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Censoring the Lowry Art Wall

An article in last week’s The Wooster Voice reported that two panels of k(no)w’s Sex Week Art Wall display — one of which was an exhibit on the clitoris — were removed at the order of the Campus Life Office. This is a literal example of the concept of censoring and policing the female body, and it is deeply disturbing.

The prohibited k(no)w display said it best: “The world is illiterate when it comes to women’s [and females’] sexual anatomy.” The clitoris, the organ through which so many women and females experience sexual pleasure, is systematically shunned in American healthcare, education and culture. Even most sex ed curriculums completely shun the clitoris.

It is impossible to overstate the debilitating effects of being told that your body is not allowed — that it is not “in good taste,” to quote the phrase of the Art Wall posting policy invoked in the removal of the content. How is anyone supposed to take care of their own body when they are deliberately denied basic knowledge of it? How is anyone supposed to love their body when they are told it is disgusting? Most disturbingly: how could anyone who orgasms via a clitoris feel entitled to sexual pleasure when the source of their pleasure is deemed disgusting and shameful?

The Campus Life Office’s decision to prohibit k(no)w’s exhibit on the clitoris directly furthered this highly toxic shaming of the clitoris. I absolutely do not believe that this was the knowing, deliberate intent behind this decision. However, Campus Life’s justification of it makes it no less harmful or disturbing.

In her explanation to me, Julia Zimmer said that k(no)w was required to remove the content because it was a violation of the College’s sexual harassment policy.

“The Art Wall had explicit sexual images on it,” Zimmer said, and she cited this example of harassment provided in the Scot’s Key: “explicit sexual pictures are displayed in a professor’s office or on the exterior of a residence hall door.”

Zimmer also said the content was triggering to some students and made others feel uncomfortable.

While these concerns are ostensibly legitimate, they ultimately reveal a willingness to prioritize all other possible concerns over the importance of sex education — particularly women and female’s sex education — in an effort to rationalize a preexisting stigma toward open discussion of sex and sex education.

For example, preventing sexual harassment is obviously important, but claiming that a sketched diagram of a clitoris on an educational display is a “sexual picture” that constitutes harassment is an extremely liberal interpretation of the harassment policy. Imagine prohibiting the educational diagrams of sex organs used in anatomy classes on the grounds that they constitute harassment. Preposterous. Yet these diagrams are, if anything, more explicit than k(no)w’s simple sketch of a clitoris. Furthermore, granted that k(no)w’s diagram and its accompanying facts about the clitoris constitute an educational display — which to me is a rather uncontroversial assumption — then they should in fact be protected under the harassment policy: “The College of Wooster’s harassment policy is not meant to inhibit or prohibit educational content or discussions inside or outside of the classroom that include germane, but controversial or sensitive subject matters.” This strikes me as a phrase that was included in the policy to protect exactly this kind of content. Thus, it seems that, in this case, Zimmer’s invoking of the sexual harassment policy may itself be a violation of the sexual harassment policy.

A legitimate harassment-related critique would be that the use of the word “women” to refer to people with clitorises is exclusive of men and non-binary folk with clitorises, and as a non-binary person, I was certainly offended by this. Equally offensive, though, is the fact that Zimmer did not mention this as part of the offensive content. Had she, though, this issue could easily have been solved by simply editing the three sentences of the exhibit that used the word “women.”

Regarding the concerns about triggering content, I am a vocal advocate of trigger warnings, but I am troubled by the assertion that sex education content is inherently so triggering that it should not be displayed publicly — especially in the case of women and female sex education, which is so often prohibited from public display with the much less righteous, very sinister consequences explained earlier. Furthermore, k(no)w’s attempts to address the concerns about triggering content were categorically rejected. k(no)w reported to Voice editor in chief Mariah Joyce that, in their meeting with Zimmer, they proposed covering up the offending content with flip-covers that gave trigger warnings and allowed people to flip them up to reveal the content. Later, they wanted to post a notice stating that they had been asked to remove their content. Both of these compromising solutions, despite respecting the concerns about triggering content, were prohibited.

The strained effort to justify uncompromising removal of k(no)w’s exhibit on the clitoris indicates a lack of seriousness paid to women and female’s sexual knowledge and health and an unwillingness to endure the discomfort that breaking the taboo status of sex will inevitably require. I absolutely do not claim that this lack of seriousness and respect is pervasive throughout Campus Life or inherent in the characters of the Campus Life administrators, but the fact that, weeks later, they are standing by these tenuous and concerning rationalizations indicates that such censoring is liable to occur again if nothing is done to address it.

I would like to acknowledge that Angela Johnston, in her response to the Voice, did not directly endorse this decision and expressed interest in opening a conversation about what is or is not acceptable content. I sincerely appreciate and thank her for that, and I would similarly like to call for an urgent dialogue on open sex education and how to reconcile it with other concerns of mental safety and comfort. I hope this dialogue occurs soon.

In the meantime, to anyone with a clitoris, no matter what anyone tells you: your body is not uncomfortable, distasteful or shameful. Your body is beautiful, your clitoris is amazing and you are entitled to sexual knowledge and pleasure.

Tristan Lopus, a Web Editor for the Voice, can be reached for comment at TLopus18@wooster.edu.

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