The Privilege of Pleasure: OSU and Tristan Taormino


A few weeks back I wrote about access to sexual information and how social privilege informs the sexual conversations we can access. The current controversy over OSU, Tristan Taormino and the Modern Sex Conference contains an excellent example of this dynamic in play.

You may have heard the hullabaloo over OSU’s decision to uninvite Tristan Taormino from delivering the Modern Sex Conference keynote speech. In response to public criticism OSU sent out a press release and today their spokesperson, Todd Simmons, commented on the situation in an Examiner article. In that article, part of his defense for the decision rests on the assumption that taxpayer dollars cannot be used to pay “somebody who describes herself as a pornographer”.

The thing is, pornography is not illegal and there is no statute I am aware of in Oregon state law that restricts the use of taxpayer fees in this way. He goes on to say that private universities such as Yale and Harvard had every right to book her because they are using private monies.

Welcome to the privilege of pleasure and sexuality.

This is the same general dynamic in sex education. Any groups using public money or grants (outreach organizations, public schools) restrict their conversations to the most conservative common denominator. Never mind that many OSU students want her to speak. Why should public university students have a choice in their education? That right is apparently reserved for private university students.

The way social hierarchies and privilege play out in every aspect of  our lives never fails to amaze me. Private high school students can have unquestioned access to issues about sexual orientation, gender, pleasure and agency while programs in public schools are vulnerable to moral panics and content restrictions. This serves to reinforce a sense of access and privilege in the world.

In a way, I understand why OSU administrators made this decision. Social conservatives don’t usually attack private universities on curricula or education issues. These are institutions for grooming the social elites and their attacks would go nowhere. But a public university is a much easier target to grapple with because of who they serve: the general public, the middle and working class.

At this juncture, I highly doubt they will rescind and reinvite Tristan. The only thing I can hope is the next public university that wrestles with a decision like this will take a chance and defend the intellectual freedom of their student population.

4 thoughts on “The Privilege of Pleasure: OSU and Tristan Taormino”

  1. I assure you, I investigated the rules and regulations regarding fund appropriation for invited speakers.

    http://oregonstate.edu/fa/manuals/gen

    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.

    1. Thanks for the link and for confirming my suspicions.

      In a weird way, this is good training for someone entering the sexual health field. Depending on the populations you serve, you’ll likely run into an issue like this again when trying to provide sexual health information. Frustrating, to say the least.

  2. I know it isn’t funny, but I couldn’t keep from laughing about “somebody who describes herself as a pornographer”. The childish social bias aside – why would someone who claims to be in the sex industry be *excluded* from talking to college students about sex at a sex conference?

    Thanks for the article; I followed you here from Twitter and I’m glad I did.

  3. From the press release it looks like it boils down to money. SO many awful decisions boil down to $$$.

    The whole thing is so unfortunate. I never thought I’d see the day that Tristan Taormino got slut-shamed. They hoped in this patriarchal society, blaming it on pornography would shut people down, because porn is a bad word, especially when linked to a woman.

    So funny that people spend more money on porn than theater,opera,ballet,art shows combined. I picked up that fact reading Sex at Dawn.

    And now they look like hypocrites and bullies. “Modern Sex”?!? Try again. Let this be a teaching moment.

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