A few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a dinner table in Santa Barbara, California with many amazing women who were, like me, presenting at the Console-ing Passions conference. We had phenomenal discussion, some laughs, and great times. Over the weekend, I was incredibly impressed with many things, but that meal stood out in my mind as it drew me to some incredible panels and introduced me to intensely interesting new scholarship I was previously unaware of.
One of the primary figures at that meal was a woman named Tristan Taormino. Not only was she well-spoken and funny, but she was quick, smart and incredibly incisive when discussing issues in and around feminism and sexuality. I remember sitting across from her and thinking, “This is what a successful woman looks like.” It was a fabulous time, as right beside her sat another woman who I have greatly admired throughout my academic career, Constance Penley. Needless to say, the fact that I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot would have been enough for me, but we ended up having some very intriguing conversations on the projects that Taormino was working on and the state of the adult industry in general. I learned quite a lot. I would like to think I contributed, but who knows?
Since then, I have followed Taormino’s career in earnest, having seen her presentation at the conference and found it to be like her: bold, intelligent, and necessary. While being a feminist does not mean that you have to be interested in pornographic content or the film work that she does, I feel that her work is incredibly helpful on many levels to many groups of people. She is sex-positive (refreshing in a world that seems to hate the body and sexuality so very much), and has made the attempt to use that in a very productive way to help others, through books, articles, and cinema. This is a very basic and shallow description of her, and I would ask you to inquire further into her career if it seems like something that would be of interest to you. Be warned, it is all adult-themed (not work-safe), but it is all worthwhile, as is she.
So why this article? Well, this morning I awoke to some rather disconcerting news. Taormino, who had been scheduled to be the key-note speaker at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex Conference, was “uninvited” due to her resume and website.
Um, excuse me? So, let me get this straight- you booked her, knowing full well what she does for a living (which extends so far beyond pornography it’s laughable), confirmed the date, agreed to fees, did all the business-y type stuff, then you looked at the resume and website? And, OSU, I hate to split hairs, but I looked at your Modern Sex Conference and…you have some panels there that seem decently risqué. So can you explain to me why you are tossing Tristan Taormino, former editor of On Our Backs, the nation’s longest running lesbian-produced lesbian magazine, a woman who has been on a multitude of television channels discussing sexuality, a woman who lectures at universities from the east to the west coast (ones WAY more highly regarded than you), and (not that this matters, but if a pedigree means something to you) the niece of Thomas Pynchon??
They said something about fearing that they would have the university’s budget cut as it was being used to support pornography. Um, ok. Interesting that Tristan’s response to the entire debacle was:
“I’m extremely disappointed that OSU has decided to cancel my appearance. I’ve been protested before, but never uninvited. I have never misrepresented who I am or what I do. I am proud of all the work I do, including the sex education films and feminist pornography I make. The talk I planned to give at this conference, titled “Claiming Your Sexual Power” has nothing to do with porn, but the porn is such an easy target for anti-sex conservatives and censors. I find it ironic that one of the missions of the conference is to understand diverse perspectives of sexuality. Apparently, my perspective—one of educating and empowering people around their sexuality—isn’t welcome at OSU.”
I have two words for you Oregon State University: not cute. And actually I have one more word: CENSORSHIP.
See, here’s the really sticky part. And this is the part that got in my craw the worst. On Tristan’s twitterfeed today, she wrote:
“Several OSU staff have contacted me w/support but won’t support me publicly for fear of losing their jobs, they say.”
WOW. I don’t know about you, but that got me. As someone who got laid off from a job I liked, in a bad economy, I know how much a job means. So this is no joke. But I’m not going to mince words here: this is some fucked up shit. My gut reaction made me ill. Why? I didn’t know what I would do if I was in the position of one of those staff members. I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I realized that there was no way in the world that if I worked at OSU, I would ever pussyfoot my way around the situation.
What if this weren’t about sexually charged subject matter?
Would we allow censorship to take hold of us that hard that we would not stand up for ourselves and what we believe in? And if so, what will we become? I know that we have families, children, friends, lovers, pets, responsibilities. Hell, times are tough. But do tough times mean that we sell out each other? Some may say I cannot equate what happened today with Tristan Taormino/OSU to historic events like McCarthyism or Germany in WWII. And yes, it seems like hyperbole. Maybe it is. I haven’t eaten a lot today. But when I sit here, and think about the situation, it scares me. This is a mild situation. What if it were something larger?
The concept that fear overrides personal values frightens me. If every one of those staff members publicly came together in support of this women, they would not be afraid of losing their jobs. Yet, losing one’s job in this economy is a fate close to death it seems. Unemployment is an endless void that one does not want to fall into. “Keep that job at all costs,” the voice says, “even if it means sacrificing your own belief system.”
In truth, the fact that they are not letting Tristan Taormino speak at a MODERN SEX CONFERENCE means that they are not so modern after all. Instead, she will be appearing at a place called She Bop in Portland, a female-friendly adult shop. Preaching to the converted, I guess, but at least still doing it.
If any of this bugs you the way it bugged me, please read this note from Tristan and respond in kind:
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
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
Dr. Edward J. Ray
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128