What To Do When Your School Cancels Your Sex-Related Event
Corning, One Year Later
The Back Story
A year ago, I was invited to speak at Corning Community College by EQUAL, the on-campus LGBTQI group, headed Brandon Griewank, a student at CCC . The talk was part of the college’s Sex Week – which was meant to foster clear communication around and cultivate awareness about sex positivity and sexuality in students’ lives.
A week before the talk the school’s president, Katherine Douglas, as well as other administrators decided to cancel the talk. Why? Because I’m a porn actor. The thing is, she’d already signed off on the event. The posters were made, and the ink was on the contract. Here’s some info on all the amazing (and terrible) shit that happened, as well as some tips for students encountering similar problems setting up sex-related events for their schools.
The Hidden Back Story
It was actually much worse than a canceled talk. Students reported being intimidated by members of the administration, and were told not to contact the press. Allegedly, Dean of Student Development, Don Heins, told Griewank that he wasn’t allowed to host the talk anywhere else in town, and even went to other venues to make sure they weren’t hosting it.
“I hope you are grasping that this issue is bigger than you and bigger than EQUAL, right?” Heins reportedly said to students.
This was the same person who had emailed Griewank just a few weeks earlier, “This line-up (of Sex Week) shows a lot of effort on your part to provide education to the students and the rest of the community. Congratulations to you and the Equal membership for this work.” But after the president had canceled the event, the tone had decidedly changed.
Brandon Giewank had an “absolutely intimidating conversation,” Griewank said. “He told me I wasn’t allowed to speak to the press, told me I wasn’t allowed to help Conner. He told me this in a closed room, there was no advisor to EQUAL there, and it wasn’t scheduled, so I had no time to prepare.” Other students reported to me that Heins had had “diversity issues” in the past, particularly with LGBT students, and had complained about diversity training.
Of course, Griewank and I went to the press, and it became a national news story. Buzzfeed was the first to report on it , and I wrote a follow-up to the article: an essay about how pornography often intertwines positively with the lives of LGBT people, particularly in small towns like Corning.
Soon, the story was all over the place. The Huffington Post, the local papers, MSNBC, Inside Higher Ed, and more. Here’s the story via Corning’s local NBC news station (This link is NSFW – it links to a porn blog, but that’s the only place the video is still up)
Since the contract – along with my cancelation policy – was already signed, I received payment in the mail. In a conversation with an administrator, it was clear that this was shutup money – as in, take the money and disappear. (In a conversation with a student, Heins reportedly demanded to know: “Is (Conner) still coming to Corning? He would have no reason to come to Corning if not for the college’s money and we do not support that. Is he coming?’)
I flew to Corning anyway. On the date the talk was scheduled, I presented it at the local library instead, to what was undoubtably a much larger crowd than would have shown for the original talk. The audience was made up of students, parents, local residents, and professors, I was told many faculty members were afraid to show up because of pressure from administrators.
We spent the evening talking to each other about pornography. What were the audience member’s experiences with it? What were their definitions, their questions and reservations about it?
When I got back, news of further intimidation and coercion by the administration began to filter in: First, a student who’d interviewed me for a campus publication emailed me, telling me:
“Something is going on with the Administration, we aren’t even able to get an article out because even our advisor, who was one of the biggest advocate for you, is now all hush hush and tight lipped about it all and the other members and I think the administration and the president may be responsible. I’m not even able to write anything up without getting in trouble.”
Then, even more troubling news: Members of Equal told me they’d been targeted by a tenured professor in the Communications/Humanities department, Christine Atkins. She was, they reported, hanging up flyers around campus defaming the student group.
Here are excerpts from the letter, entitled THE TRUTH ABOUT SEX WEEK (if you want the whole thing, you can enlarge the image):
“(EQUAL has) alienated an OPENLY LESBIAN FEMINIST FACULTY member (me) simply because she supported the president’s decision…My support of Dr. Douglas was based on my thoughts as a feminist and a woman…
(EQUAL has) ignored and silenced other gay voices, namely that of lesbian feminists, who since the Second-Wave of the Feminist Movement have argued that the pornography industry demeans women, men, and children and leads to rape and aggression, mostly against women and children.
…the origins of Sex Week, to my understanding, were about promoting healthy sexuality for all persons, whetehr gay, straight, bisexual, or other. After weeks of thinking about the defintion of what ‘healthy sexuality’ actually is, I still find indefensible (as in…without a shadow of a doubt) the participation in an industry that degrades and dehumanizes individuals and is also part of a capitalistic system that oppresses and lulls the masses. – Dr. Christine E. Atkins (former Adviser to EQUAL)”
The letter was signed former adviser because the students in EQUAL had voted her out.
