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Talking About Sex
A response to the Center for Ethics' Forum "Sex, Ethics, and Pleasure Politics"

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Published by Muhlenberg Weekly
September 19, 2013

Last week’s Center for Ethics event (attended by more than 250 students, faculty, and staff) has, I am told, generated numerous conversations on campus. Members of the Muhlenberg family beyond the campus, also a vital part of our community, are likely to have their own reactions to this year’s theme: “Sex, Ethics, and Pleasure Politics.” As President of the College, I hope that each year’s Center for Ethics programming will enable us to consider and address important questions. Though I am rarely invited to participate in planning these themes, I was invited to do so by Bruce Wightman, Jeremy Teissere, and Cathy Ouellette when they started putting together this year’s program, and I provided candid feedback.   Based on these conversations, I am confident that we agree on two matters of fundamental importance.

First, “sex” is a sensitive and complicated subject with implications ranging from the physical, to the social, emotional, spiritual, and, yes, even political.  It involves our most personal identities and vulnerabilities as well as our values and (for many) religious beliefs.  A successful series on sex and ethics must acknowledge all of these dimensions, even if it cannot address them in all their complexity.

Second, members of the Muhlenberg community have very different values, preferences, comfort levels, and beliefs in regard to sex.  Some may be eager to discuss their views; others would rather not. We need to acknowledge and respect these differences, using the series as an opportunity to learn from each other – not as an opportunity to shock, titillate, exoticize, or pass judgment on those unlike ourselves.  Mutual respect, patience, openhearted listening, and empathy will be required of those who choose to participate in the conversation.  This may be easier said than done, but we all need to commit to these values if our community is to benefit from this series.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are aspects of this Center for Ethics series on which, I suspect, many of us will disagree.  One example is the appropriateness of bringing “sex workers” as speakers to our campus – something for which several students at the forum advocated strongly.

It is certainly legitimate to debate the morality and legality of “sex work” (primarily prostitution and pornography).  Some members of our community regard these as victimless activities that should not be regulated or criminalized.  Others regard them as immoral and degrading.  Many believe that the issues include important questions of human rights, including human trafficking and sexual abuse. Any program that oversimplifies these complexities would, I believe, represent a pedagogical and ethical failure, and might make the College complicit in activities that violate our most fundamental values.

Many promising issues were raised during last week’s forum, including the effect of hook-up culture on students, the cultural assumptions that make sexual assault more likely, and others.  The program directors of this year’s Center for Ethics certainly have a rich vein of material that could be mined and connected with questions of ethics and values on campus.

One student suggested that the College’s president should articulate a “Sexual Vision” for the College. I must confess that I don’t have one and I’m not certain that I should.  But I will comment on one issue that I think is of paramount importance: the question of mutual consent. 

Personally, I believe that anything adults choose to do by mutual informed consent is okay as long as it doesn’t harm or violate the rights of others.  But “mutual informed consent” isn’t as simple as it sounds.

During the September 10th program, 55% of participants answered that they knew when their partner was willing to engage in sexual activity because they “asked”.  That sounded encouraging until only 5% reported that “talking” was part of foreplay. 

I’m not sure what kind of “asking” can take place without “talking” but I suspect it is the kind of “asking” where both questions and answers are ambiguous and misinterpretation is easy.  All too frequently the result of this communication failure is deeply traumatic for both victims and perpetrators. Our community should spend more time thinking and talking about the meaning of consent, and how partners communicate clearly and unequivocally about what they want and don’t want.

As we talk about sensitive issues throughout the coming year, I ask all members of the Muhlenberg family to demonstrate the mutual respect and consideration that are hallmarks of our community.