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Education Reporter

Sex Workers' Art Show Causes Uproar at Two Colleges
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The College of William & Mary and Duke University were scenes of conflict over the Sex Workers' Art Show, an event featuring strippers and prostitutes who perform for the audience and share their experiences as sex workers. The show aims to "dispel the myth that [strippers and prostitutes] are anything short of artists, innovators, and geniuses."

While the show's founder says the performance also attempts to humanize sex workers as normal people deserving "safety, dignity and respect," descriptions of the show make it sound prurient, degrading and, above all, dehumanizing. Its visit to William & Mary's campus this year cost $2,200 in student activity fees. Some students and community members protested the event, while others defended it for its supposed artistic value or on the grounds of free speech.

William & Mary education professor John Foubert, who researches sexual violence against women, criticized the show. "I'm opposed to — and working strongly against — pornography and the industry. What I believe the Sex Workers' Art Show does is promote the porn industry, and it goes beyond a speech issue. . . . The issue here is an issue of public nudity," he said. Foubert agreed that in theory, a former sex worker telling his or her story on campus could be "a valuable learning experience for students and faculty." But, the professor pointed out, "you don't have to be naked to describe a past experience."

Shortly following the heated debate over the show, William & Mary's controversial president, Gene Nichol, announced his immediate resignation. The college's Board of Visitors had told Nichol they would not renew his contract. Although the board cited more general leadership issues, Nichol blamed the public controversies over the Sex Workers' Art Show and his removal of a cross displayed on the altar of the 400-year-old chapel on William & Mary's campus. In 2006, Nichol ordered the Wren Cross removed from display, saying that its presence in the chapel was divisive and unacceptable on the campus of a public university. After an emotional debate, the college returned the cross but now displays it behind glass except during Christian services.

The Sex Workers' Art Show also raised issues at Duke University, especially in light of the recent debacle at that school involving lacrosse players who had hired strippers for a team party. Three players were accused of raping one of the strippers, and then declared innocent of all charges a year later. A number of students and others objected to the use of university funds to bring strippers and other sex workers to campus. "I think the hypocrisy is extraordinary," said Kenneth Larrey, a member of Duke Students for an Ethical Duke.

"Inviting strippers does not appear to be a problem as long as the intent is not to titillate men, but to shock a mixed audience with vulgarity and disparage mainstream American values," commented Jay Schalin of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. "In the latter case, the university is quite willing to pay, despite a regulation reintroduced into the Bulletin of Information and Regulations after the lacrosse case that explicitly states 'strippers may not be invited or paid to perform at events sponsored by individual students, residential living groups, or cohesive units.' "

Duke's vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta, defended the administration's decision to allow the Sex Workers' Art Show on campus. While the strippers at the lacrosse team party "served the purpose of personal gratification," said Moneta, the Sex Workers' Art Show "had educational value" and "raised issues for discussion."

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