This weekend and then again today, The New York Post shared photographs of potential First Lady Melania Trump unclothed, taken in the mid-1990s for a now-defunct French magazine Max; some included erotic poses with another woman and suggestions of BDSM. These, like the nudes she later did for GQ, were part of her modeling career and, as such, are not out line with the other work she has done or with the work that other high-end fashion models do. Despite the gawking that American study abroad students do when they encounter a French newspaper kiosk, they weren’t pornography.
That’s good because, as the2016 Republican platform argues, pornography “has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.” And while “destroying the lives of millions” might be a little overwrought, I’m not going to argue in favor of pornography. The social science is pretty clear that, broadly speaking, porn as it is widely created and consumed in the U.S., is associated with a lot of social problems, including lowered inclination to intervene as a bystander to sexual assault among college men, a topic I care a lot about as a college professor and the director of a growing Women and Gender Studies program. And while much of the anti-porn effort is tied into dangerous and damaging ideas about purity culture and oppressive notions about gender normativity (thanks, conservative Christianity!) and raises some concerns about first amendment rights as well as bodily autonomy, it’s also the case that porn really does hurt a lot of people. In sum, pornography is worth our political attention.
Why, then, would The New York Post, which (along with National Enquirer, The New York Observer, and The Santa Barbara News-Press) has endorsed Donald Trump, run pictures of his wife as if those pictures are pornography? To inspire observers to call out the hypocrisy of attacks on Michelle Obama for wearing (gasp!) bare arms? To goad HRC supporters into hurling their own sexist insults at Mrs. Trump? To draw attention to the gap between the anti-sex Republican platform and the Republican nominee’s craven sexual behavior? To force white evangelical voters who are supporting Trump to have face their cognitive dissidence once again? To sell newspapers? Over at Medium, Femina Fera (“Wild Woman”) calls the photographs “a crude red herring” that can only distract voters from Trump’s invitation to Russia to influence the election or his unthinkable treatment of the Gold Star family of Humayan Khan, kind of like how we gave attention to Melania Trump’s RNC speech, which was plagiarized from an earlier speech by Michelle Obama, that might have better been devoted to Donald Trump’s speech, which was apparently cribbed from Mussolini.
What is particularly crude about this distraction is that it uses Melania Trump (in a position most of us would consider to be our most vulnerable—that is, totally naked) as a human shield. She takes the flak while Trump continues to get free advertising, proves (through her attractiveness) that he’s no “little Marco,” and keeps the conversation on his sexual conquests rather than on, say, any kind of real policies. In doing so, he transforms the pictures from fashion to porn. At its root, porne means “bought, purchased,” with the implication that we are talking about women slaves bought for sex, and is related to pernanai , “to sell, to traffic in.” A person bought or sold, trafficked in, for exploitation by another.
In other words, the Max photos weren’t pornography when they were taken, but if Femina Fera is right (and I think she is) they are now.