Oregon State University’s Intercultural Student Services (ISS) and Office of the LGBTQ Outreach and Services are presenting Modern Sex: Privilege, Communication, and Culture on campus, February 14-16, and controversy around the conference and its invited speakers came to a boil this week. Since my own coverage of the hubbub around Tristan Taormino’s canceled keynote lecture — and the university’s response — has been garnering significant attention, I took the opportunity today to speak at length with Taormino and Rachel Ulrich, co-organizer of the Modern Sex conference, for more on the story.
By way of some quick background information, Taormino’s keynote lecture was canceled this week after university officials balked at the use of the university’s publicly-funded Educational and General funds (reportedly in the amount of $3,000 plus expenses) to bring a world-renowned pornographer to campus. Taormino, a popular lecturer on the college campus circuit, speaks from experience as a sex educator and author, and also as a performer, director, and distributor of adult films, including the Vivid Ed series of films from Vivid Entertainment, for which she recently won the 2011 AVN Award for Best Educational Release and was named Trailblazer of the Year at the 2010 Feminist Porn Awards.
“If these general dollar funds are so delicate, so fragile, why give them to a conference on sex?” asks Taormino. “Why not give them to the library, or something completely beyond reproach?”
Taormino’s still hoping to work something out with the university and conference organizers to deliver her keynote as planned, but she’s understandably upset about how the decision has been handled and about the response from university officials.
“I think OSU has the right to spend its money however it sees fit, but I feel like it then needs to be clear if there are strings attached when it says to a student group or conference, ‘We’ll give you this money’. It’s unfortunate that there are strings attached, and I think that the people who suffer in this situation are the students. And ‘controversy’ in this case, is defined by a few administrators with clear and problematic biases. I have spoken at other public universities, and while OSU representatives may assume that no taxpayer dollars were spent on my appearances there, when it all comes down to it, at any university that gets taxpayer funds and then provides a venue for speakers like myself, you can probably find direct and indirect funding connections. I haven’t heard an outcry from taxpayers in Oregon or anywhere else that they don’t want their money going to support me or other programs and speakers, but I have heard from taxpayers who have written letters of support to OSU on my behalf. What’s at stake here is that if I can be disinvited, any speaker can be disinvited at the discretion of the university officials. It’s prophylactic, I think that’s clear: They were thinking ahead to the next time they have to go in front of the legislature for funding, thinking ‘we might get called out on this, and we’re not ready to say ‘this is what the students wanted, and we support their ability to program a conference and we support their choices in speakers and who they want to hear from.’ For me that is what the college experience is supposed to be about – being exposed to as many different perspectives, points of view, thinkers, and different subjects as you can imagine. If [sex expert and commentator] Susie Bright had been uninvited from speaking at my university in the 90’s I don’t know if I would be where I am today. That was an incredibly influential speaker that came to my campus and had a really big influence on how I thought about stuff.”
Although Taormino’s experience as a pornographer is at the center of the controversy, thanks to comments from Vice Provost for Student Affairs Larry Roper and OSU spokesman Todd Simmons, Interim Vice President for University Relations and Marketing, and her most popular lecture on college campuses is My Life As a Feminist Pornographer — “Students come to those talks and challenge me, disagree with me, debate with me, and that’s part of the college experience, right? To have access to different points of view, to get to stand up and have an opinion, to ask tough questions and wrangle with tough answers?” — Taormino says she actually hadn’t planned to speak much on the topic next month, because she was invited specifically to address LGBT issues.
“The Memorial Union president started a campaign called the Campaign for Understanding to support LGBT students at OSU and it had a huge amount of press this year during fall quarter,” says Rachel Ulrich, co-organizer of the Modern Sex conference. “We took that and realized Tristan could speak about gay students feeling empowered and proud and not ashamed of their sexuality, and also encourage other people to be proud of their sexuality. The title of her planned speech was ‘Claiming Your Sexuality.'”
Still, Taormino is adamant about one point: She has never, ever shied away from her pornographic work. Not on her website, on her resume, on her official bio statement, or in her dealings with conference organizers or the university.
“I won’t back away from claiming that I’m a pornographer,” Taormino says. “And if that means that I lose work, I lose work. At this point, it’s pretty easy to find me on the Internet. Even my mom knows what I do! For university officials to claim that I somehow misrepresented who I am is ridiculous. And the idea that my work in the adult industry negates any other work I’ve done, or cancels out my other credentials, I think it’s a double standard. It’s about sexual shame – shaming people for choosing to do jobs that involve sexuality, and how that’s incredibly devalued in our society. When someone is a politician and then writes a book about their experiences being a politician, and then travels around the world talking about their experiences in politics, of course we’re interested in their take on politics, because it’s different than, say, a political commentator. But that’s not true when it comes to sex, it’s just not true. This double standard still exists, where if you’ve been involved in the sex industry you’re not worth listening to, you’re not worth paying for your time, and your intellectual capacity is automatically disqualified.”
