College Professor Told To Stop Teaching About Prostitution, Or Else

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Dr. Patricia Adler, who teaches a popular course on the topic of deviance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was recently warned by university administrators that she must stop giving her regular lecture on prostitution, or run the risk of being fired and losing her retirement benefits. Adler, who has reportedly given this lecture forty times over the last two decades, was stunned by this development, as were many college faculty members around the world, myself included.

According to a report on Inside Higher Ed, Adler’s prostitution lecture involved an interactive skit in which volunteer teaching assistants dressed and acted the part of different types of sex workers, ranging from those who are forced into the sex trade to streetwalkers, brothel workers, and more. The goal was to demonstrate status differences among sex workers and for students to learn about the various motives the lead people into prostitution, as well as what it is like to be a sex worker. As someone who has taught collegiate human sexuality courses for years, I firmly believe that there can be value in teaching about prostitution because there are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there on this topic (just to name a few such myths: prostitution is purely a matter of choice, prostitution and drug addiction go hand-in-hand, sex workers cannot be raped, etc.). Granted, I have never put on a skit like this nor have I seen Adler’s rendition of it, but I can see how, if conducted appropriately, there could be educational value to it.

So what’s the problem? University administrators claimed that the prostitution lecture represents “too much risk” in the “Post-Penn State environment” (see here). If teaching assistants felt coerced into participating in the skit or if the class had a track record of offending or insulting students, that would indeed be cause for concern (and we don’t have all of the facts in this case yet, so we cannot dismiss that possibility out of hand entirely). However, based upon the limited information available, the decision to reprimand Adler appears to be based on nothing more than a fear that her lecture might make someone feel uncomfortable at some point. If that’s the bar for what we decide should and should not be taught in college, there’s a serious problem.

That said, even if the lecture makes some of the students in the class uncomfortable, that’s not an ipso facto reason to shut down the course. There are a lot of topics where even a mere mention can lead some people to feel uncomfortable: race, gender, abortion, politics, sex, etc. So are all of those topics now off limits on college campuses because some people might feel uncomfortable discussing them? The goal of higher education is not to simply teach students the information that makes them feel good and that validates their preexisting views of the world. Instead, college is fundamentally about exposing students to diverse ideas and challenging them to think about the world in a different way, and that can sometimes lead to feelings of discomfort. If we completely avoid teaching all topics that could potentially upset someone somewhere in the world, then we are not doing our jobs.

Again, we do not have all of the facts in this case, but one thing that is clear is that the university administrators at Boulder seem to be a little out of touch. For one thing, what does a “Post-Penn State environment” have to do with whether a college professor in Colorado can teach her students about prostitution? It is unspeakably tragic that university administrators at Penn State failed to intervene when they learned about the horrific sex crimes taking place on their campus; however, I fail to see how that incident gives administrators at other universities a license to shut down consensual discussions about unrelated sexual matters in their classrooms.

In addition, a university spokesperson for Boulder told Inside Higher Ed that Adler should have gone to the university’s IRB to seek approval for her teaching methods: “In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board.” It is clear from this statement that someone at Boulder is confused about what an IRB is actually for: governing research. IRBs have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with regulating the topics addressed and the activities used by teachers in the classroom and it is absurd to suggest that Adler did not do her job by failing to consult the IRB about her teaching methods.

My two cents: the only logical solution if the university is concerned that some students might be upset with this course content is to ensure that the course is an elective (i.e., not required for any major) and that students are given a caveat in the syllabus that controversial topics will be discussed. We should allow students to decide for themselves what they can and cannot handle. And if the concern is that the teaching assistants feel coerced into participating in the skit, then perhaps Adler should seek volunteers from another source.

I will definitely keep my eye on how this case develops and I will keep you posted as new information comes in. For now, though, I am concerned that “academic freedom” does not seem to mean what it used to in Boulder.

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