Category Archives: culture

A Valentine for Gene Nichol

So maybe this isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day post. This is in reaction to the letter Gene Nichol addressed to the College of William and Mary community yesterday announcing his resignation as President of the college. It was a love letter, of the sort that comes at the end of a sudden and painful breakup. (Mimi alerted me to it. I found it published by the campus paper, DogStreetJournal.com, but it’s widely Google-able. Here is the transcript and audio of a passionate statement he gave to supporters. Video is available here.)Gene Nichol at a rally after his resignation

Nichol resigned after being informed that his contract would not be renewed. The nonrenewal seems to be largely because of controversy regarding four important decisions he made.

I really can’t speak to the quality of his presidency overall. I wish I could, though, because based on recent coverage of his decisions I have a feeling I’d have really supported him. His own statements indicate a love of free speech, open society, diversity, and opportunity that are at the heart of what we support here on Sex in the Public Square.

I’ve excerpted some passages from his Letter to the Community, but I encourage you to go read the whole thing. Here is a passage regarding one “free speech” decision, which was over the Sex Workers Art Show, a traveling exhibitwe’ve supported here in the Square (we wrote about the controversy here), and one “separation of church and state” decision which had to do with the location of a cross on public university property:

First, as is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular College events — both voluntary and mandatory — in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the College’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more.

Second, I have refused, now on two occasions, to ban from the campus a program funded by our student-fee-based, and student-governed, speaker series. To stop the production because I found it offensive, or unappealing, would have violated both the First Amendment and the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities. It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students. It is perhaps worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear on oath not to do so.

Then, not a sex or speech related decision, but one that is dear to me for different reasons:

Third, in my early months here, recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell eligible, students than any public university in America, and that our record was getting worse, I introduced an aggressive Gateway scholarship program for Virginians demonstrating the strongest financial need. Under its terms, resident students from families earning $40,000 a year or less have 100% of their need met, without loans. Gateway has increased our Pell eligible students by 20% in the past two years.

I teach at a community college. This was a choice of mine based on a feeling of commitment to low income students and to the notion that higher education should be accessible to everyone who wants it. Nichol’s work to make a prestigious liberal arts college accessible should be applauded. The fact that such a decision comes with institutional challenges is a given. I’m sure the college community was able to rise to those challenges.

Finally, in an ironic twist, Nichol tells us:

I add only that, on Sunday, the Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree “not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds” or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.

Free speech. Paid speech. It really does make a difference.

Listen to Nichol’s statements to his supporters and you hear even more of his love.

I understand that love can lead us into dangerous places. People do terrible things, sometimes, in the name of love. Not having been at William and Mary I really can’t know what the day-to-day feel of the Nichol presidency was like. Was he like the abusive partner who sometimes does beautiful things just to keep you off your guard? I suppose that is possible, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seems to be the “beautiful things” that were the controversial ones; those things that had to do with free speech, diversity and opportunity, and a balance between church and state, those are what the fight was over.

At a time when intellectual freedom is being attacked all over the place — just check the Free Exchange On Campus blog if you don’t already know this — people like President Nichol are to be admired and supported for their willingness to defend that freedom.

In an age when college education is both increasingly necessary and increasingly unaffordable, his decisions about opportunity are to be admired.

And in a media climate where it can be impossible to tell the sponsor from the source, the fact that he didn’t take their money to spin the story their way makes me all the more impressed.

I <heart> sexual freedom.

I <heart> academic freedom.

I <heart> openness, diversity and opportunity.

And this Valentine’s Day I <heart> Gene Nichol.

This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org — its like this blog but with a whole lot more going on. Join us there!

Sex In The Public Square

activism + community + information

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Filed under censorship, community-building, culture, Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex work, Valentine's Day

Note to Bob Herbert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

Herbert’s column in the NY Times this morning reprises his claims about the misogyny of prostitution and pornography but in a different context this time and with some unwittingly apt parallels.

Readers of this blog know that I have a very different analysis of sex work, one that doesn’t assume that prostitution or pornography are inherently and essentially misogynistic, so I won’t reprise that here. (You can get a glimpse of some of that here and here) Instead, I’d like to point out some of the things I think make Herbert’s analysis here especially weak, including some false assumptions about causality, and unfortunate parallels to sports and the military.

