National Sexual Freedom Day is Thursday. Woodhull Freedom Foundation will host panels on the topic of sexual freedom as a fundamental human right and will also release the first Sexual Freedom Annual Report documenting the state of sexual freedoms in the United States today. This is an exciting moment in the movement toward greater sexual freedom for all. And yet it is also a moment characterized by conflict about what kinds of sexualities ought to be free, and what kinds of institutions ought to regulate those freedoms.
Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an opinion piece by Margaret Brooks, of Bridgewater State University, railing against the well-established Sex Week programming series that exists, in different forms, on many college campuses. Sex Weeks have been around for at least a decade. They aren’t new. They aren’t even especially controversial. Until now. Brooks is scandalized by the way that commercial interests (sex toy companies) and academic interests (sexuality education) are blended without much to distinguish the one from the other. She is indignant that Sex Week workshops and programs are not taught primarily by full time faculty members. And she is outraged that these programs don’t provide abstinence or monogamy only education.
I sympathize with Dr. Brooks on a majority of those points, a fact which may be hard for many readers to believe.
"In this present economy, the taxpayers’ dollars are being used by the Board of Regents to inform students about such social topics. … I believe the timing is perfect to eliminate positions of professors and staff who are paid to provide such services.”
Those are the words of Charlice Byrd, a Republican representing Woodstock in Georgia's House of Representatives. She is quoted in a an article in Sunday's Atlanta Journal Constitution and she is not alone. Her colleague Calvin Hill (R-Canton) is "deeply disturbed" by the fact that the University system has experts on male prostitution and on oral sex.
You would think that these representatives and their Christian Coalition supporters (Jim Beck, president of the GA Christian Coalition reportedly wants legislative hearings on the issue) believe that researchers are offering courses in how to become a prostitute or how to perform oral sex.
We are talking about researchers whose research on sex-related topics provides the evidence needed to make smart policy on public health issues. These are exactly the kinds of people states need more of. And the state gets access to highly skilled researchers generally through their work in colleges and universities.
The announcement of the appointment of a new Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of New Mexico is very welcome. Now it will be up to members of the English Department to rally round her and rebuild the program after so much public scrutiny over the last year.
We trust that good will and a recognition of the importance of placing the program, teaching and the students first will prevail over past differences . The University is to be commended for appointing a facilitator to try to bring the factions within the Department together and to overcome personal differences. Strong leadership from within the Department and the College of Arts and Sciences will be needed to support her in this role.
We have been following an interpersonal conflict at the University of New Mexico that centers on issues of due process, graduate student-faculty interaction, sexual freedom and the right of both students and faculty to private lives. (If you're new around here or you need to get caught up you can see all of our previous posts on the matter here.)
One of the things that made it difficult to appreciate all of the layers of the conflict was a lack of access to primary source documents. We have now received a copy of the March 10 letter from the Deputy Provost to those who had petitioned for a review, by the Faculty Senate Ethics and Advisory Committee, of the extramural activities of one of the professors. After carefully considering the content and implications of this we have determined that it is in the public interest to publish that letter here in its entirety. In doing so, we were aware that extracts had appeared in the media. (You can click here for a PDF of the scanned letter or click on the images below.)
When people have only partial information there is a tendency to fill in the blanks with rumor, speculation and misinformation. We are publishing this letter to ensure that people are aware of the facts relating to the two reviews undertaken by the university administration. We appreciate that a number of members of faculty remain deeply concerned about the acts they sought a review of, and we respect both their right to hold those views and to raise them under University policies on the reporting of suspected misconduct. Nevertheless this is the second review the University has conducted of this complaint, and absent new evidence, little can be gained and much lost by pursuing this line of action. As the letter states, the matter is now "concluded" from the Adminstration's point of view. The observations and conclusions reached by the Provost's Office are congruent with our own observations based on interviews of the people involved and the documents examined.
