As you may have heard if you follow her on twitter, Tristan Taormino was invited to speak at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex Conference, at least until the folks in charge at the school found out that she makes and sells porn. Since I’m one of the speakers at the conference as well as being one of her colleagues, I’d like to offer my take on this situation.
Some background: a few months ago, the con organizers emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in participating. They invited me to do a closing keynote presentation since Tristan had been asked to do the opening one. It sounded like a great fit and I thought that Tristan & I would be a fantastic combination, so I accepted. I also proposed doing a breakout session since I really enjoy having the opportunity to explore sexuality topics in an interactive workshop setting. After some back and forth, all the details were sorted out and I waited for the final schedule.
On January 19, I received an email from Tristan (as did many other people in our sex education community) which announced, in part:
Steven Leider, Director of the Office of LGBT Outreach and Services contacted Colten Tognazzini, Tristan Taormino’s manager, to say that the conference had come up short on funding. Tognazzini told him that since the travel was booked and the time reserved, they could work with whatever budget they did have.
Leider said that would not be possible: “We have to cancel Ms. Taormino’s appearance due to a lack of funding. It has been decided that OSU cannot pay Ms. Taormino with general fee dollars, because of the content of her resume and website.” At OSU, ‘general fee dollars’ include taxpayer dollars given to the University by the Oregon State Legislature to defray various costs. They differ from ‘student activity dollars,’ which are part of every student’s tuition and help fund student groups and activities.
I emailed my contact at the school, who was understandably frustrated with this situation. The con organizers had been excited to have Tristan and it was clear that they had tried to convince the university to keep her on the schedule, but the decision was made by the higher ups. She asked me if I would be willing to have my presentation moved to the vacancy that this change created. While I accepted this schedule change, I contacted Tristan because I respect her and I wanted to make sure that this didn’t lead to friction between us. Not surprisingly, she understood the situation and the fact that this is not what I wanted, either.
In the last two days, lots of blog posts, articles, and tweets have helped spread the word, which is a testament to how well regarded Tristan is in our community. And OSU has responded to emails about their decision:
Organizers of the upcoming Modern Sex Conference at OSU recently sought approval to bring in a speaker for that event by presenting a partial description of the speaker in question as a writer and sex advice columnist. However, as arrangements were being made to complete the contract for the speaker, it became clear to those providing taxpayer funding for the conference that the speaker, in fact, is also a self-described pornographer with a significant online business in video pornography and related material. A decision was made by Student Affairs leadership that using public funds to cover a speaking fee and travel expenses for the speaker constituted an inappropriate use of those funds, and the speaker’s appearance was thus cancelled.
OK, so now that you have the story, at least as far as I have it, here’s my take on it.
First, given that Tobi Hill-Meyer is doing a presentation called Porn as a Feminist Tool, it’s clear that it’s ok to talk about porn at this conference. So I don’t understand what it is about making it that’s a problem. If you object to someone who makes it, then you should object to people watching it, too. After all, there’s just as much ethical responsibility in the one as there is in the other.
But then, it’s common in academia and research circles to make room to talk about people as long as you don’t have to talk with them. There are plenty of conference presentation about men who have sex with men, or sex workers, or transgender people, or whoever, but they’re almost never by people who are of those communities (or at least, if they are, they’re in the closet).
It’s fascinating to me- imagine if your research is on the relationship between parents and their kids, and you’re told that your perspective is invalid because you’re a parent. Or what if someone wasn’t allowed to talk about the cultural influences of Italian food because they had been to Italy, or had worked in an Italian restaurant. In these contexts, we see how ridiculous it is, but it regularly happens when it comes to sex. All I can guess is that it’s the idea of sexual contagion- if you do those nasty things (that plenty of people do every day), there’s something wrong with you and we don’t want to hear from you.
Second, it’s not clear to me how making porn invalidates Tristan as an educator or as a speaker. She is a porn producer AND a sex educator. And from talking with her, I know that each informs the other. But if anything, that makes her a better speaker on the relationships between feminism, sex and porn than most people. (Which is absolutely not meant as any slam against Tobi Hill-Meyer, who is also one of the best folks to talk about these topics.)