Let me start with the false assumptions about causality. Herbert seems to be asserting that the existence of pornography and prostitution, as evidenced by legal brothels in Nevada, serve as evidence of the misogyny in American culture that then leads to the epidemic of violence against women. Wrong. Are more wives and girlfriends murdered by their partners in Germany or the Netherlands where prostitution is legal? No. I would say it is our culture of violence that leads to violence of all sorts. (Note: I am not asserting a direct connection between watching violent movies or playing violent video games and committing violent acts. I am suggesting that in a culture where violence and aggression are rewarded, as they are here, that you get more violence and aggression.)

The other problem with Herbert’s argument is his assertion that sex work is somehow uniquely problematic. The fact that he uses sex work and pornography as the sine qua non of misogyny tells us that he sees those things as uniquely and irredeemably degrading and dehumanizing to women. One of the bits of evidence Herbert shows us — again — from his Nevada trip to support his claim that the brothels there degrade women (and I have no doubt that some are run in degrading ways) is that the women must answer to a bell. Now others have previously pointed out that school kids answer to bells, workers in factories and other locations often answer to devices like bells or buzzers. I bet even Mr. Herbert has a Blackberry or some other device that vibrates or rings in his pocket, and causes a Pavlovlian response where he hastens to comply with some instruction from his employer. Oppressive? Yes. Unique to sex work? Not a chance.

In fact, Herbert mentions the men at the Jets games, which made me think about the way that professional athletes, while much better compensated than sex workers, are also selling the use of their bodies in dangerous circumstances, governed by whistles and commands, for the entertainment of others and the profit of a few immensely wealthy owners and media corporations.

Herbert also raises the very real — and too little examined — problem of sexual violence in the military, but again he misses an important connection. He completed passes over the degradation rituals common to military life. Think drill instructors shouting insults at new recruits as they train. Think chants about blood and killing. Think hazing-type rituals as groups are formed and as their members shuffle in and out.

Think leasing your body to a male-dominated institution for a period of years to be used as the leaders of that institution wish. They can send you to another country. They can separate you from your family. They can command you to kill and send you on missions where your chances of being killed yourself are incredibly high. And you can’t refuse without breaking the rules.

Think your only option for escape, if they don’t want to let you go, is to commit the crime of desertion.

It is all the more clear now that Herbert opposes prostitution and pornography specifically because they are centered on sexual transactions. But degradation and dehumanization in work are problems that are not unique to the sex industry, and the sex industry ought not be uniquely condemned for them.

The Times ran an article on Sunday about the violent crimes committed by returning vets and noted that about a third were committed against spouses, girlfriends, kids or other family members. If Herbert wants to understand the causes of violence against women he needs to look beyond pornography and begin examining the toxic aspects of conventional masculinity — including the valorization of violence and aggression — and he also needs to remind himself of the economic exploitation and oppression and hardship facing so many families, including those of returning vets, that cause so much stress and anxiety in people’s lives. If he understood the intersection of those problems he’d be much closer to understanding how the misogyny that does still percolate through American culture puts women at great risk.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at the community site Sex in the Public Square dot Org. If you haven’t visited, check it out!

Sex in the Public Square | activism + community + information

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Filed under Bob Herbert, culture, feminism, pornography, public discourse, sex, sex work

Pepper Schwartz joins us on SexInThePublicSquare.Org

Come, talk about sex and older women with Pepper Schwartz!

Pepper SchwartzStarting this weekend, Pepper Schwartz will join us on SexInThePublicSquare.org for a discussion of her new book, Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex and Love in the Sensual Years.

Please join us!

Jeffrey Rosenfeld reviewed the book for us here. We’d especially love to hear from people who have read the book, but all are welcome.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz is a noted sociologist specializing in sexuality. She has written over 40 academic research articles, and also many accessible books on sex and relationships including, including The Great Sex Weekend and Everything You Know About Sex and Love is Wrong, along other books aimed at helping people keep their sexual relationships interesting and vibrant. She has also written Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character and 201 Question to Ask Your Kids / 201 Questions to Ask Your Parents, books that help parents talk about sex with their kids, Pepper Schwartz has dedicated her career to opening up sexuality as a realm of sociological study, but also to making that study useful and accessible to the public. In Prime, she does something academic-types rarely do under their own names: she reveals much about her own sex life, using her own experience as a prompt to offer advice to herself and to other women experiencing the dating and relationship-building world in their 50s.

This conversation marks the beginning of a new feature for us at SexInThePublicSquare.org. We’re initiating a series of conversations with authors of the books we review, and we’re thrilled that Pepper Schwartz has agreed to kick off the series for us.

The conversation will take place in the comments section of Jeff Rosenfeld’s review. When we start, I’ll put a direct link to the conversation on the sidebar of the site so you can get there quickly!

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Filed under culture, Gender, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age, Travel

ENDA Tabled?

Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliha and LGBT Center's Cristine HerraraSo you might have been following the ENDA stories and known that it was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House last week or the week before. And you might have noticed that that didn’t happen. And you might have been waiting for news about that. I even tried to put a legislation tracker on the site (SexInThePublicSquare.org) so we could more easily keep up with bills like ENDA. (Aside: you’ll probably have noticed that so far it is only working in Safari browser.) Even with all that, I’d noticed that, well, nothing seemed to be happening. So, I’ve been poking around trying to figure out what’s going on, and I just came across this, from October 31, by EJ Graff at TFM Cafe:

The latest news on this front: ENDA, which had been scheduled for a House floor vote this week, has been taken off the table.

The official reason that ENDA won’t come up for vote: it’s been pushed aside by other business. The generally accepted reason is the split between the Barney Frank faction and the Tammy Baldwin faction.

The Tammy Baldwin faction, remember, is the faction that was going to offer an amendment, on the floor, that would put gender identity back into ENDA. The Barney Frank faction is the one that “compromised” gender identity out of the bill.

Graff does a great job explaining, again, why keeping gender identity in the bill is so important. It isn’t just to protect the trangendered, though to my mind that would be reason enough. It is also important because much of the discrimination that lesbians and gays face comes not as a result of sexual orientation but as a result of refusal or inability to comply with gender normative behavior. Some examples from her piece that make this crystal clear:

After all, when grade school and middle school kids taunt or beat up some boy for acting “gay,” it’s not because he’s been kissing other boys; it’s because he hasn’t been masculine enough for their taste.

and

Consider what happened to Darlene Jespersen, who lost her bartending job at Harrah’s Casino after 21 years—when her employer instituted a policy that said all women had to wear makeup. She couldn’t do it; her whole being revolted against that mask. (And yes, the 9th circuit decided that this was legal)

These examples also make it clear that the teasing and the discrimination that we’re talking about can also be used to victimize heterosexual people who don’t conform to gender norms. In neither of the examples above do we even need to know the sexual orientation of the people involved (real or hypothetical) in order to know that their treatment is wrong.

Does anybody else remember the amazing book, Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism, written by Suzanne Pharr? I remember reading it in a Philosophy of Sexuality class in college (eternal thanks to the phenomenal Peggy Walsh) and having one of those “eureka moment” epiphanies where suddenly all kinds of seemingly disparate oppressions slid into their interlocking positions and I really got why this was all so important to me. (It’s no accident that we read this alongside a piece by Marilyn Frye describing oppression as a bird cage.)

Pharr’s argument, very briefly and probably oversimplified, is that homophobia is used to keep people obeying gender norms that are sexist and that privilege masculinity over femininity. Any thing that challenges that system is framed in homophobic terms, and their success depends on our own internalized homophobia.

ENDA, while being framed as a piece of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights legislation, is really much bigger, but only if it includes gender identity. If it does, it is a piece of legislation that moves us forward in the enormous task of dismantling a gender role system that oppresses all who fail to conform to its narrow expectations. While some in the mainstream gay rights movement might not be comfortable with that goal (preferring a more liberal model where people of any sexual orientation are free to assimilate into the dominant culture) they need to realize that they won’t achieve protection for lots of gays and lesbians if they don’t back the gender identity part of ENDA. (This is something Barney Frank seems not to understand. In his statement in the House on October 9 he seemed to believe that ENDA could protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals effectively without the gender identity provision, and that later some bill could be written to protect the transgendered, who should effectively ‘wait their turn’. His mistake is in thinking that without specific gender identity protection that gays and lesbians can be protected effectively themselves.)

It irritates me that Barney Frank, a gay white man in power, is willing to sacrifice the effective protection of LGBT folks in order to look as though he’s done right by us. He doesn’t stand to lose if ENDA gets passed without gender identity, (though others of us do) but he does stand to lose of ENDA doesn’t pass at all.

ENDA is not for Barney Frank. ENDA is for all of us. It needs to be brought back to the table so that Tammy Baldwin can offer her amendment. The tabling of the bill is, I’m certain, in fear about Baldwin’s amendment, and I for one would much rather see the legislation voted down by people who have to go on record opposing the inclusion of gender identity then to see Baldwin and others intimidated behind the scenes into accepting the Frank compromise or having the bill die without a vote.

Note: This post is published on my blog at SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Come join in!

Thanks to Feministing‘s always amazing Weekly Feminist Reader for the link to EJ Graff’s piece!

