Alyson Pinkelman: Fear of porn and the unaddressed public health crisis of sexual violence in Utah

Westminster College class on pornography creates a safe space to discuss the realities of sex work.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Bethami Dobkin speaks at her inauguration as Westminster College's 19th president in front of the school's Converse Hall in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 29, 2018.

Westminster College has recently been under fire for a May Term course entitled Film 300-Porn.

For those who have not attended Westminster, May Term courses are optional five-week-long elective classes offered at the end of the spring semester at no cost to undergraduate students. There are generally six or seven May Term courses offered every spring, and they often explore fun topics with attention-grabbing names such as “Epidemiology of the Zombie Apocalypse” or “How to be a Bitch.”

Westminster also has taught classes similar to Film 300-Porn since 2014, with classes titled “Sex in Film,” “These Films are so Gay” or “Love and Sex,” but none of those classes have faced the backlash that this particular course has. I believe that this course is facing discrimination and national attention due to deeply ingrained patriarchal values that discourage the enjoyment of sex work.

This innovative course has the potential to explore many areas of interest such as the intersection between public health, sociology and art while creating a safe space for students to discuss the porn industry. I think this course, and courses like it, are extremely valuable in a state where many adolescents learn about sex from porn or pornographic materials due to the abstinence-only nature of sex education (and teachers being discouraged from using anatomically correct terms in some school districts) in Utah.

There are countless ways this course could create engaging and informative conversations, such as discussing the importance that legalizing sex work has on decreasing human trafficking. I believe that having these conversations (difficult as they may be for some who have been raised in a culture where all things surrounding sex and sex work are taboo) creates a safe space and only increases opportunities for education. I applaud Westminster for working to de-stigmatize sex work and for creating a safe space where students can challenge and expand their beliefs if they so choose.

However, I find the national outcry against this class to be extremely disheartening when looking at statistics surrounding sexual violence in Utah.

According to the public health indicator based information system (IBIS-PH) for the past 25 years rape has been the only violent crime in Utah that has higher rates than the national average. Other violent crimes, such as homicide, robbery or aggravated assault, are historically two to three times lower in Utah than the national average.

According to a study conducted in 2016 by the Utah Women & Leadership project in conjunction with Utah Valley University, 61.8% of rape kits in Utah were not submitted by law enforcement to the state crime lab for testing. This was not rectified until 2020 when, according to the Department of Public Safety, 11,193 previously unsubmitted and/or untested rape kits were submitted and/or tested.

Furthermore, the Utah state government spent more than $92 million on people known to have perpetrated sexual violence while only $569,000 was spent on efforts to prevent sexual violence according to the 2021 IBIS-PH.

In 2016, then-Gov. Gary Herbert, declared porn a public health emergency, yet sexual violence in the state has yet to receive that kind of attention. I believe that Westminster’s Film 300-Porn class will enable students and staff alike to challenge their biases surrounding sex and sex work while also discussing sexual violence mitigation tactics.

The fact that there has been more outcry about an optional elective course offered by a private institution that will inspire engaging, albeit difficult, conversations rather than the sexual violence crisis in Utah shows this isn’t a moral issue. This is an issue of fearing sex workers and, more importantly, discouraging the enjoyment of the work that sex workers do.

If one feels threatened or disgusted by this class, I implore them to consider why they feel so strongly about a class that they will likely never take, and that is optional for students of Westminster college to partake in.

If you or someone you know is facing sexual violence, please consider reaching out to these resources: Rape Recovery Center 801-467-7282; National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-4673; Utah Warm Line 801-587-1055.

Alyson Pinkelman

Alyson Pinkelman, Salt Lake City, received her master’s in public health degree from Westminster College in 2022.