“Speaking of double standards, there are other speakers at the conference, including the new keynote speaker Charlie Glickman, who are at least as ‘controversial’ as I am. He works for Good Vibrations, which probably makes 100 times what I make on pornography, and some of the same money that is being refused to pay for me is going to pay for Charlie Glickman. I’m just gonna throw this out there, for the hell of it. Charlie’s a man. Oh yeah, let’s just go there! So, there might be some double standards, Charlie and I are peers, colleagues, allies, and if I’m not speaking at OSU, it’s really awesome that Charlie is because we share very similar visions and he’s obviously supported me through this. I’m not calling Charlie to the mat, but it’s about how they’ve chosen to selectively vet the people who are speaking.”
While she’s aware that her background and preferred lecture topics can be controversial and that sticky things like public university funding can become political footballs, Taormino says she has more faith in Oregon taxpayers than the officials at OSU seem to.
“When it comes to taxes and fees that make university activities possible, I think most students and taxpayers would recognize that some of the money that they pay supports things they don’t personally agree with, and some goes to things they are excited about. That’s what committing to the university community and experience means.”
Ulrich, for one, is feeling quite disenfranchised with her own university experience at OSU this week, after a series of frustrating conversations with Roper and other university officials in the attempt to resolve the matter.
“I’m angry that the university administration has made statements that make the conference organizers look like we didn’t do our due diligence ahead of time. From the start I combed through OSU’s administrative policies to see what rules existed about funding for speakers, and there was nothing listed. There was definitely a communication breakdown about the budget. We were told that ISS had a budget for the Modern Sex conference of $10-15,000, and any time I’d ask additional questions about the budget, the person in charge of delivering that information didn’t give it to us, or just evaded the question. I made sure the Intercultural Student Services knew who we were inviting. Nothing was deleted from Ms. Taormino’s biography; I used the biography that is on her website. They could have gone to her website at any time before this week to see who she was. Had they voiced their opinions earlier, we could have found a different speaker, or had discussion about why she is an expert in this field and can help us to take advantage of the climate of support for LGBT students to discuss sexuality in a respectful positive way.”
“The decision to uninvite Taormino was expressed last Thursday, and it was made behind closed doors,” says Ulrich. “The administration emailed our liason with the Intercultural Student Services and said that they are not going to use taxpayer money to fund Tristan’s appearance. It’s hard to even express the level of communication breakdown over this issue. It was kind of scattered for a couple of days. When we finally met with ISS I must have asked 5 or 6 times point blank, ‘What is inappropriate about using taxpayer dollars to bring an expert in this field to talk about this topic?’ I didn’t get a response. They averted their eyes and there was just a gulf of silence.”
Ulrich, like Taormino, is holding out some optimism that the situation can still be rectified and Taormino can participate in the conference after all.
“I still have yet to hear any negative responses from students about the event,” she says. “The student newspaper hasn’t printed anything negative about it either. The Associated Students of OSU have partnered with the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance on campus and they have started a petition collecting signatures of students who want Ms. Taormino on campus. They are also trying to start fundraising to bring her to this event, which would require about $4,000. We have been told that we can use OSU Foundation dollars for this purpose, so we’re hoping to find someone on campus who can help us fund Ms. Taormino’s appearance.”
At this point the whole thing’s become a matter of principle to Taormino.
“I feel like the students really want me and are working hard to bring me there and I’d like to be able to honor that,” says Taormino. “I think that the motivation is strong on campus, and the students should not be the ones who lose out. I think this can still be resolved so that all parties are satisfied, but I don’t know if Larry Roper will still shake my hand when it’s all said and done, either way. Still, my hope is that other good things can come of it and that the fact that we’re even having this conversation may lead to some changes for the better at OSU and on other college campuses where serious conversation about sex and sexuality are — and should — be very much on students’ minds.”
Stay tuned for more from my interview with Taormino: I’ll be writing about her latest film, Tristan Taormino’s Expert Guide to Female Orgasms, later this week and will include our extensive conversation about her perspective as a queer feminist sex educator who also happens to make explicit adult films and sees no contradictions between those descriptors.
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