Opening Argument – The University Has No Clothes

National Journal

When a mentally deluded stripper accused three Duke University lacrosse players of a brutal gang rape at a March 2006 off-campus team party during spring break, dozens of activist Duke professors were not content merely to give great credence to the rape charge, even as evidence of its probable fraudulence poured into the public record. They also treated the lacrosse players as pariahs for having hired strippers at all. So, too, did Duke President Richard Brodhead, Board Chairman Robert Steel, other campus administrators, many in the media, and others.

Never mind that hiring strippers violated no law or university rule. Never mind that nobody had made a fuss about the 20-plus stripper parties that other Duke athletic teams, fraternities, and sororities held that year. Brodhead and other officials and professors continued to express horror long after the supposedly "privileged" lacrosse players had abjectly apologized. To underscore its horror, the university adopted a new rule: "Strippers may not be invited or paid to perform at events sponsored by individual students, residential living groups, or cohesive units."

So, some might be surprised to learn that on this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, Duke University played host to a group of strippers, prostitutes, phone-sex operators, and others in a "Sex Workers Art Show" to display their "creativity and genius." The university spent $3,500 from student fees and various programs to pay the performers and cover expenses.

One account of the February 3 show in the on-campus Reynolds Theater-from which I have redacted the more repulsive particulars-was posted on the Internet by Jay Schalin, of the conservative-leaning John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

"The performers did not just take their clothes off-and the actual nudity part of the show was rather tame. But mere nudity could hardly compare with a show that began with the Art Show’s founder and director, Annie Oakley, imploring the audience to stand up and shout ‘I take it up the butt!’ …

"A transvestite, naked except for some strategically placed tape, with the words ‘F___ Bush’ painted on his chest, kneeled on all fours and lit a sparkler protruding out of his rectum with ‘America the Beautiful’ playing …

"A stripper, in the guise of a U.S. flag-draped Lady Justice, … yanked a string of dollar bills out of her posterior as the sound system played Dolly Parton’s version of ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ She ended her act by saluting and holding up her middle finger to the crowd. The announcer referred to the performance as her ‘Infamous Patriot Act.’ Her most private area was kept covered by a small American flag …

"A dominatrix donned a large ‘strap-on’ male sex organ, and pretended to masturbate while the crowd was urged to shout ‘faster, faster,’ in Chinese."

The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, reported that the show "riveted a crowd of students and community members," with "rowdy cheers and awkward silences."

This event was sponsored by a student group called Healthy Devils, with co-sponsors including Duke’s Women’s Center, the Program for the Study of Sexualities, the Student Health Center, Students for Choice, the Campus Council, and Sexual Assault Support Services. The show has toured or will tour other campuses including Harvard University, the College of William & Mary, the University of Michigan, Wesleyan University, and the University of California (Davis).

Duke Provost Peter Lange, responding to my e-mailed questions, explained that the sponsors had followed normal procedures to get university funds and facilities. Duke "routinely hosts shows and speakers that some people find controversial or even objectionable," he wrote, as part of its "strong commitment to free speech and academic freedom." He added that the university takes no position on the views expressed.

Fair enough. But how can the Duke administration reconcile its solicitude for the right of some groups to pay strippers to perform with its disdain for lacrosse players who did the same?

"There is an obvious difference," Lange responded, "between strippers performing at a private party and a group of artists touring university campuses across the country to present a show with political discussion, musical theater, and displays of sexuality."

So people who take off their clothes and dance for money while others watch are not mere strippers, but rather "artists," if they go on tour, call it "musical theater," and toss in scatological and vulgar political effusions?

Another way of looking at it, Schalin’s article suggests, is that "inviting strippers to perform 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."

Kenneth Larrey, a senior who founded Duke Students for an Ethical Duke to promote fair treatment of students by the university that had so savaged its own lacrosse players, skipped the Super Bowl to document the university’s hypocrisy. The show was, he says, "far, far more grotesque than we could have imagined."

To be sure, Annie Oakley did voice one coherent political message: Women are driven into the "sex industry" because the "only other option is working a minimum-wage job or less." But this theme was undercut by one performer’s admission that she had left a regular job to make more money for "my extravagant partying lifestyle" and by others who described choosing sex work after college.

While the show portrayed "sex workers" as both artistic "geniuses" and victims of society, males who pay strippers to perform had better have politically correct motives. The Sex Workers Art Show passed the political correctness test because, in the words of its website, it not only "entertains, arouses, and amazes" but also offers "scathing and insightful commentary on notions of class, race, gender, labor, and sexuality."

As if the nation’s campuses were not sufficiently steeped in such stuff already.

The lacrosse players, on the other hand, had no pretensions beyond titillation and male bonding. For this they were likened to slave masters of the Old South by many a professor and columnist. Professor Mark Anthony Neal, for one-a practitioner of what he calls " ‘gangster’ scholarship" and "intellectual thuggery"-accused the players of "hoping to consume something that they felt a black woman uniquely possessed." Never mind that the booking agency had told the players that one stripper would be white and one would be Hispanic.

Brodhead told the Durham Chamber of Commerce on April 20, 2006, "If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough." (Emphasis added.)

This was a dagger aimed straight at the hearts of sophomores Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, who had been arrested on rape charges two days before. In his eagerness to trash two young men in their time of direst peril for having attended a stripper party organized by their captains, Brodhead ignored the strong, by-then-public evidence that both were entirely innocent of rape.

Such smears have so far cost Duke well over $10 million to settle a threatened lawsuit by the three wrongly accused players. (The third was indicted after Brodhead’s "bad enough" gibe.) Three other players have filed a lawsuit and 30-some others are threatening to sue.

But no Duke administrator or professor has been disciplined in any way. Indeed, the only one fired at Duke as a result of the bogus rape charge was Mike Pressler, the university’s lacrosse coach for 16 years and the 2005 NCAA Coach of the Year. Brodhead fired him in April 2006 while misleadingly suggesting that his players were a bunch of racists. This at a time when rogue District Attorney Mike Nifong, who has since been disbarred, was winning an election by spreading similar smears to Durham voters and potential jurors.

Less than a month later, a faculty committee that Brodhead appointed to investigate the coach’s leadership and the players’ characters found that Pressler had been blameless. It also found that the players-although far too prone to the alcohol abuse, noisy parties, and related petty misconduct that are endemic on campus-were otherwise an admirable group of student-athletes with no history of racist talk or behavior.

Despite all of this, Steel-who is also an undersecretary of the Treasury-and Duke’s board have strongly supported Brodhead’s handling of the lacrosse case. In December 2007 a board committee voiced what its chair, and board vice chair, Daniel Blue, called "overwhelming support for the leadership that the president is providing."

Brodhead and the board understand how the p.c. game is played. If only the lacrosse players had understood that, they could have lined up university funding to hire a better class of strippers: college-educated white people spouting vacuous political bromides and sporting dollar bills and sparklers in the right places.