Controversy lingers around Modern Sex Conference
The decision to rescind Tristan Taormino's invitation to speak on campus is under scrutiny
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 20:07
Controversy has surrounded Oregon State University's interactions with sex educator and feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino, who was scheduled to speak at OSU's Modern Sex: Privilege, Communication and Culture conference next month until her appearance was cancelled in response to concerns related to the conference's funding and Taormino's background.The conference is being held by Intercultural Student Services, an organization funded by general education funds that come from tuition and taxpayers. The administration determined that those general funds that were supporting the conference should not be used to bring Taormino to campus.
The Office of LGBT Outreach and Services, an organization that is part of Intercultural Student Services, was chosen to host the conference and members of LGBT Outreach and Services, the Pride Center, the Women's Center and Student Health Services Health Promotion planned the event.
Taormino said conference organizers officially invited her to give the conference keynote Oct. 28 and that she received a call from LGBT Outreach and Services Director Steven Leider Jan. 18 informing her that her talk had been cancelled because of funding issues.
According to Larry Roper, vice provost for Student Affairs, the decision to cancel Taormino's talk was not one that had been mandated by the administration.
"The decision that it could not be paid for out of state funds should not have been interpreted as a decision to cancel the speaker," Roper said. "It was merely just sort of the presentation of the need to find other sources of funds which are available . It was, I think, quite frankly the stress of the moment that caused a reaction to cancel when that in fact was not the decision."
Taormino and others have expressed their disagreement with the cancellation through various articles and blog posts, beginning with a press release Taormino said she sent out the day after she was told her appearance was cancelled.
Taormino said she feels the decision to fund the Modern Sex Conference, which includes various workshops related to sexual health and presentations by speakers whose backgrounds are similar to Taormino's, but not her talk discriminates against her specifically because of her background and website, http://www.puckerup.com.
"I think it's disempowering to students, to these conference organizers," Taormino said. "I think it's anti-sex. I think it makes a statement that anyone can decide at any point who is an appropriate speaker and who isn't an appropriate speaker and that's a huge problem that can only have a ripple effect and can only lead to people being nervous or afraid to bring other kinds of speakers who may be controversial in some way."
According to Interim Vice President for University Relations and Marketing Todd Simmons, choosing not to use general funds to pay Taormino was not a matter of discrimination, but of responsibility, given the considerations that public universities must take into account when using general funds.
"It was not, as I understand it, ever the content of her proposed talk, her work as a columnist or as someone who writes about sex, but rather her own personal description and business interest as a pornographer," Simmons said. "I think that term is loaded with a lot of cultural, social and political freight that I think makes it very reasonable to say that E&G funds should not be used to bring in someone who's coming from that perspective."
Concerns were raised by members of ISS staff after viewing Taormino's website earlier this month. While e-mails had been exchanged between staff and conference organizers containing information about the speakers, ISS staff said possible issues regarding Taormino's background and website were not brought to their attention until recently.
According to Rachel Ulrich, a public health student who was on the conference planning committee, the conference organizers made no effort to hide Taormino's background, but focused on her role as a sex educator and how her expertise in the field would facilitate an educational keynote. The keynote Taormino planned to give was called "Claiming Your Sexual Identity."
"We invited her because she's written books on the subject, written columns on the subject and, although she's also made porn, that was not what attracted us to her," Ulrich said. "What attracted us to her was her support of LGBT issues, which coincided with the goals of the Modern Sex Conference . I think this decision was based on a narrow view of the type of profession that should receive vigorous academic discussion. Although Tristan is a controversial figure, students can still learn quality information from her. In my view that's an appropriate use of taxpayer funding."
Ulrich said the committee looked for guidelines regarding controversial speakers before inviting Taormino but found none, and that they provided complete information about the speakers to the administration leading the conference. Ulrich also raised questions about why Taormino could not be funded with general dollars while other speakers with ties to pornography have not been pulled from the conference.
Charlie Glickman, who was scheduled to speak at the conference and has now agreed to give the replacement keynote, works for a company that sells sexual products, including Taormino's pornographic films. Tobi Hill-Meyer, who is presenting an unpaid workshop and according to Taormino, is receiving compensation for travel expenses, will be speaking on "Porn as a Feminist Tool."
"I looked at websites for a couple of the other presenters and they were distinctly different from her (Taormino's) website," Simmons said. "They were more recognizable as sexual health educators, or people who write or do scholarly work around sex, or maybe people in popular culture who speak and write on this subject, but there wasn't the claim that I noticed of them being commercial pornographers, and there certainly wasn't the level of commerce around this and I think those were very important distinctions that were specific to this speaker."