A lady friend, who went to Seton High School in the 1960s, remembers a fine arts course where one of the nuns announced on a spring afternoon, "Today we'll be looking at paintings from the Renaissance period. There will be a few paintings where women are not fully clothed. Those of you who feel uncomfortable with this will be allowed to leave the room."
We think tenderly of such overprotectiveness now and wish to make our own innocence retroactive. At Notre Dame Prep, we discover a little belatedly, they've been showing their young ladies a porno movie that disguises itself as a documentary. They've been showing it for the past 10 years, during all of which time, it turns out, just about nobody desired to leave the room.
The movie, called "Not A Love Story: A Film About Pornography," was part of a school workshop exploring the links between porno and sexual violence against women. Students needed parental permission to see the movie. But permission slips never hinted at the hard-core sex.
"I need to understand what goes on behind these doors, and how it affects my life," a wide-eyed young woman in the movie says, attempting to establish the movie's educational value. She enters a strip joint, where a woman dressed as Goldilocks is removing her clothing for the wolves in the audience.
The wide-eyed young woman moves from there to the shooting of an actual porno movie, where actors talk about the tribulations of their job ("I get tired of degrading women," says a male performer), after showing us precisely what sort of degrading is going on.
From here, it's a trip comparable to anything the most jaded traveling salesman spends his last quarter to see in some peep show on The Block: not only hard-core sex, but sexual violence as well. A woman is grotesquely bound. A man sticks a gun in another woman's mouth and tells her what to do with it. Nobody needs to explain the phallic imagery.
This is very rough trade, and both unsettling and saddening to think of teen-agers seeing it. Worse, perhaps, is that nobody questioned it over a 10-year period. Why not? Well, there's a certain amount of what the Supreme Court used to call "redeeming social value." The film trots out a feminist or two to say how terribly women are treated. A psychiatrist talks of the "desecration of a woman's body." Sexual violence is bad, everybody finally agrees after an hour of considerable graphic display.
Tuesday, reacting to complaints from parents, Cardinal William H. Keeler announced that the video would no longer be used at Notre Dame. He also said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Roman Catholic schools here, would oversee an immediate review of the sex education curriculum at the school.
If this gives relief to those who have recently complained, it also raises questions: Did none of the young ladies find anything objectionable in such a movie, or were they just shy about mentioning it? If any parents knew, did they think it was OK? Authorities at the school have defended the movie as a no-nonsense way to examine sexual violence.
This is sensitive territory. American schools have done a delicate dance with sex education, trying to take the uncomfortableness out of it for kids while calming skittish parents. But there's a difference between telling kids it's all right to have those funny feelings in their tummies, and showing them the latest in bondage fashion.
So, why no complaints over 10 years? For the parents, maybe they'd simply placed complete faith in Notre Dame's long and honorable history as a place of education, and of refuge from some of life's rougher edges.
For the young ladies, maybe they're just not so easily shocked anymore. They've grown up with cable, where sex is as near as the dial. On network TV, the talk shows air the coarsest vulgarity. On the radio yesterday morning, some moron posing as a disc jockey told a joke with a punch line that involved committing an obscenity with holy water in a church.
In such a world, what's left to shock us? My friend from Seton High hates the old memory of the nun and the nude paintings. She sees the offer to leave the room not as protectiveness, but as part of a broader message of sexual repression.
This is the flip side. Nobody's repressed anymore. Sex is so routine, they're showing it to teen-age girls, who stifle yawns and don't understand what all the fuss is about.