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State Budgets, Higher Education, and Sexual Freedom

January 22, 2011

It’s hard to avoid news of state budget shortfalls, and the New York Times reported yesterday that states, along with some members of Congress, are even investigating the constitutionally controversial idea of bankruptcy to solve their problems. These budget crises are political, not financial, at their roots. It isn’t the case that there isn’t enough money to go around. It’s just that the money isn’t where it needs to be in order to solve the problems. 
What does all this have to do with sexual freedom? A lot, actually. For one thing, public health services, public financial assistance, housing and food subsidies, and public education are all being attacked to try to fill the holes in these budgets. When a person doesn’t have the security they need in order to get by from day to day, all of their freedom is undermined. 
But there are also ways that state budget shortfalls are being used to directly restrict sexual freedom. Last week I learned that Tristan Taormino, a nationally respected sexuality educator and feminist pornographer, was “uninvited” from her engagement as Keynote Speaker at Oregon State University‘s Modern Sex conference in mid-February. The reason? The university decided it could not use “general fee dollars,” which include taxpayer dollars, to fund a speaker who does the kind of work that Tristan does. According to a press release circulated Megan Andelloux, founder of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, and posted online in this thoughtful post by sexuality educator Shanna Katz), her manager contacted OSU, and spoke to a source who told him “I think they’re uninviting Tristan because they don’t want to have to defend her appearance to conservative legislators.” This source, who requested anonymity and was not named in the original press release, said that the college did not want to defend having a pornographer present at an OSU conference. 
According to the Modern Sex conference page, this is a student-led conference supported by faculty and staff.  It’s purpose is to look at the struggles and conflicts around sexuality as it intersects with gender, race and class. Emphasis is placed on “communicating and understanding diverse perspectives around sexuality through workshops, guided facilitations, lectures, and film screenings.” It is no wonder that Tristan Taormino was invited as Keynote speaker. Her work has, for years, dealt with the controversies of erotic entertainment, personal sexual empowerment, and communication. It is shameful that she was disinvited precisely because she works at the crossroads of exactly the kinds of issues the conference plans to address.
Regardless how you feel about pornography, this should trouble all of us. Colleges and universities self-censor out of fear. OSU, like other public institutions of higher education, is no doubt facing serious budget cuts. Anything that causes the state’s legislature to further restrict their funds is cause for concern. In this case, though no complaint appears to have been made, the University chose to pre-emptively cancel a potentially controversial speaker despite her expertise in the context of the Modern Sex conference. 
When experts are rejected because their work is controversial, we should be worried not only about sexual freedom but also about academic freedom more broadly. There are places where evolution is the hot-button issue, or where the politics of Israel and Palestine is the main cause of political concern.  We can’t ignore this instance of self-censorship simply because it has to do with sexuality. Once “we can’t afford to offend the legislature” becomes a widely accepted rationale for canceling or refusing to fund programs, we can expect to see many more threats to the foundation of public higher education in general.
Public higher education leaders need to be courageous in times of political crises. Right now, when public employees are unjustly targeted as the cause of the financial crisis (has everybody forgotten the Wall Street raiders?) it is more important than ever that Higher Ed administrators stand up for their faculty, their students, and the basic principles of academic freedom, free exchange of ideas, and critical inquiry. 
Sexual freedom is a fundamental human right. Education is an important component of protecting that right. Please let OSU know that you are outraged about their preemptive self censorship and call on the University to defend critical inquiry into sexuality and to acknowledge that it was wrong to cancel Tristan Taormino’s Keynote speech. 
Note from Tristan:
Don’t Let the Anti-Sex Conservatives Win!
If you support free speech and my mission of sexual empowerment, please voice your opinion about OSU’s decision to cancel my appearance at the last minute (and not reimburse me for travel expenses) to the following people. I would really appreciate your support —Tristan
Larry Roper
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
541-737-3626 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
541-737-8748 (phone)
541-737-9160 (fax)
twitter: @deanmamta
Dr. Edward J. Ray
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128
541-737-4133 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
Free Speech


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