Mona Charen / March 24, 2009

The Sex Workers’ Art Show on Campus

The Sex Workers’ Art Show returned for the fourth time to the College of William and Mary campus in Williamsburg, Va., this week. Described as an “eye-popping evening of visual and performance art created by people who work in the sex industry,” the show has been touring the country (and particularly college campuses) for the past several years. A Duke student publication reports that the show begins with a cast member leading the audience in a chant of “‘naked ladies.’ The remainder of the event featured political statements, musical theater, a mild dominatrix act, the elaborate removal of clothing and an anal sparkler for the grand finale.”

The college president wasn’t thrilled about the show, but declined, as he put it, “to be a censor.” Instead of forbidding the performance on campus, W. Taylor Reveley III insisted that audiences as well as those who find the show “offensive and degrading” participate in a forum to discuss issues raised by the show at its conclusion.

Here are a few ideas for discussion: Doesn’t presenting such a show trivialize and possibly even encourage the degradation and exploitation of women inherent in “sex work” (aka prostitution in the real world)? How does presenting a show like this encourage the search for truth and knowledge that universities claim to advance?

Major universities now sport student-run porn magazines. According to The New York Times Magazine, Boston University students publish the “sex positive” Boink. Yale publishes SWAY, the acronym for Sex Week at Yale. What’s that? It’s “a student-run symposium held biennially there since 2002, with administrative blessing and a corporate sponsor, Pure Romance, a company whose representatives sell sexual aids for women at Tupperware-like ‘parties’” (emphasis mine). Columbia has Outlet, which recently featured an article on “vaginal personalities.” These magazines, the Times explains, “aren’t so much answering the question of what is and what isn’t porn – or what those categories might even mean today – as artfully, disarmingly and sometimes deliberately skirting it.”

It’s not actually too surprising that the kids are pushing the envelope into the porn world, because the atmosphere on campus is already a bacchanal when they arrive as freshmen. As Princeton professors Robert George and John Londregan recently wrote on The Public Discourse:

“As part of the freshman orientation program, students are required to attend an event entitled ‘Sex on a Saturday Night.’ It consists of a series of skits ostensibly designed to discourage ‘date rape.’ For years, critics have contended that the play, which features vulgarity and suggestive conduct, does nothing to serve this laudable goal; rather, it reinforces the campus culture of sexual permissiveness, primarily by shaping students’ expectations to include sexual license as normal.

"And then there is ‘Sex Jeopardy’ (officially ‘Safer Sex Jeopardy’), an event that Princeton freshmen are ‘strongly encouraged’ by the University to attend. Modeled on the long-running television game show, this activity invites students to show off their knowledge of such topics as anal intercourse, flavored condoms, dental dams, sex toys and sado-masochism. As described by one female student, Sex Jeopardy is ‘suffused with sexual bravado and conveys the strong impression that only someone with hang-ups would have a moral problem with hook-ups.’”

Every generation of young people wants, maybe even needs, to believe it is the first to discover sex. But how can a college student act out or sow seeds of rebellion when the boundaries are already so flaccid?

Our liberal universities are officious about warning kids of the dangers of STDs, pregnancy and date rape. But sadly, those are the only dangers they perceive in sexual license. If they cannot imagine that “sex workers” are degraded by their work, how can they begin to understand that promiscuity compromises self-worth?

Many college campuses today seem bent on satisfying nearly every imaginable sexual appetite in a “nonjudgmental” environment. In fact, the only people who today feel judged are those – and there are many – who reject the casual “hook-up” culture in favor of modesty, old-fashioned dating and even (gasp) chastity. George and Londregan suggest colleges have a duty to fund student centers for those students just as they fund centers for gay and lesbian students. It’s a good idea. But it’s sad that sexual restraint has become an alternative lifestyle.


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