This past Tuesday, I had the honor of speaking at Brown University after being invited by the Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council (SHEEC) student group to give a short presentation, followed by participating in a panel discussion. SHEEC is the same group that organized KinkForAll Providence as well as Sex Week 2010, lead in large part by its Chairperson, Aida Manduley, who spoke about Sex Week 2010 on Kink On Tap. The people involved in these events, which included sex educator Megan Andelloux of CSPH fame, Cuddle Party founder Reid Mihalko, and myself, have been the targets of recent politically conservative smear campaigns painting us as though we were sexual predators and human traffickers, among other things.
Leading the crusade against open discussions about sexuality is Professor of Women’s Studies at University of Rhode Island Donna M. Hughes and her collaborator Margaret Brooks (a Brown alumna), who were both personally invited to attend the panel discussion event. Neither of them have responded to the (months-long and repeated) invitations for constructive dialogue nor did either attend the panel. While I’m disappointed I didn’t get to speak with these women personally, I’m extremely grateful to SHEEC, Brown University, and their staff for giving me the chance to speak with the really intelligent participants who did show up to ask questions. The event ran for about 2 hours, and the entire panel has been recorded and is freely viewable online.
Below is an 8 minute video highlighting my presentation, titled Certain Unalienable Rights, which I sincerely hope Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks see one day, if they haven’t already.
- Certain Unalienable Rights keynote presentation as a ZIP archive.
- Certain Unalienable Rights keynote presentation as a PDF document.
- Certain Unalienable Rights keynote presentation as a text transcript.
Again, I am deeply grateful to SHEEC Chairperson Aida Manduley, my fellow panelists, especially Ricky Gresh, Senior Director for Student Engagement at Brown University, panel moderator Professor Jim Greene, and the rest of the faculty and all the students who supported SHEEC events in the past and will continue to do so in the future. I think you are doing important and necessary work in standing against the harmful stigma perpetuating a dangerous belief that speaking openly about sexuality is something to fear. It is not.
With that in mind, below is the full transcript of my presentation. You can also find highlights of Megan’s speech, Comprehensive Sex Education: Talking about the Taboo, Reid’s introduction, Aida’s talk about the college Sex Week phenomenon, Ricky Gresh’s introduction, and the rest of the panel video recorded on my Ustream channel.
This picture of women arranged in rows, like sculptures wearing Burkas, makes me feel pretty angry.
This picture of women’s bodies on display at newsstands across America also makes me feel pretty angry.
Both pictures cut straight to the core of an issue so central to humanity’s existence that religions, governments, and ideologies have made efforts to control what you and I say, want, and think in regards to it. I’m talking, of course, about sex.
In 2001, only a few hours from here at Wesleyan University, David Jay, founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) said:
Sexuality is like any other activity. There are some people for whom skydiving, chocolate cake, and soccer are their world. But some people don’t like skydiving, chocolate cake, or soccer. There’s no reason to focus your energy and attention on something you feel no reason to do anything about.
As a sexual freedom activist, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about sex. That’s why David and other vocal asexuals absolutely fascinate me. Here is a group of people whose self-identity revolves around the lack of sexual attraction. After reading the work of people so different from myself, how could I not ask, “What is it that motivates us to do whatever it is that we do?”
In contemplating this, I kept getting drawn to this quote’s last sentence: “There’s no reason to focus your energy and attention on something you feel no reason to do anything about.” So why is it that some asexuals feel a reason to talk about sexuality as much as I, a “sexual person” does? Although it might sound corny, I think the answer is actually pretty clear: feelings.
In 2009, Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, the international movement to end violence against women and girls, said:
Emotions have inherent logic which lead to radical, appropriate, saving action.
Now, in mathematics and linguistics, the word radical means “root,” as in “square root,” or “root of the word.” African American feminist and political activist Angela Davis famously said that, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.'”
So in other words, the root of radical action is emotion.
Now, this is important because the panel we’re about to have is in many ways about sex, and for many people, myself included, it’s difficult if not impossible to discuss sexuality separate from emotion. In fact, merely discussing sexuality openly is itself viewed by many people as a radical act and in some cases, empowering others to talk openly about sexuality is considered criminal. Myself and my friends on this panel have been called sexual predators, pedophiles, and human traffickers because of the things we’ve said, the discussion tools we’ve built, and the livelihoods we’ve created.
As before, I’m left asking, “What is it that motivates us to do whatever it is that we do?” And as I’ve been contemplating this over the past couple months, I’ve come to the realization that, despite how false and hurtful it is to hear these things said about you, it’s very important that these people have the right to voice their opinions.
This is a lesson that I know Brown University learned some time ago. On October 18, 1990, Brown undergraduate student Doug Hahn shouted racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic remarks on campus while drunk and celebrating his 21st birthday. That year, the Brown University Disciplinary Council (UDC) expelled Hahn for “hate speech,” which prompted the ACLU to object, citing First Amendment concerns.
