The controversy over Colorado’s response to Patti Adler’s exercise, in which undergraduate teaching assistants role played various types of prostitute to consider the stratification of deviance, has produced a wide variety of opinions among academic sociologists. Many here on the blogs and on twitter have raised questions about the appropriateness of this exercise, which is a fair point, but one that requires a bit more scrutiny, in my view.
Sexual topics of all kinds have to deal with the “ick” factor. Many forces in our culture encourage us not only to be critical of, but also to be viscerally repulsed by, sexuality. So, I worry that the administration’s reaction, as well as that of my colleagues, is magnified, triggered, or made more extreme by the ickiness of the topic, rather than by the actual harm done. I am not saying that it is not possible for lectures/exercises on sexuality to harm students or teaching assistants. Of course it is. Sexism, as well as sexual violence and exploitation and harassment, are real phenomena and should be concerns of university campuses. Students and employees should be considered and cared for, and not subject to harassment. Period.
However, I am concerned that the sexual nature of the lesson itself makes it highly suspect to administrators, and I fear that the ick makes it seem obvious that such a topic must therefore be harmful. If the sexual nature of the topic–and our repulsion to it–gives us permission to skip the step where we weigh the benefits against the harms, then we are heading down a road to total censorship of sexual topics in sociology. And it is my view that, as sensitive as these topics can be, more harm comes from being silent about sexuality than discussing it openly. So, that is why my response to the news–which of course hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out–is to express great concern for administrative intrusion in the classroom and academic freedom. I am worried that it is all too easy for everyone to agree that this exercise is icky and assume, therefore, that it is also harmful.