation will shut it down," she said.

At this point, some of the students said pornography wasn't so bad, that there was pornography "for girls, too" and they didn't accept Ms. Barry's argument that pornography led to exploitative behavior.

"Pornography may be demeaning," said one student, "but it's their lives."

That was the bottom line, too, for some students on the issue of sex between people who hardly know each other. Whether such activity is exploitative, some girls said, depended on "how they felt after anonymous encounters" and "if they are sober or not."

Mr. Donnellan said such answers did not surprise him, "but it shows we have work ahead of us."

Dr. Barry later said she thought the presence of a dozen male students invited from Loyola High School brought on a backlash that did not occur when the girls were in small discussion groups by themselves.

"They didn't want the boys to feel uncomfortable, as women never want men to feel uncomfortable about anything," she said. "Well, they're going to have to feel uncomfortable because this [sexual exploitation] is over."

Dr. Barry, who had never worked with high school students before visiting Notre Dame, said she thought the workshop was beneficial because it exposed sexual exploitation. "It's on the table," she said. "I don't think it's going to go away."

Many parents were grateful for the workshop, saying it opened up communication between them and their daughters. "I'm so glad you had this program," said one mother. "It's very important for a small school to do this. I feel like we're a small voice crying in the woods."

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