It may jar you to learn that the ACLU would defend so-called “hate speech” under the First Amendment and, since words are exceptionally powerful things, I want to define “hate” before I get too far.
According to the dictionary, “hate” isthe emotion of intense dislike; a feeling of dislike so strong that it demands action.To me, this says 2 things. First, it reminds me that, just like love, hate can be so powerful that it forces us to act in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Second, that both liking and disliking something are equally valid emotions to have regardless of the subject at hand.
For instance, I can’t stand using Windows-based computers, I do whatever I can to avoid the slush in New York City after it snows, and I hate going to pretentious art galleries! Now, I may hate these things, but you don’t have to hate them, too. That freedomâ€”to choose what one likes or dislikesâ€”is inborn to humanity. No matter what, no one can choose your desires for you.
Unquestionably, hate has been one of the driving forces behind human action throughout history, and I think, just as we do for love, we ought to credit it for that, not blame it. Action is what got us humans out of caves and into this spectacular structure called Brown University. (Maybe cavemen really hated caves?) Action is part of how society evolves; action is, after all, the root of activism.
Now, this right to choose how we feel, and what we hate, is what the Declaration of Independence calls “unalienable human rights.” In order to institutionalize the protection of these rights for themselves and future generations (that’s us!), people wrote a code of conduct we know as the Constitution of the United States. This institution is known as government, and its creation forged a distinction between “unalienable human rights” and other rights, such as political and legal rights.
As political theorist Hannah Arendt said, “Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the unalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence[…].”
In other words, government’s role is expressly intended to protect the liberty of its citizens, which, if we are to have liberty, must include the right to choose and express our likes and our dislikes no matter how vehemently we or others may feel about them.
In objecting to the expulsion of Douglas Hahn in 1991, a book critic for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley, wrote this:
Of course it’s offensiveâ€”repugnant, contemptible, loathsome, whatever you want to call itâ€”for a college student or anyone else to go into a public place and shout words such as those used by Douglas Hann in his little scene last fall. But displays such as that are among the prices we pay for being not merely a free country but one of unexampled heterogeneity.
Did Hahn deserve to face consequences for his behavior? Absolutely; he surely faced social repercussions as a consequence of his hateful speech, and I hope others’s obvious dislike of him had a positive impact. But his case shows that the freedom that you and I have to say what we want and think what we like is an incredibly precious gift that must be protected. That’s the foundation of freedom of speech.
Don’t get me wrong: I hate hate speech. I hate hating. And yet, there I am, hating it, hating how much I’m hating it and hating it for making me hate it! So if I continue to simplistically believe that hate has no value, how could I feel like a worthy person now? How could I forgive myself for feeling such hate? How could I learn to be joyous, and to love?
Maybe these people who hate have trouble seeing what a good and worthwhile person they are. While I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, someone I don’t even know responded to the blog posts I wrote about being called a sexual predator with this:
most of [your accusers] are probably really good people, just warped and made angry by fear and oppression themselves, but that doesn’t excuse perpetuating those fears and passing them on to othersâ€”it’s like the cycle of abuseâ€”the buck has to stop somewhere.
Will it stop with you? I think all violence is an opportunity for growth; all hatred, opportunities for action. This is no different.
The last time I spoke at Brown University was at a sexuality conference called KinkForAll Providence.People with destructive goals,I said,are usually people who feel personally disempowered. So to be creative, you need to empower everyone to speak up, to have a presenceâ€”even people you don’t totally agree with.
In other words, the solution to “bad” speech is more speech, not less. In his 1999 talk, Censorship and the Fear of Sexuality, Dr. Marty Klein said:
Most Americans do not want to discuss sexual issues rationally. Their sexuality poisoned by the culture, they just want their emotional pain taken away. To people afraid of sexuality, censorship looks attractive. It appears to be a solution to the pain. This pain, this fear of sexuality, leads people to support censorship.
Sometimes when I talk about sex, people get uncomfortable. Their reaction can even become hate; hatred at feeling uncomfortable, hatred at being reminded of their fears, or perhaps hatred at a culture that so thoroughly disempowers so many people, that they don’t even have a clear idea of where to constructively direct their hatred.
People will often argue that certain things they disagree with are simply “wrong.” But if America has taught me one thing, it is that harmony and unity cannot be achieved through homogeneity and sameness but through diversity and difference. Your freedom to like vanilla, and my freedom to likeâ€”we’ll say chocolateâ€”is the reason not only why HÃ¤agen-Dazs is in business but why Ben & Jerry’s can peacefully coexist next door.
And that’s why I have to come back to this question: Is this [contemporary Western] endemic sexualization of women, which supports a double-standard equally costly for men, any better than this [Iranian] coercive modesty?
And if not, is the solution more sexual censorship? Is the solution really more of someone else telling you what you should think, or say, or see, or do? Or will we overcome oppression through education, self-empowerment, and ultimately freedom of expression?
That’s what this panel is about, for me. Thank you for participating.
Watch the full video of the remainder of the panel.