NEW YORK—Well, the neo-Puritans have struck again.
A few weeks ago my old friend Nina Hartley was blogging about how she’d just spent a pleasant couple of days in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She wrote about a little weeknight talk she gave to 70 students at the university there, but mostly her post was about how cute the town was, the perfect weather, the beauty of the Mississippi River, and how the questions from the students were “standard for that age group.”
In other words, nothing struck her as remarkable about the trip. It was Free Speech Week, and Nina is just the kind of person you want for that, since she’s been fighting censorship and repressive laws for 35 years now. I first corresponded with her in the ’80s when she was working at the O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco and was involved with all sorts of First Amendment groups, including, if my memory is correct, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the sex-worker rights organization founded by Margo St. James, the flamboyant prostitute who was the centerpiece of a famous hippie artists’ salon in the Free Love San Francisco of the ’60s and ’70s.
Nina was born in Berkeley to communist parents, so she knows how to stir things up if necessary, but she’s always done it in a lighthearted way. Her mission has never been about the legal side of sex work—although she gives her support to all the organizations that routinely file lawsuits to get rid of ordinances and statutes that try to regulate sex—but more about how it’s possible to use your body to make a living and still be a feminist. She’s also been a crusader for sex education at all levels of kinkiness, and has hosted many videos teaching amateurs how the pros do things. She’s a registered nurse who learned her craft from Juliet Anderson, who is virtually unknown to the public at large but was the first major female porn director.
My own censorship battles when we first crossed paths involved my championing movies that were controversial due to sex and violence, so she sensed a soul mate and wrote me letters and sent messages through the Mitchell brothers, owners of the O’Farrell, involving various efforts by the porn community to promote hygiene and safe sex, since the nation at the time was in the midst of an AIDS crisis that was getting worse as Christian moralizers blamed everything on gay promiscuity. The Mitchell brothers had a selfish motive—they thought AIDS would be used as an excuse to shut down their porn studio—but they were also suffering through the now-forgotten crusades of Tipper Gore, wife of Tennessee senator Al Gore, to make America more like the United Kingdom and bring in formal censorship of film and (especially) rap music. It was not a good time to be outside the mainstream.
After a while we lost touch, but Nina went on to become one of the most respected and well-known performers in porn—she’s made more than a thousand movies and continues to work into her 60s in an industry where the average career of a female is three years—while also serving on the board of the Woodhull Freeman Foundation, which is the Washington-based think tank and lobbying organization for the “sexual freedom” movement, not just in the United States but around the world. Most of that organization’s work over the past 20 years has involved gay and transgender struggles, since the battlefronts in the sex wars are constantly shifting and the old battles of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—to stop obscenity prosecutions against filmmakers and performers—have mostly been won.
For all of the above reasons, I was stunned last month to find out that the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse has been disciplined, demoted, and threatened with dismissal for allowing a porn star to speak on campus.
First of all, calling Nina Hartley a porn star—and nothing else—is sort of like saying, “A professional community organizer spoke on campus last week,” when the speaker is Barack Obama.
But that’s hardly the most baffling thing about the situation. The entire University of Wisconsin system—26 universities and colleges—just went through the exhaustive process of creating a “free speech policy” that supposedly guarantees that speakers can come and go without any attempts to censor, precensor, or disrupt, since universities as a whole—and Wisconsin universities in particular—have been embarrassed in recent years as student protesters shouted down and scared off various controversial speakers. In Wisconsin the targets were Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart libertarian, and Ben Shapiro, the conservative author who writes specifically about university “brainwashing” of students. Both speakers attracted the attention of the state legislature after Yiannopoulos made one of his typically provocative and intentionally vile presentations at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and then Shapiro attempted to speak at the main campus in Madison, only to be shouted down by students trying to silence his views on safe spaces and trigger warnings as being inimical to free speech.
So the brand-spanking-new “free speech policy,” endorsed by University of Wisconsin president Ray Cross, was created in response to unpopular right-wingers being hounded and shouted down. Along comes Nina Hartley, a left-wing self-described “sex-positive feminist,” and President Cross freaks out, saying that Joe Gow, the chancellor at the La Crosse campus, was wrong to allow her on campus.
Gow had apparently taken Free Speech Week too seriously, solicited student views on who to invite, and discovered that the student body wanted to talk about sex. Nina Hartley was a no-brainer, especially since she’d already spoken on subjects like sexual liberation, informed consent, sexual safety, human trafficking, and how pornography interacts with the feminist movement at Harvard, Dartmouth, and her hometown of Berkeley.
It wasn’t until after Nina left town that some students and faculty members who were not present at the lecture complained about her appearance. This is, of course, the modern practice of attacking a willing speaker and a willing listener having a conversation you’re not part of but don’t approve of in some sort of God-like “people shouldn’t be talking about these things” way. The complaints made their way to President Cross, who fired off a letter to Chancellor Gow reprimanding him for “your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus.” Cross was so cross that he also told Gow his actions would become a permanent part of his personnel file, impact “future evaluations” of his job performance, and “impact your salary.” He then opened an investigation into the discretionary fund that Gow had used to pay Nina’s $5,000 speaker’s fee. (To show how dedicated she is to her causes, $5,000 is the minimum required to be represented by any speaker’s bureau. Nina obviously keeps the fee at rock bottom so she can speak in as many venues as possible.)
Gow attempted to defend himself by saying, essentially, “Hey, it was Free Speech Week and the students told me they wanted to talk about sex,” pointing out how warmly Nina was received, especially during the lively question-and-answer session. He also reached into his own pocket and put $5,000 back into the discretionary fund. But all this was in vain. A few days later the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents canceled the chancellor’s scheduled raise and essentially demoted him within the hierarchy of the university system.
Then, to add insult to injury, a member of the Board of Regents named Bob Atwell wrote an editorial attacking Nina Hartley personally, starting off with a tirade about how “no amount of talking about condoms and consent will undo the damage she has done to herself and others,” then giving us his weird take on her lecture title, which was “Fantasy Versus Reality: Viewing Adult Media With a Critical Eye.”
“I suspect,” wrote Atwell, who admitted he hadn’t heard the lecture, “that she is fantasizing about negotiating with the reality of life as a porn star too old to be much in demand. Rebranding herself as a paid advocate for sexual health isn’t going to restore her surrendered dignity.”
You might think that calling Nina a used-up whore would be enough for Atwell, but he goes on later in the article to accuse her of contributing to addictive behavior and, yes, child pornography, which is so absurd in this case as to require no rebuttal. If he expects to make ridiculous charges like that stand, he’s picking on the wrong porn star. There’s been no “rebranding.” She’s saying the same things in 2019 that she was saying in 1986, and part of her point has always been that trying to repress sexual expression—whether on stage, in print, or on screen—has unintended consequences that hurt society.
I could quote any of fifteen paragraphs from the document called “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” approved by the same Board of Regents and president who are now refusing to give Gow the $25,000 raise he was due, but I’ll stick with just two:
Although members of the university community at each institution are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others, including speakers who are invited to campus, to express views they reject or even loathe.
Each institution in the University of Wisconsin System has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation, and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them.
Unless, of course, it’s some stupid slut from California.