May 3, 2006

Prof Questions Emotions Associated With Sex Toys

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Delivering his final lecture of the year, Prof. Ellis Hanson, English, said he was reminded of his first; in sixth grade when he explained to a naive schoolmate what a blow job was – and was subsequently reprimanded by his teacher.

Hanson, who teaches the popular English 276: Desire class, reflected yesterday in Lewis Auditorium on society’s moral panic about the increasing sexualization of children due to technology, in a talk entitled, “Sex & Gadgets.”

The Internet has a split personality, Hanson said. On the one hand, it can be described through a utopian metaphor, as it allows users to network with each other as they “surf through an open field of knowledge.” However, the Internet has also put desire into a new realm which may compromise privacy. He labeled those “sadistic and monstrous” users who exploit the Internet as “paranoid technogothics.”

Hanson used three gadgets which he believes best demonstrate society’s fear that technology has the capacity to pervert children. Showing an IKEA commercial in which a giggling toddler plays with a vibrator on a toy-cluttered floor – the kicker: tidy up -Hanson questioned why sex toys cause social panic. Adults are both ashamed and traumatized with exposing desire to their children, he said.

“[But] what’s really going to happen to him if he comes into contact with this dildo?” Hanson asked.

Using the powerful story of Justin Berry, a teenager who had earned hundreds of thousands through his own pornographic website since he was 13, Hanson spoke at great length about the second gadget, the webcam. Hanson showed a video interview of Berry with New York Times investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald, in which Berry described how he was preyed on by pedophiles within minutes of turning on his webcam. According to Berry, the “weird requests” of users, for example, to see his feet, soon turned into much more graphic desires as his business expanded.

From the Times interview, Berry, who spoke with child-like rhetoric and possessed a seemingly youthful innocence, appeared to be the ultimate victim at the hands of vicious adult predators. But Hanson contrasted this portrayal with Berry’s extraordinary entrepreneurial and computer skills, as well as his extensive knowledge of sex and drugs. After hearing Berry’s story, Eichenwald posed as a fan and staged an intervention. With Eichenwald’s help, Berry closed down his business, recovered from a cocaine addiction and become a born-again Christian. He also testified before Congress that the Justice Department has done an insufficient job with rounding up pedophiles.

Hanson said Berry’s tale has two opposing narratives, the “bizarrely sentimental versus the exceedingly cynical.”

The first, the “pedophile gothic melodrama,” canonizes Berry as a saint for exposing childhood pornography, after he, himself, was exploited. The other more cynical view depicts Berry as a “cam whore” – a bored, smart teen who manipulated his pathetic admirers. Hanson used Berry’s appearances on Oprah and Larry King as evidence that the teen was attempting to use his notoriety to his own advantage.

“[Berry is] both innocent and libertine at the same time,” Hanson said. “He embodies nativity and sophistication. No matter how great his seduction, the devil made him do it.”

Using Berry’s story, Hanson explained that technology has created a role reversal between adults and children. “The sexualized child turns adults into the child-like detectives,” he said.

Hanson just touched on his last gadget, the cell phone, by showing a clip from the recent Japanese horror film “Phone,” in which a woman is stalked on her cell phone. After her friend’s young daughter accidentally answers the phone, she starts screaming and becomes demon-like.

Those who attended Hanson’s lecture praised his sense of humor and passion for the topic.

“I found the talk very entertaining and he gave an interesting perspective on how to consider sexuality and technology,” said Katie Miller ’06.

Loni Edwards ’06, who is enrolled in Hanson’s class, agreed, saying, “Professor Hanson is a brilliant guy who really knows how to keep the attention of his audience.”

Hanson’s lecture was part of the Mortar Board Honor Society’s traditional Last Lecture series.

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun News Editor