Letter to the editor: Administration’s FemSex decision misguided

It seems Marquette is waging anew the war on women and sexuality.

In January, the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Marquette agreed to sponsor a student-led, student-facilitated 12-week workshop modeled after long-standing courses at UC-Berkeley and Brown University that engages participants in an exploration of social forces through the lens of female sexuality. FemSex at Marquette’s mission is: “To provide a safe space for exploration, encourage honest dialogue, facilitate collective learning, engage and grapple with the social forces that inform individual experiences, and build allyship.”

Now, university president the Rev. Scott Pilarz and Provost John Pauly have withdrawn Marquette’s support of the workshop and forbidden it from being housed under the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, a space founded after 20 years in the works for “the pursuit of dialogue, growth and empowerment around issues of gender, sex and sexuality,” in an effort to redeem the university’s egregious, poorly thought-out, homophobic actions against Jodi O’Brien. Implicit in the demand that the GSRC pull sponsorship of FemSex is the university’s message to its students that dialogue about gender, sex and sexuality is not welcome among students at the university and that the views of a few right-wing donors trump the interests of the students.

FemSex at Marquette first garnered local attention when a Marquette political science professor, John McAdams, published an article on his personal blog entitled the “Marquette Warrior” denouncing FemSex as anti-Catholic and criticizing the university for sponsoring it. The article was full of inaccuracies, as it drew primarily from FemSex on other campuses for its sources of information, despite that FemSex at Marquette is not affiliated with FemSex at other schools in any official capacity. Additionally, the blog made allegations that FemSex tells women “that men are evil exploiters” when in fact the mission and values inherent to FemSex denounce the use of prescriptive statements in the space and push no political, philosophical or moral agenda.

The article further accuses the organizers of FemSex of littering the workshop with “moral judgments,” an allegation made purely based on McAdams’ interpretation of materials from other FemSex workshops around the country. He also expressed that a section of the syllabus entitled “assignments may include” was objectionable because the listings and language were too provocative for the Catholic university setting. The only assignment among those listed in which FemSex at Marquette participants took part was the coloring of anatomical images of vaginas, referred to by a reappropriated feminist term. While the term itself may seem vulgar, to rescind sponsorship of the workshop because of its use is to employ the self-same logic as was used to justify the recent wrongful firing of Jodi O’Brien, whose use of the term in her academic writing constituted the university’s decision to terminate her.

Finally, McAdams’ assumed that the workshop, actually open to people of all genders, is comprised only of women and spewed hateful, sexist rhetoric, saying the workshop paints an image of college women as “whining neurotics” and describing the workshop as a “bawdy hen party” to “obsess on sex.” McAdams’ and his blog, which gains readership from the false pretense of being affiliated with Marquette’s (former) independent news source, The Warrior, are regular sources of oppressive, hateful content and blatant misogyny, not to mention homophobia, racism and slander of Marquette students. Marquette is simply not taking responsibility for the way McAdams’ actions reflect on the university and affect its students. He should not be allowed to use the name of the university in the title of his personal blog unless Marquette is willing to stand behind his messages as reflecting the official views and opinions of the university. As a Marquette student, I demand punitive action on McAdams and am prepared to convene any and all students who have been hurt or slandered by him in order to ensure that he is held accountable.

In general, the message circulating about FemSex has been that it is anti-Catholic because it deals with topics like abortion, pleasure and masturbation. In fact, the workshop in no way conflicts with Catholic theology, unless creating a safe space in which to discuss these topics is anti-Catholic. Let me be clear: FemSex is a space dedicated to collective discussion based on student experiences and does not teach any curriculum, push any agenda, condone any behavior or act as therapy.

The FemSex at Marquette syllabus states that “FemSex encourages exploration of identities,” that “through group discussions, activities and individual exercises, the workshop explores what it means to take ownership of one’s own sexuality, body, pleasure, language and education” and that “peer facilitators foster introspection and encourage participants to develop empowered, informed relationships with themselves and builds ally relationships with others.” Thus, at its core, FemSex is about introspection, discussion, exploration and self-empowerment – or are those anti-Catholic now, too?

Father Pilarz, who got wind of anti-FemSex sentiment thanks to a punitive letter from former Marquette College Republicans Chair Ethan Hollenberger to several members of the Marquette administration, betrayed student trust by failing to do his due diligence regarding the claims that had been made about FemSex at Marquette and by refusing to engage with students and advocate for their interests in the matter. All Hollenberger had to do was pose a few questions about how FemSex aligns with Marquette’s Catholic mission and, in an epic failure to advocate for the rights of his constituents, one of the central tenets of all good leadership, Pilarz immediately ordered the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center to pull sponsorship of FemSex.

Provost John Pauly, too, proved his cowardess and apathy regarding students’ rights to safe space on campus. “We found that aspects of the program did not fulfill the expectations set out in the charter of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center,” wrote Pauly in a letter to Hollenberger. “Because of this, the center is no longer sponsoring the program.” What is in the GSRC charter, anyway? Because as far as I can tell the GSRC serves as a safe space on campus only theoretically, since any programming dedicated to honest dialogue of gender and sexuality is quickly crushed by administration.