“EQUAL tried to schedule meetings to talk to her,” one of the students told me, “and our emails went unanswered for something like 14 days. When she did finally respond (regarding Sex Week and my event) she chose not to meet with us. It was then that EQUAL voted to remove her… partly for not having our back, partly because her schedule never permits her to be present at meetings and we worried she wasn’t fairly representing the views of the students, being that she was never present to HEAR the views of the students, and finally because she refused to MEET with us.”
The content of Christine Atkins’s letter is typical anti-sex rhetoric and anti-sex worker hate speech, masquerading as feminism. There’s no real ideology behind it, and the arguments crumble under the slightest scrutiny (you can read my dismantling of some of these arguments here and here). And of course, plenty of women, including quite a few openly lesbian feminists, attended the talk. The truly disturbing thing about the letter, is, as reported by the students, that a tenured professors was hanging up flyers that attacked students. She also reportedly posted to similar comments to the EQUAL facebook page.
Even after the entire ordeal, LGBT students were allegedly being targeted and bullied by faculty. “It was difficult walking around campus and having teachers that supported me for years distance themselves,” Griewank told me. He said he and other EQUAL members felt isolated; not just by the administrators that opposed the talk, but by some who supported it but didn’t want negative attention drawn to themselves.
Thankfully it was late in the school year, and the members of EQUAL now felt more solidarity with each other than ever. “When the community turned out to support the talk, we felt supported as students and felt solidarity as members of EQUAL.” Classes were about to wind up into a flurry of finals and then wind down into graduation. The flyers started to disappear, the advisers that did stand by the students were presented with Adviser of the Year awards by the Student Association. Don Heins resigned (or was fired, it’s not totally clear). People kept talking about the event, and Griewank and many other members of EQUAL matriculated.
I left Corning feeling like the talk was one of the best things I’d ever done. Not because I was feeling smug about my performance, but because I’d facilitated a discussion that was being strangled by people in power. It’s one thing for people in power to not like sex positivity or pornography; it’s another thing all together for them to not allow any public discourse on it. The students and community members turned out to disentangle those knots of silence.
Those knots are being retied and tightened all the time. Schools have fought students’ rights to discuss pornography, screen it for study, and to create sex positive events. In Knoxville just a few months ago, Representatives and Senators tried to draft bills to halt Sex Week at University of Tennessee, and in 2013, funding for the event was cut just days before it was set to start (it went on anyway with private funding and was a well-attended success).
I talked to Brandon Giewank about his experiences with our event in Corning, wondering if he had any advice for student organizers. His tips were:
Know your mission statement: “What kept driving me forward was that our intent was never to be controversial or to talk about sex just to be shocking,” he said, expressing the clarity of EQUAL’s intention for Sex Week. “Know what your underlying message is, so you can respond when you meet resistance.”
Reach out for off-campus support: During the controversy, Griewank also sought off-campus support, including the ACLU, who sent a letter to college administrators on behalf of EQUAL. “When you’re going through something like that, you can feel like you’re in a bubble. It’s really important to seek support outside the campus.” Also, ““people on campus need a paycheck,” Griewank says. It’s a reminder that off-campus help is important for expertise, but also because faculty and staff at the school may fear marginalization, particularly if the school is in a small community.
Leave a paper trail: Griewank encouraged written exchanges between himself, other students, and administrators. He also wrote down as much as he could remember about any conversations he had with Heins and the president. His detailed records helped him secure assistance from the ACLU, and with statements he gave to the press. They also protected him legally.
Don’t get into a clash of egos: If a school cancels your sex-related event, “It’s not you against them, it’s a bigger issue. That’s the same with any issue worth fighting for.” This was important for me to remember as a speaker, too. I was upset that people in power were denying students a chance to communicate about sex and pornography in a safe space, but publicly insulting the administration would have only drummed up sympathy for them. The real issue – dismantling sex-negativity and creating a healthier sexual attitude in student communities, was more important.
It’s pretty obvious that college students are interested in sex and pornography. What’s not so obvious is the forces that are lined up against discussion. This is part of a larger problem in academia – that schools often refuse (either implicitly or through displays of power) to engage in students’ actual concerns or lives. And when it comes to sex, it’s an even larger cultural issue. Sex is supposed to somehow be separate from the rest of life. But it’s not – it’s continuously woven into our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Discussions about sex are urgently needed to heal the segregating wound constantly inflicted by people and institutions in power. Sex needs to be incorporated back into the anatomy of everyday life.
check out my lecturer fact sheet and contact me at connerhabib at gmail dot com.