Out of the stacks, back to the newsstands

For the last two years, fourth-year Jackie Todd has been trying to get ahold of the student body. A naked student body, to be precise, in an attempt to resurrect dormant porn mag.

By Asher Klein

For the last two years, fourth-year Jackie Todd has been trying to get ahold of the student body. A naked student body, to be precise.

Todd is looking to publish another issue of Vita Excolatur, a pornographic magazine made by, for, and about students at the U of C, last published in 2007. The magazine translates the name, taken from the University’s motto, as “the life well lived.”

But as the head of the organization since her second-year, Todd has had trouble getting people to join, from photographers to designers; even asking people to help her table at RSO fairs “was like pulling teeth.”

Todd heard about Vita as a senior at a conservative Catholic high school, where “sex and sexuality were never explored,” she said. “Having a venue where sex can not only be explored, but can be brought up as a topic of conversation” appealed to her. When she matriculated, she approached the editors with an idea that she produced and posed for.

“Everyone thinks that you go off to college and its going to be this crazy place full of co-eds hooking up, booze, all that stuff. And while it’s funny to joke around about sex, it should be addressed in a way that’s not super serious,” she said. “It should be out there in a magazine.”

Todd is hoping to resurrect the magazine, which once printed semi-nude fashion photography shot on top of the Reg, an article explaining the Asian fetish, and even a “money shot,” to use a trade term.

Vita didn’t look much like a porn magazine at first. Put out in spring of 2004, the first issue contained lots of words and some pictures, too, but a lot of clothes stayed on for the camera and there was little nudity.

“I’d like to think that it grew more sophisticated,” Ceda Xiong (B.A. ‘05), Vita’s first editor-in-chief and founder, said in an e-mail, referring to the polished content Vita later produced.

The next issue, published in the fall, featured more professional photography and writing. Its cover story involved a shoot with the men’s ultimate Frisbee team posing naked in an empty pool; entitled “Discus,” it was lit and shot in a highly stylized way meant to invoke Greek art and athletics.

The issue also contained an investigation into the BDSM scene in Chicago and accompanying pictures in the basement of a University building, with a topless, female model dominating a topless, male one.

One thing that didn’t change was the female-focused content, in part because the top editors were women, and in part because it took an enlightened view towards sex, sexuality, and pornography that didn’t treat women solely as sex objects.

There were, at least in the first year, as many depictions of the male form as there were of the female form; the first cover story was on demystifying female masturbation for women.

Paul Mantz (B.A. ’07), who wrote and modeled for the magazine starting in winter of 2005, said the staff’s attitude was positive and adult.

“People were much more frank and straight-forward about their desires and the way they were talking about things. There wasn’t any unspoken pressure or things like that. It wasn’t the hormone keg of high school,” he said.

Vita came of age by the spring of 2006, when it featured prominently in an April article in The New York Times, along with similar magazines published at Harvard, Yale, and Boston University, which cropped up around the same time. The article called it “the rare smut rag with extensive footnotes,” and portrayed the students involved as scholarly artists looking to update the school’s image.

It printed with glossy, color covers, and the quality of the pictures, both in terms of resolution, concept and novelty, only grew. But by then, both finding models—and securing their consent—had become difficult, Todd said, and Mantz called it a “huge problem” that led to delays in production.

One model said in an e-mail that she pulled out of one shoot after she found out her wish to remain anonymous on a previous one had not been honored (she asked for anonymity in this article as well).

“I did a shoot for hot girls reading books [a series that appeared in each issue] during the end of winter my first year, under the condition that it just be my pic, no name no nothing,” she said.

However, her name, year and hometown were printed on the inside cover of the magazine. “I was livid,” she said.

Although he was not aware of any prior incident, Arthur Lundberg, Vita’s ORCSA adviser for the past two years, said the University has a contract with the publication that ensures students’ wishes are safeguarded.

“There are more concerns than with any other general campus publications,” he said. “Things like…making sure people sign consent forms both before a shoot and once they’ve seen a mock-up of what’s being presented in context.”

Upholding these standards was one problem Todd encountered when trying to put together an issue of her own, which she almost pulled off for O-week in 2008.

Looking to write an issue on “getting to know your university through sex,” Todd and a few other Vita veterans almost put a short issue together, but didn’t find enough production designers to put the content together.

Another reason Vita hasn’t come out in years was the organization’s structure. Mantz, who was on staff during Vita’s last issue, said succession wasn’t clear. “There wasn’t anybody who was driven completely. Nobody wanted to own the project,” he said.

The last issue was published in spring 2007. A few attempts to put Vita online were stymied because of privacy issues—people didn’t want their names attached to risqué photos online.

Todd didn’t want to take on the job of editor in chief, but when “everyone else that was doing it left,” she did it out of a sense of duty. “I’ve been a part of it for so long that I feel like it’s a personal fail if I don’t produce something before I graduate,” she said.

Todd is still trying to get contributors for an issue to be put out at the end of the academic year. She also hopes to set up a structure that would ensure the magazine stays in print beyond her graduation.

“I really wish I could say that I’m really optimistic,” she said, “but I’m still really worried that people are going to cop out and not follow through with their plans.”