As a Marquette student, I am outraged that Marquette has rescinded its sponsorship of FemSex at Marquette based on false allegations, for reasons much larger than the workshop alone. I see the act as indicative of cultural, systemic oppression that thrives at Marquette, perpetuated and maintained by the university’s administration. It is an attack on women as well as gender and sexual minorities and represents a refusal to advocate for the rights of students to safe space for discussion on campus.

Marquette needs to accept that feminists, gender-nonconforming, and LGBT students are not only real, but they attend Marquette. We are deserving of the same privileges as every other student on campus, regardless of the fact that our language or topics are viewed as controversial.

The fact is we have the right to discuss them and to be affirmed in that right by the university in the form of support. We are not falling for the pretense of support symbolized by the mere creation of the GSRC when we are not allowed even allowed to conduct discussions or programming there.

The real reason for Pilarz’s decision is the last question Hollenberger posed in his letter to administration: “What is your response to a donor who may stop giving to the university because of this course?” It is clear that Marquette’s true values are cura personalis unless money is at stake, at which point values are for sale to the highest bidder.

The Marquette administration’s order that the GSRC revoke support of FemSex not only reaffirms the bigoted, oppressive ideals expressed by McAdams, but teaches its students that morality and integrity are only worth what you can pay for them. Marquette cannot continue to assert itself as a valuable, progressive member of the Milwaukee community while denouncing the identity of its own students, denying its own constituency their rights, implicitly condoning homophobia and sexism and failing to practice what it preaches in terms of Catholic morality.

Claire Van Fossen

Graduate Professional Studies

  • 2010 Alum

    I wonder if the same MU students and faculty members making the push for this perverted and disordered FemSex program in the name of “openess” and “dialogue” and “empowerment” would attend a conference on Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” truly a scholarly and respectful examination of the gift of human sexuality…

  • Colleen

    To whom it may concern,

    After speaking with a professor about this topic earlier (one who signed the faculty’s letter to the editor) I encourage any one who is angered by Marquette’s administrative decisions regarding this and other situations to please write a personal letter/e-mail expressing this to them. Although, you may feel that one letter or opinion may not matter or you cannot add anything new to the discussion it is important for them to see how many people have been affected by these actions. Do not let fear and their repressive environment force you into silence or discourage you from expressing your thoughts and feelings. I encourage anyone, no matter what side, to speak up for what they believe and feel passionately about. If you have not heard tomorrow a group of Marquette faculty is meeting with administration and they plan on addressing them with questions and thoughts regarding Marquette’s response to the FemSex controversy that has happened. In addition, some faculty members are also planning on writing their own personal letters to voice their complaints- the more the better! And, if you do not realize it, we generally have a bigger stake and voice in the matter than the faculty so they could use our help as well. It is important for everybody to help create an open, honest, educational, and respectful dialogue between both sides in order to create any positive change. Thank you for your help and your interest in such topics, it is really inspiring to see so many people care.

  • An interested observer

    Having read both the McAdams blog and the response here, it appears that both of these writers are speaking right past each other. McAdams tends to bluster but he isn’t using the gross inaccuracies Van Fossen accuses him of–he clearly labels what comes from outside sources and what comes from the Marquette program. Van Fossen seems (intentionally?) unaware of the inherent bias against traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality and the roots of the program at Cal-Berkeley, but it doesn’t appear that she is convening a “man-hating” club. Both McA and VanF rightly criticize the administration’s propensity to cave to external pressure, but VanF seems to only attribute this flaw to decisions she doesn’t agree with. I’d love to see a little more self-awareness from both sides: the idea that the FemSex group discussion functions as (necessarily) a polemic against Catholic morality (McA) or can be objectively “honest” and without bias or agenda is patently and experientially false. Discussion does not mandate a secret agenda but the bias (all humans have it) of the leader/facilitator/progenitor generally sets the agenda for discussion.

    • Will

      You’re entitled to your opinion but I perceive McAdams as a total extremist and from this letter I perceive Van Fossen as an understandably outraged student trying to hold administration accountable and denounce the gay and feminist-bashing McAdams has been known to do. As for the alleged “inherent bias” you refer to, I don’t see it. The syllabus (available via Google) clearly states that all experiences and identities are welcome in the space and says that discussion of celibacy and abstinence will accompany discussions of desire and fantasy. It’s ridiculous to assert that the facilitators can’t diminish their own bias for the benefit of collective learning and they clearly take proactive measures to reduce bias in the space including forbidding prescriptive statements and generalizations and not teaching any doctrine. The point of FemSex seems to me to be that all views are welcome and each has equal weight.

  • A Marquette for Whom?

    This letter was amazing–well thought out, clearly articulated, reasonable. I only wish that the Marquette Tribune had bothered to print the entire thing.

  • Megan

    To whomever wrote this, bravo. You took everything I wanted to say, and then some. Spreading this around as much as I can!

    • Dan

      Her name is Claire Van Fossen. Some quotes from this piece were used in the Journal Sentinel article.