Third, the justification that OSU offered is that:
‘general fee dollars’ include taxpayer dollars given to the University by the Oregon State Legislature to defray various costs. They differ from ‘student activity dollars,’ which are part of every student’s tuition and help fund student groups and activities.
Does this mean that “general fee dollars” are the sole source of funding for this event? This seems to imply that if Tristan’s payment was coming from “student activity dollars”, then there would be no difficulty. Is this really an issue of accounting? And if so, were the con organizers given the opportunity to get money from a different fund?
I totally get that the university might be leery of the negative impact that something like this could have on their funding. Legislators have certainly been known to slash funding in order to punish schools. But a university with over 23,000 students and an endowment of $469.2 million should be able to find a way to make this work, shouldn’t it?
I’ve been asked by one or two people if I’m still going to present at the con. And my answer is yes. The con organizers didn’t make this call and I don’t think it’s appropriate to back out because of the administration’s decision. But I have to ask the university administrators why they aren’t willing to find a way to make this work. And until they can offer an explanation, I can only assume that it’s because of their own sex-negativity and their unwillingness to stand up for sexual education. I’m deeply disappointed in the OSU administration and so are the students.
My hope is that this all gets worked out and that Tristan is allowed back at the con (assuming she’s still willing). If that happens, I’ll gladly move my presentations to accommodate it because I think she deserves it. And in the meantime, I think I’ll find a way to work this into my talk. After all, it certainly fits:
Sexuality, Shame, and Sex-Positivity
Sexual shame is one of the biggest challenges that many people face. We will discuss the roots of shame, how it can both serve and hinder us, how shame reinforces social rules, and the differences between toxic shame and pro-social shame. We will then explore socio-cultural dynamics of erotophobia, sex-negativity, and how to foster sex-positive responses.
Update: Apparently the comment below by Jason does describe what happened at OSU pretty well, at least according to one of the administrators, as quoted in this article by Sarah Estrella at examiner.com.
Simmons had more information to offer. I’d still like to know if there’s a way for the conference organizers to get funding for Tristan that doesn’t come from taxpayer money. If so, let’s get her back on the schedule. And I’d like to hear from some of the organizers to get their take on this.
Update #2: One of the con organizers emailed me this morning and asked me to include this:
I assure you, I investigated the rules and regulations regarding fund appropriation for invited speakers.
There is no publicly available policy or guidelines regarding which speakers can be invited with which dollars. For months, we were encouraged to continue with our planning strategy with a budget from the general fund. Last week, I asked five or six times the basis under which Tristan was uninvited, and was met with blank stares and silence.
I’m graduating in June and I’m trying to find work in the sexual health field. We strategically invited Tristan knowing that she would help us recruit workshop submissions and attendees. And it worked! We have some *amazing* workshops from top names in this field! However, instead of supporting our success, the Oregon State University administration is casting our job skills in a negative light to our future employers.
In her book Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing, Karen McClintock describes the rules of shame. Although she wrote them about dynamics in religious congregations, the show up in many communities, families, and institutions.
- You don’t know what the rules are.
- There are plenty of rules, but no one names them.
- You’ll know you’ve broken the rules by the shame you receive.
- The rules don’t apply to everyone equally.
- You can’t confess and receive forgiveness because you are unworthy.
- No one talks openly about violations, but everyone gossips about them
While I don’t think that this description fits the OSU situation perfectly, unspoken rules are often a marker of shame, which is one reason why there are so many of them around sex. If, as this person says, there is no written policy about “controversial speakers,” that is a sign that this decision is being made for reasons that the organizers could not have known about.
Update 3/15/12: After the events at OSU took place, I was interviewed by Lacey Mamak as part of her research for a case study that describes what happened so that researchers and educators can use this situation to stimulate discussion. It’s definitely worth reading.