recipe for a scandal: just add the word “sex”

September 19, 2010

If you’ve been following academic news, you might’ve heard of a bizarre mess which is slowly trying to unravel itself at the University of New Mexico. The story itself reads like a classic case study in what not to do if you’re a professor, regardless of whether you’re teaching graduate courses or undergrads. If you have a position of authority over a group of people, you should not be partying with them, you should not be encouraging them to work as phone sex operators, you should keep your own phone sex side job out of the classroom, and under no circumstances should you ever pose in sexually explicit pictures with one of your students. And yet, English professor Lisa Chavez did all of the above. After an investigation, she did admit to a lack of good judgment to a university committee and quit her side job. And yet the scandal apparently still goes on because it seems that even in the new millennium people can’t stop getting appalled over anything that even remotely implies sex.

Now, it may be that if Chavez was so interested in sex and sexuality, and wanted to see what was out there in terms of S&M aficionados, she could’ve become a sex researcher, a very real occupation and one that would certainly let her explore whatever sexual topics she wanted within an academic setting. I know people who do this for a living and are absolutely fascinated with the psychology of sexuality, struggling to imagine their work focusing on anything other than the realm of complex interpersonal relationships created by sex. A university with a medical school and a social sciences curriculum would’ve certainly accommodated her interests. But as it stands, she acted inappropriately by bringing her sexual inquiries into the classroom and involving some of her students in her side job. Again, a classic case of terrible judgment and letting one’s libido call the shots without taking the time to think things through, but what prompted me to write about this story in the first place was the annoying and vexing matter of what started the investigation into her personal life: a classic, prudish, shocked letter from anonymous, “concerned parents” on an administrator’s desk.

What the hell do concerned parents have to do with graduate school? Grad school students are adults and all of us are legally old enough to enter into contracts, make our own decisions, and the vast majority of us have to hold down jobs to feed ourselves and pay the rent. And if some grad students choose to make their living in the world of phone sex, that’s their right and no one can talk down to them about “ethics and morals,” or how a job waiting tables or washing dishes is more dignified than a little dirty talk in the evening. In case like this, the appeal to “morals” is usually a mix of envy (phone sex operators make far more than waitresses because they practice a very specialized skill), and a hypocritical attempt to look down at those having fun with their work for fulfilling desires we don’t want to acknowledge, something that happens with all those working in every field of adult entertainment. And the noxious politics and pseudo-morality dramas in Chavez’s case are just a very awkward and clumsy repeat of just about every sexual non-scandal out there, made worse by the fact that the professor at the center of this scandal doesn’t seem to know how to properly handle herself.

She and her students had every legal right to take on phone sex jobs if it made them happy, pose for as many sexually charged pictures as they wanted, and talk dirty in their own, personal time to their hearts’ content. As far as we should be concerned, the only thing they did inappropriately was to mix their studies and their work across the student-professor divide. And come to think of it, I bet that if they all worked as IT consultants or as writers for the same magazines, there would be no letter from anyone and the whole arrangement would have never been exposed, even though it would be just as inappropriate. But since they chose to work in the world of adult services, they had to get hit by an anonymous letter from pious cowards and gossips who acted more like children than mature, serious adults who understand that after puberty, we all have certain needs, wants, and urges, and as long as we don’t interfere with the lives and welfare of others, we should be free to pursue them on our own time. And it astounds me that today, people turn simple ethical conflicts and poor judgment into full blown scandals just because these violations have anything to do with the word “sex”.

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    I’m striking out tonight in being able to find it, but from the first sentence of this post had thought you were reporting new developments in a spectacularly messy brou-ha-ha from the paleontology department of the UNM Las Vegas campus, a complicated epic fit to rank with some of the great 19th-century dino-bone brawls.

    So glad to see that the governor isn’t the only one in the Land of EnchantmentⓇ with know-how in running a 21st-century scandal.

  • Bruce Coulson

    This is the United States; we can make money from the sex trade, if we are willing to not have a job in the ‘normal’ world. People who try to maintain a normal life and work in the sex industry are breaking the unwritten social agreement, and need to be punished.