We continue to analyse and comment on the distressing conflict within the English Department at the University of New Mexico (UNM) because of two recent events. The first involves the resignation, effective April 15th , of the Director of the Creative Writing Program, and the second the follow up to our decision not to publish an anonymous commentary on this matter.
The debate on extra-curricular activities by University of New Mexico staff and postgraduate students continues in the Blogosphere. Of particular interest are those from within UNM, and those associated with Professor Chavez’ writing and teaching (English and Women’s Studies ), such as Samantha Anne Scott.
Yet there is little evidence of any public statements on managing the conflict within the English Department, a conflict that reports suggest threatens the careers of faculty, the integrity of teaching, and is inappropriately dragging students into the debate.
Constructive debate on issues in the academy is productive, unmanaged conflict is not. What then are the issues at stake, that must be of concern to all academics, authorities and students? These can be dissected on a number of levels from the micro-environment, the conduct of individuals to the macro level, the responsibility of the organisation.
This is the third piece on Sex In The Public Square dealing with the University of New Mexico conflict over the investigation into Professor Lisa Chavez's work for a BDSM fantasy phone service. In the first piece I wrote about questions I thought the case raised based on very early media coverage of the story. In the second post, yesterday, Lisa Chavez herself took the time to answer questions about the story. It is important for her voice to be heard. The comments on that thread show what a serious discussion of the issues can look like.
Today we add another voice. Liz Derrington wrote to me yesterday sharing her part in the story. She is the graduate student referred to in yesterday's piece, and listening to her voice is as important as listening to Professor Chavez's. For one thing, their stories so clearly support one other that it seems all the more evidence that the initial university investigation produced the right outcome (though as Michael Goodyear points out here we can't know if they did so by following due process because as far as we know there have been no reports about the investigation released to the public). Liz Derrington's story is important for its own sake, too, of course. For one thing, it provides a window into a part of the sex industry that we often forget to look at. I am especially touched, though by the way that she clearly and openly explains just how damaging have been the actions of people who claimed to be concerned for her. It is a reminder of how harmful is the paternalism with which we often approach the issue of sex work, especially when combined with the stigma already attached to that work. I'm grateful to Liz for telling her story here:
Lisa Chavez is a tenured Associate professor in English at University of New Mexico, where she teaches creative writing--mostly poetry and nonfiction. She has two books of poetry published: Destruction Bay and In An Angry Season. She writes about issues of race, gender, class and sexuality.
On March 24 I wrote about the conflict that had erupted at UNM after some BDSM photos got Chavez into trouble with some of her colleagues. Yesterday I learned from the dankprofessor, who himself learned it from The Daily Lobo, UNM's student newspaper, that the head of the creative writing program is resigning over the matter. Sharon Warner submitted her resignation letter and is expected to step down at the end of next week. Her reason for resigning, according to the student newspaper report is that "her colleague has not been punished for posing in sexually explicit photos with students.” Those photos were advertisements for People Exchanging Power (PEP), a BDSM phone fantasy service and did not represent a sexual relationship. The students were graduate students already working for PEP. The Deputy Provost found no reason to sanction her.
Lisa Chavez has graciously agreed to talk to us about her work for PEP, the situation at UNM, about relationships between faculty and students, about misconceptions of BDSM and the difficulty some people have distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and about and the impact this is having on her life and the lives of some of the other gay, lesbian and bisexual faculty in the department. I am grateful that she agreed to talk with me about her story:
If you ask it that way it's kind of an odd question, isn't it? I mean we're basically sexual all the time. We just aren't always acting on our sexual desires. But we are not without our sexuality. Still, any time personal sexuality makes itself visible in relationships like those between coworkers or between students and teachers things get very muddy very quickly
I ask the question because of this story. I read it about it first on the dankprofessor's blog. (The dankprofessor is Barry Dank, and he writes frequently about the politics of sex on college campuses.)
Briefly the story is this: