Duke freshmen who refuse to read Fun Home seem genuinely confused about what porn is

Last week, Duke freshman Brian Grasso became perhaps the most high-profile case of a college student not doing their homework when he announced that he would not be reading Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, namesake of the Bechdel-Wallace Test for how women are portrayed in film.

Grasso and a handful of other committed Christians in Duke’s incoming freshman class objected to the book being included on a recommended (not required) summer reading list, as it includes sexual images and themes that he considers pornographic.

As Grasso explained in the Washington Post, he wouldn’t have objected to reading about these themes; he simply objects to being made to look at them:

My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.

But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”

Alison Bechdel, via Chase Elliott Clark / Flickr

Alison Bechdel, via Chase Elliott Clark / Flickr

Setting aside the fact that Grasso is admitting here that he is physically incapable of looking at a cartoon of a naked woman without doing so “lustfully,” I think one of his classmates should pull him aside and give him a quick rundown on what counts as porn, and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the best definition of pornography I’ve heard is “that which one loses interest in after masturbating.” If the only value a book, picture, movie or other content has to you is sexual, or “lustful” in Christian parlance, then it counts as porn. If it’s content intended for consumption with your pants on, then it isn’t. This definition isn’t too far off from Merriam-Webster’s, which defines pornography as, “movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement,” with an emphasis on “sexual excitement.”

As Slate’s Jacob Brogan points out, that isn’t the point of Fun Home‘s depiction of female sexuality. Context matters, and Grasso is willfully ignoring it:

Sex becomes pornographic when we detach it from its living, breathing context. In Bechdel’s book, that living, breathing, context is the arc of her story, the tragic collision between her triumphs and her father’s suffering. If the drawings Grasso objects to are pornographic, it’s only because Grasso refuses to contextualize them by reading the book itself. If they’re pornographic, in other words, it’s because Grasso has made them that way, not because Bechdel has.

Even more baffling in Grasso’s article in the Post was his insinuation that he was being forced to look at porn for class when he clearly wasn’t. The book was included on an optional reading list, so if he didn’t want to read it, he didn’t have to. No one was violating his deeply-held religious belief that looking at drawings depicting lesbian sex would send him straight to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.

But for the sake of his own personal and academic development, he may want to reconsider. Grasso writes that, “if my academic experience at Duke is full of thought-provoking stimuli other than pictures of sexual acts, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be incomplete.” Fine, but if your academic experience at Duke leaves you with a prudish and factually incorrect understanding of the difference between porn and storytelling, it will absolutely be incomplete.

In any case, here’s hoping that Grasso, in his time on campus, crosses paths with Duke junior Miriam Weeks — screen name Belle Knox — who has a much better handle on the definition of porn than he does.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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41 Responses to “Duke freshmen who refuse to read Fun Home seem genuinely confused about what porn is”

  1. 2patricius2 says:

    I wondered the same thing. If it’s not required, why did he object…unless he thinks his hangups should apply to everyone else. Kind of like the imposition of the burka on women so men won’t lust after them. Or like the long dresses and rules of the Duggar family, which obviously didn’t control Josh’s behaviors.

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  4. Indigo says:

    I remember him “lusting after Poland” due to a mistranslation.

  5. Buford says:

    Something tells me these freaks are not far away from making the same, troubling ‘sexual immorality’ complaints about Lord Of The Flies.

  6. Butch1 says:

    Perhaps getting away from his family and meeting some other people will “open his mind.” ;-)

  7. Butch1 says:

    I remember when President Carter taught the lesson once in his bible class. It was splashed all over the news. Amazing how that made the news even.

  8. Butch1 says:

    Apparently he does.

  9. Butch1 says:

    Heaven help him if he has a foot fetish. ;-)

  10. Butch1 says:

    Are all the women on campus going to be dressed in their burkas? We can’t have these religious guys who cannot “control” themselves, glancing at them by chance. ;-

  11. Butch1 says:

    Religion has a way of warping a person’s viewpoint on their studies and this young man is always going to see everything he studies through “religious” eye filters. He is set to fail miserably in all his classes that require him to think. He will constantly use bible verses out of context to decide whether he should or should not venture into that subject. He would do better if he sat down with a Ouija board and ask it the same questions.

  12. Voodoo Chile says:

    So obviously this guy is a bit of a twit, but let’s all admit that we on the left have a problem with our youngsters refusing to read things that “trigger” them. It’s stupid when right wingers do it, and it’s stupid when we do it.

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  14. crazymonkeylady says:

    Maybe this guy can resist everything but temptation just as Oscar Wilde predicted! Can’t read that, I might actually like it!!

  15. ComradeRutherford says:

    Oh, so this Christian is a liar. Good thing his god has no problems with lying.

    “The book was included on an optional reading list, so if he didn’t want to read it, he didn’t have to.”

    “f the drawings Grasso objects to are pornographic, it’s only because Grasso refuses to contextualize them by reading the book itself. If they’re pornographic, in other words, it’s because Grasso has made them that way”

    He is the one that has the pornographic mind.

