Commentaries
The Buck Stops Elsewhere at Duke

The Sex Workers Art Show controversy reveals Duke University administrators' inability to face their responsibilities.

By Jay Schalin

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February 29, 2008

The Sex Workers Art Show (SWAS) swept through the southern Piedmont region recently, leaving disgust, incredulity and facile arguments about freedom of speech in its wake. It also provided the final push that toppled one president of a prestigious college, and further exposed the appalling lack of judgment of another.

For the uninitiated, the SWAS is a crude cabaret-style revue featuring actual prostitutes, porn stars and strippers that pushes the envelope of tastelessness in an attempt to legitimize decadence. One performance began with the show’s organizer urging the audience to get on their feet and shout “I take it up the butt” and grew increasingly perverse from there.

This show has been touring for six years, performing primarily at colleges, including many of the most prominent. This suggests a disturbing trend: that university administrators have abandoned all responsibility to judge what is of value and appropriate for campus. The argument for freedom of speech does not apply in this case – schools may have the legal right to present repugnant spectacles like the SWAS, but they have no good reason to do so. Instead, they permit, defend, and even encourage an intellectual anarchy, where all ideas are equally valid, and it is left to individual students to sort through it all and derive a personal worldview.

It is a heavy burden to place on bright but inexperienced youth, to choose correctly among all the competing ideas on campus. It is foolish to expect them to do so when there are adults who have already accumulated the necessary experience and mental prowess to separate the fruitful from the poisonous.

Parents who pay upwards of $40,000 dollars a year at private schools can no longer expect their children to be, in the words of former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis, transformed from teenagers “into adults with the learning and wisdom to take responsibility for their own lives and civil society.” They can only hope their offspring have acquired the common sense to see through the worst nonsense and not be influenced by it.

The first stop in North Carolina for the SWAS was at Guilford College in Greensboro, where the show managed to escape without much attention. But at the next stop, Duke University in Durham, the SWAS ran into a buzz saw of adverse publicity, initiated largely by Ken Larrey, the president of the campus organization Duke Students for an Ethical Duke.

With the exposure of the show’s obscene antics at Duke rapidly making its way across the media and internet, the SWAS moved north to The College William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where more opposition awaited. College president Gene Nichol was already at odds with the school’s more traditional elements, for, among other things, removing a cross from the school’s Wren Chapel out of fear of offending non-Christian students, and for permitting and defending a previous performance of the SWAS on campus.

One week after the SWAS visited the William & Mary campus, Nichol resigned after being told his contract would not be renewed. He claimed there was a campaign of opposition that actually threatened members of the school’s governing Board of Visitors “if I were not fired over decisions concerning the Wren Cross and the Sex Workers’ Art Show. That campaign has now been rendered successful.”

The administration of Duke president Richard Brodhead was bloodied but not broken by the SWAS tempest, although, like Nichol, his past decisions have also resulted in major controversies and loss of reputation. Duke currently faces an expensive lawsuit stemming from the school’s over-reaction (and Brodhead’s pandering to radical elements) to a false rape accusation by a mentally unstable erotic dancer against three lacrosse players in 2006. Given the national embarrassment and financial damage it suffered from this incident, it would have seemed the last thing the school’s administration would want on campus is more strippers.

Furthermore, the SWAS performance was clearly in violation of a rule that states, "Strippers may not be invited or paid to perform at events sponsored by individual students or groups." (The rule was not in place at the time of the lacrosse incident.)

The sensible decision for the administration was to enforce the rule, given Duke’s recent past. But the university’s hired decision-makers appear immune to common sense: they abandoned their proper roles as leaders and yielded authority once again to the forces of political correctness and moral relativity. Their refusal to enforce the rule, and their defense of the SWAS once the criticism grew loud, revealed their lack of judgment: rather than providing reasonable guidance, they deliberately exposed students who are still wrestling with life’s big questions to a sinister agenda. For the Art Show is not just about nudity, which was in fact fairly tame. But the show mocked both Christianity and the U.S.A., pushing vulgarity to extremes for shock effect.

For instance, a male performer, naked except for some strategically placed tape and with an obscenity directed at president Bush painted on his chest, kneeled on all fours and lit a sparkler lodged in his posterior with “America the Beautiful” playing. A porn actress read a prose poem entitled “Spit,” in which she described how another actress spat into her eye and then licked the spittle off her eyeball. Another prose poem called “Staph” was about an infection on her genitals. The show was essentially a two-hour presentation of such activities.

The main agenda of the show’s founder and driving force, Annie Oakley, is to remove the taint from the oldest profession. She not only advocates decriminalizing prostitution but wants the sex trades to be mainstreamed as moral, legal professions. Becoming a “sex worker” is “a viable option for someone whose only option is to work a minimum wage job,” she said.

The show’s participants are obviously not seeking to earn respect on the majority’s terms, however, for their shocking vulgarity and vicious disparagement of mainstream values are hardly the best means to accomplish this. Rather, Oakley and her partners seek acceptance by drawing the most impressionable of the majority into their celebration of degradation.

The tactic appeared to succeed with some students. The student who invited the Art Show to campus, junior Martha Brucata, viewed it as a “starting-off point for a discussion of sexuality.” A freshman woman interviewed after the show said “[I]t was interesting to hear the perspectives of people who work in the sex industry,” she said. “I never considered their lifestyles before. I was really unsure what to expect. But I was actually really impressed.”

What most impressed this student, a practicing Catholic, was “the performance piece where at the end [the performer] climbed the pole while singing.” She was referring to a naked stripper who sang a lewd song about St. Bridget of Ireland, and climbed to the top of a stripper’s pole while making references to “ascension.”

It is a sad commentary on the nation’s educational system (and Duke) that these bright young women are so easily manipulated intellectually. One of them views a sexual freak show as the entry-point for examining intimate relationships, rather than starting with the obvious foundation of love. The other not only feels no offense when her faith is venomously mocked, but actually professes admiration for the person who does so.

Responsible educators would consider it their duty to help these women learn how to frame important issues more intelligently. Instead, the Duke administration dons blinders and hands over the moral and intellectual guidance of their students to hookers with an agenda. The students at Duke are mostly legal adults; they are free to pursue any legal forms of entertainment they choose. But when the school sanctions, sponsors and defends events like the Sex Workers Art Show, it is akin to an endorsement of the activity.

Perhaps the Duke administration’s irresponsibility is the legacy of the moral relativity that predominates in much of academia. Or maybe the administrators are complicit with the aims of the Art Show’s founder. Most likely they are so cowed by radical elements on campus and the liberal press that they have silently renounced their responsibilities. If so, why are they still in charge?

 


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