Does ASU have a porn problem?

Does ASU have a porn problem? Photo by Peter Lazaravich.

Arizona State University has a reputation problem. Widely known as a party school in the desert, the University has long worked to rehabilitate its image in the media, with President Michael Crow as its spokesman to the world.

A recent high-profile pornographic video featuring an ASU student may further set back his efforts.

In early October, 18-year-old freshman Elizabeth Hawkenson appeared in a video filmed in Scottsdale by a production company called “Backroom Casting Couch.” In the film, Elizabeth Hawkenson flashes her ASU Sun Card along with her driver’s license as proof of her legal age. Her name is blurred out, but “ASU” is clearly visible, along with the distinctive school colors of maroon and gold.

The video went viral — not because its content was particularly shocking, but because of a letter that began circulating on message boards and blogs. Someone had written the Arizona Board of Regents, asking the board to revoke the student’s $32,000 scholarship. ABOR says it never received the letter. The two prevailing theories on the letter’s origins are that it was a marketing campaign by the video’s producers, or that it was crafted by an online message board known for pulling pranks.

Hawkenson’s story was picked up by local media outlets (such as the “Phoenix New Times,” who first reported that ABOR never received the letter), as well as national media (Gawker Media’s sex blog) and international media (“Daily Mail”).

ASU has been wracked by porn scandals in the last 10 years, made easily accessible — and harder to forget — by the Internet.

“We have something like 60,000 students. You’re going to have a few take their clothes off,” says ASU professor Daniel Bernardi, who has taught classes about online pornography at ASU, as well as written on the topic for national academic journals.

But on a deeper level than reputation, does ASU have a pornography problem?

In January, popular gossip blog The Dirty posted a screen capture of another student in a pornographic film holding up her driver’s license and ASU ID in what appears to be the “Backroom Casting Couch” set, with the same production company’s watermark at the bottom.

Hawkenson says she showed her school ID because the production company required two forms of ID and then told her the IDs would not be included in the final film.

In an e-mail, Hawkenson says she knew even before the letter surfaced that she was going to have problems. “When photos showed up with the ID publicized, I knew immediately that this was not going to end well,” she says.

Bernardi says he’s disappointed in students’ decisions to use their school identifications in pornographic videos. While he doesn’t judge them for their decision, he says he would ask students to think of the following: “Number one, what will your children think? Number two, isn’t there a healthier way for you to express your sexuality than engaging in pornography and an institution that’s about exploitation? And number three, can you not associate yourself with ASU? I’d appreciate that just because I work there.”

Hawkenson is not alone in being publicly shamed for appearing in pornography.

In a high-profile case from 2005, an ASU cheerleader appeared in pornography wearing her maroon and gold outfit with ASU emblazoned across her chest. Courtney Simpson, who used the pseudonym Courtney Cox during her prolific porn career, received nation-wide attention. (In 2008, the ASU cheerleading squad was cut completely after a picture surfaced of some cheerleaders in their underwear on The Dirty.)

In 2002, ASU student Brian Buck also gained national coverage, including from CNN and “Rolling Stone,” for appearing in a “scavenger hunt” pornography where a group of women visited fraternity houses collecting sexual acts. While numerous other students were involved, Buck received the full brunt of the incident as the vice president of the Associated Students of Arizona State University. According to “Rolling Stone”, he was banned from his fraternity, campus residential housing and ASU employment. “They also made him write four apology letters, do 100 hours of community service and write a twenty-page paper. Its somber title: ‘Reflections on Integrity,’” “Rolling Stone” reported. Buck eventually gave up his title as vice president.

Hawkenson speculates that so many ASU students appear in porn because the campus is in an urban environment, surrounded by the industry. She says in her fruitless attempt to find out the letter’s creator, she found “at least eight different porn producers in the Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa area alone.”

However, Simpson and Buck’s actions differ from Hawkenson’s in two key ways: as a cheerleader, Simpson was held to a student athlete code of conduct. Some of the acts shown in Buck’s video were committed on campus, in public — a clear violation of ASU’s Student Code of Conduct.

The code prohibits “engaging in any illegal sexual offense, including but not limited to, sexual assault, public sexual indecency, or indecent exposure.”

The students who displayed their IDs were consenting, legal adults who chose to make a pornographic video on their own time. The code of conduct does not appear to prohibit this. Another section prohibits “misuse of campus…identification.” ABOR did not comment on whether Hawkenson’s actions classified as “misuse.”

There is no “morality clause” defining how students may behave outside of the university, except forbidding illegal activities.

Even if appearing in pornography violated the code, it does not appear the board could revoke a student’s scholarship. The only punishments in the code are expulsion, suspension, degree revocation, probation, warning and other smaller penalties.

Hawkenson withdrew from ASU this semester, but she is registered for classes this spring with her scholarship intact. In an October e-mail, Hawkenson denied an interview with State Press Magazine, saying she was afraid telling her story would “force me out of this university.” A month later, she changed her mind, explaining that she now feels “safe” at ASU.

ASU Media Relations and the Board of Regents declined to comment on her case, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student records.

However, Bernardi believes it’s important for ASU to address these issues. Even though the student code did not specifically prohibit Hawkenson’s actions, she still feared academic repercussions at one point. And the University still isn’t talking.

“You have a political climate that is extremely difficult to navigate without stepping on a host of landmines, and you have an administration fearful of addressing it in the hopes they don’t, frankly, piss somebody off,” Bernardi says. “My position is, we’re a university, we need to address the tough issues.”

However, Hawkenson says the university was privately supportive throughout her ordeal.

“ASU handled the situation in a highly professional, but still friendly manner,” she says. “They were never once rude to me and they were more concerned than anything else.”

While Bernardi thinks the negative effects of pornography outweigh its positive aspects, he doesn’t think pornography should be censored.

“That takes the pendulum too far in the other direction,” he says.

State Press Magazine recently covered two students who posed for “Playboy.” The women did not receive national attention or fear for their future at ASU. In fact, they were celebrated by the student body and embraced their actions, signing copies of their “Playboy” issue at Campus Corner, an independently owned ASU spirit store across the street from campus.

Bernardi says this is because “Playboy” is considered high-art, while video pornography is considered debased.

“The videographer is not thinking about composition, not thinking about lights. The producer is not thinking about art or engaging anything intellectually. They’re thinking about the raw, carnal, prurient aspects of sexual expression,” Bernardi says.

While pornography may promote misogyny, racism, and homophobia, many Hollywood films are guilty of the same, Bernadi says. The line between acceptable pornography and exploitative pornography is unclear. Talking about the issues involved in ASU students doing any type of pornography is important.

“If we can really dive into it, we might have our campus a really healthy dialogue,” he says. “What does it mean for an adult, who is nonetheless extremely young, to make the choice to be in a pornographic video?… What does it mean for a young woman to then associate her sexual expression in pornography with ASU? What does that do for the institution? How does the institution respond?”

Meanwhile, Hawkenson apologizes to the University for her actions. “I’m an extremely proud student here and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I never meant to represent the University in such a vulgar way,” she says.

“I regret it every day of my life. I wake up and think about how things would be better and different for me. I cry myself to sleep almost every night. I hurt people that I loved and cherished, and in turn, I’ve lost a lot of valuable people in my life.”

Correction, June 23, 2011: The article previously stated that regardless of the hoax, the Phoenix New Times reported the story along with other media outlets. However, the Phoenix New Times initially reported that despite the rumors, Hawkenson was not losing her scholarship, and that ABOR never received the letter.