  16. ComradeRutherford says:

    He’ll have to shuffle around campus looking only at his own feet…

  17. 1jetpackangel says:

    Bikers wearing diapers chasing nurses dressed like Smurfs?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxYVBNhJ3pc

  18. BeccaM says:

    Only given the sexual repression and how that inevitably results in weird squicks, it’ll be filled with the truly depraved kinds of pr0n, like hooded women in stiletto heels killing hamsters or some such.

  19. SkippyFlipjack says:

    There was a funny bit on SNL a long time ago where there was a movie reviewer on Weekend Update and they did porn reviews. The reviews went like this: “I thought this was just a mediocre movie. I just couldn’t find anything to recommend it. Then it got better, and I liked it a lot. Then I really liked it, then I was really, really interested. Then I didn’t care. Later, I started liking it a bit more..”

  20. SkippyFlipjack says:

    But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart

    That’s awesome. It’s forecast to be 88 degrees in Durham all next week. Southern girls, away from their parents for the first time, in that kind of heat? This is going to be a terrible shock to this poor boy. If he wants to avoid anything that makes him think lustful thoughts I think he may have to confine himself to his dorm room for a while. He’s going to wish he had a good book to read.

  21. nicho says:

    Looking at a naked woman or a picture of a naked woman — bad. Self-mutilation by tearing your eye out — salvation. Yeah, that’s a religion I want to join. Sign me right up. Does anyone really believe this crap?

  22. PDQ says:

    “Especially when the someone finds the flash drive with his porn stash on it.”

    I know, right? Imagine the awkward conversation when a roommate borrows the flash drive to save something for class and discovers it’s chock full of porn with no room for anything else.

  23. PDQ says:

    Hmm….all male you say? I feel the need to earn a graduate degree coming on…….

  24. Houndentenor says:

    Do the assignment or fail.

    That was easy. Are there any actual ethical issues at this school to discuss?

  25. 2karmanot says:

    Japanese Manga are a great way to learn Japanese.

  26. 2karmanot says:

    “let alone permitted himself to explore his own sexuality.” No prob: Grad Library, second floor, back stacks, long table with dude underneath.

  27. 2karmanot says:

    Delta Fap fap

  28. BeccaM says:

    I laughed, too. Very good definition. And I’m guessing your friend at the video store also observed the 90% were also never watched all the way to the end credits.

  29. kimn8r says:

    I had no idea Duke was an all-male school. He’s lucky then, he’ll never have to look at all those nubile young women in their fashionably scant outfits that colleges are known for. I imagine his fraternity will be Five Slamma Jacka.

  30. Indigo says:

    So that’s what “lustful” means. I can’t say I was entirely informed on that biblical matter.

  31. nicho says:

    Perhaps the best definition of pornography I’ve heard is “that which one loses interest in after masturbating.

    This made me laugh. Back in the day when videos came on VCR tape, the rental places would charge an extra fee if you brought the tape back without rewinding it. A friend who worked in a video store said that about 90 percent of the un-rewound tapes were porn.

  32. nicho says:

    In his case, his childish viewpoints will follow him forever.

    Especially when the someone finds the flash drive with his porn stash on it. He sounds like someone who is battling a terrible demon. He is not someone who is comfortable with his own sexuality.

  33. dcinsider says:

    I should have read your last sentence before I posted. That sort of sums up my point very succinctly.

  34. goulo says:

    In fairness, there exist plenty of comics which a lot of people seem to sexy, so I’m not sure it’s a particularly perverse thing. :)

  35. dcinsider says:

    Grasso is a kid. He does not have the slightest idea what his college years will bring. There are very few of us who were the same person, with the very same ideas and beliefs, on the day of graduation, as we were on our first day of class freshman year. He has likely never met a lesbian, let alone permitted himself to explore his own sexuality.

    This was an attention-grabbing ploy from the outset. Maybe he graduates as President of the young republicans, and does not learn a thing in four years, but I’m almost willing to be that his 22 year old self will have a very different viewpoint than his 18 year old self.

    His problem is that he went and publicized his 18 year old self, and now has to stare at that for the rest of his life, and likely cringe. For most of us, we just cringe at the hairstyle in a photograph. In his case, his childish viewpoints will follow him forever.

  36. BeccaM says:

    Grasso apparently really does has a problem understanding the difference between ‘required’ and ‘recommended.’

    He’s being disingenuous, of course. What he really wants is for nobody to be told Bechdel’s book is worth reading. God-botherers aren’t happy in their god-bothering if they don’t get to god-bother other people.

    I thought Brogan’s observation to be especially cogent, too. Porn is in the eye of the beholder; Grasso is apparently unable and unwilling to see the female body as anything but pornographic. Cthulhu help any woman willing to marry this prudish freakazoid.

  37. JaneE says:

    If I were horny or perverse enough to find cartoon sex arousing, I wouldn’t advertise it to the world. Just sayin’.

  38. Indigo says:

    How did he get into Duke? He’s clearly not prepared for post-secondary education.

  39. PDQ says:

    Let me guess: He was home schooled, wasn’t he? Isn’t that special???

    He could always transfer to Liberty University or Bob Jones if he finds Duke to be too sexual for his liking. However my guess is that after spending time away from his parents, he’ll morph into a normal college male.

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