Photo of Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliyah and Christine Herrara from the LGBT Center borrowed from GayCityNews story, “Not So Hot on Caliente” . Khadijah Farmer is the woman who was kicked out of Caliente Cab Company, a restaurant in New York City, because a bouncer believed she was a man using the women’s restroom. Though she offered to show him ID she and her party were still forced to leave. Her case, while not about employment, is an excellent example of how perception of gender identity is a source of discrimination. She was not kicked out because she was a lesbian. She was kicked out because a bouncer refused to believe she was a woman.

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Filed under civil rights, culture, ENDA, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexuality

Genarlow Wilson is Free

I posted yesterday at SexInThePublicSquare.org that he had been ordered freed, but this morning’s Times has photos of him outside the prison. It’s about time!

That’s the good news, and I wish the best to Wilson and his family. We’ve been pulling for Wilson for a long time here at Sex in the Public Square. And we know it is not easy to put a life back together after spending time in prison, and Wilson’s prospects — which had looked bright — have been damaged. We hope he finds the kind of external support and inner resources necessary to make things work.

At the same time, we need to remember that Genarlow Wilson was not the only one. The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran this piece yesterday describing how other teens have been caught up in sex offender registration rules for consensual sexual activity.

We need a serious discussion in this country teens and sex. Right now we’re in the untenable position of denying teens sex education, thus making it very difficult for them to make smart sexual decisions, and then treating them like criminals when they have sex.

We need to treat teens like they are people with rights, and we need to treat sex as a legitimate human interest. There are lots of ways that teens need support as they develop their sexualities. Draconian enforcement of age-of-consent laws is not one of them.

UPDATE: I’ve created a forum on SexInThePublicSquare.org where we can have that discussion. Click here if you’d like to join in

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Filed under culture, Genarlow Wilson, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

NCSF Survey on discrimination and sexual diversity

Just a very short post to request that you take a few minutes out of your day to take the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s survey on violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.

From the first page of the survey:

Please help us by taking a moment to fill out this survey even if you have not been a victim of discrimination or violence. We are tracking demographics of our community and we also need to know the types of crimes, discrimination, harassment and abuses of authority that occur based on sexual expression or the perceived association with BDSM-Leather-Fetish groups.

This is an anonymous survey being distributed to the BDSM-Leather-Fetish communities throughout the world. We do not ask for your name, address or any other identifying information and all responses made on this website are fully encrypted. Any questions that require a response are marked with an asterisk.

You may contact the authors of this survey by emailing surveybdsm@gmail.com, or by writing to us at: Survey of Violence and Discrimination, 875 Sixth Avenue Suite 1705, New York, NY 10001.

Thank you for helping us raise the level of awareness of this important issue to our community. By completing this survey you are not only helping us to better understand ourselves, but you are helping in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual equality for all sexual minorities.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is a leader in the national effort to protect freedom of sexual expression and end discrimination against those who participate in BDSM, polyamory, and other forms of sexuality that challenge this society’s sex norms. The more good information they have the better able they are to do that work. The survey only takes a short time.

By the way, this is National Coming Out Day. What better day to reveal, even anonymously, a bit about the impact your own kinks have had on other aspects of your life?

Click here to take the survey.

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Filed under community-building, culture, discrimination, heterosexism, nonmonogamy, public discourse, research, sex, sex and health, sex and the law

Last chance to send Pink Ghetto Blasters to SXSW!

I told you a while back that I proposed a panel for SXSW Interactive 2008 called Pink Ghetto Blasters: Destigmatizing Sex via Online Community Building. The panel would include Chris Hall, Lux Nightmare, Violet Blue, and Rachel Kramer Bussel as panel members with me moderating. Voting ends at 11:59pm central time.

As Chris explains at SexInThePublicSquare.org:

One of the principles behind Sex in the Public Square is that by putting the sexual aspects of our lives off-limits and keeping discussion of them “private,” we lose a valuable component of democracy. The category “NSFW” diminishes us as individuals and as a society because large chunks of both are kept in the closet. In short, we’re all about busting the Pink Ghetto, and this panel is a great way to get some of the sharpest minds in the field together to get beyond the basics and into the practical matters of what the real implications of fencing sex off from the rest of society are. This is a great opportunity for us, and we hope that as many of you as possible will give us your support.

If you have voted yet, please do! Click here for our panel’s page.

While you’re voting, consider these panels too. I’d love to see them make the cut!

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Filed under Chris Hall, culture, Lux Nightmare, pink ghetto, public discourse, Rachel Kramer Bussel, sex, Sex in the Public Square, SXSW, technology, Violet Blue