While some questions remain surrounding specifics of the university’s decision to rescind sponsorship from “FemSex: The Female Sexuality Workshop,” the group’s co-founders said Wednesday that they are seeking to be re-allowed to meet in recently withdrawn Alumni Memorial Union space.
Originally, university sponsorship – which meant the group could meet in the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center in the AMU – was discontinued following a student inquiry to University President the Rev. Scott Pilarz that brought the content of the workshop to his and his staff’s attention. In a letter to the Tribune Tuesday, Pilarz explained that “aspects (of the program) fell outside of (Marquette’s) Catholic, Jesuit identity.”
Pilarz said he has faith that the university will “find a mutually respectful way to authentically explore these tensions so that we can ensure purposeful programming that meets student needs and is consistent with our mission and identity.”
The group’s co-founders, graduate students Claire Van Fossen and Rachel Bruns, said they believed the program’s mission and greater purpose were not in conflict with Jesuit and Catholic ideals and that the workshop was meant to provide a safe place for discussion. They also said they did not know what specific information the university was given about the workshop when it initially decided to sponsor it.
Now, after a showing of support from some students, faculty members and members of the Milwaukee community, Van Fossen and Bruns said they are attempting to have the program reinstated in the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.
“We are in dialogue around possibilities of restoring our official relationship with GSRC in a way that does not compromise the integrity, mission and content of FemSex,” they said in a joint email Wednesday. “Our intention is that FemSex at Marquette will continue to be a needed source of hope, safety, openness and dialogue for all participants on campus and in the larger community.”
Van Fossen and Bruns did not say whether they planned to make changes to the program’s syllabus, though Pilarz wrote Tuesday that the decision to end university sponsorship of FemSex was made after reviewing the syllabus with other administrators.
“I first learned of the programmatic details when a current student emailed me,” Pilarz said. “The student asked thoughtful questions and did not request that I take action. The student has not spoken publicly about it, nor sought attention for his views. After reviewing the specific workshop outline, I consulted with university leadership and found aspects that fell outside our Catholic, Jesuit identity.”
According to the syllabus, FemSex is designed as “a 12-week workshop that aims to create a mindful, respectful, and open environment for participants to validate their experiences, challenge their ideas, and learn with and from others.”
Modeled after similar programs at the University of California-Berkeley and Brown University, discussion topics include “Female Health and Anatomy,” “Body Image,” “Sex, Sexuality, and Desire,” and “Masturbation, Orgasm, and Pleasure.”
In the workshop on “Masturbation, Orgasm, and Pleasure,” the syllabus states, “We will ask questions, share experiences, and generate ideas for techniques.”
Van Fossen said the group attempts to foster discussion and does not attempt to teach a curriculum or prescribe an ideology or morality.
“Not every (workshop is) the same (because they are) based on the participants’ experiences,” Van Fossen said. “What occurs during the workshop is not prescribed, so it varies dependent on what the participants bring from their experiences.”
Bruns and Van Fossen also said they have received offers of support and sponsorship from academic offices within the university and local organizations such as the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.
Bruns and Van Fossen declined to comment on which academic offices have reached out to them or offered sponsorship and space for the workshop.
“The support has been overwhelming,” Van Fossen said. “From the broader community, from students on campus and from faculty.”
In regard to how FemSex began at Marquette, Bruns said she had attended a FemSex workshop at a different university and found it positive and impactful. She said she felt there was a need for a safe space to discuss issues of gender and sexuality on Marquette’s campus.
“After some challenges at Marquette around issues of gender, I decided to reach out to (GRSC Director) Susannah (Bartlow) and do something proactive,” Bruns said. “And since I knew that FemSex was so positive in the safety of its space, and that open dialogue and collective learning, I thought that might be a positive thing to bring to Marquette.”
She added that she had conversations not only with Bartlow but also with faculty and members of the Marquette community last semester prior to starting the workshop to discern what issues of gender and sexuality were most relevant to Marquette’s campus.
“One of the realities named in these preliminary conversations was the significance of Marquette’s Catholic identity,” Bruns said. “In response to this reality and in light of the presence of Catholic and Christian cultures at Marquette and in Milwaukee, we added a ‘Spirituality and Sexuality’ session to explore intersections of these issues, as well as create space for dialogue around the ways faith, religion, and spirituality may inform, influence, or speak (to) our experiences of sexuality, embodiment, intimacy, vulnerability and relationships.”
Van Fossen said the group has been received positively by student participants and that the recent media attention has not affected the turnout or quality of discussion within the group. She declined to give the exact number of participants.
“We have a very comfortable number of students,” she said. “It’s exactly in the range of what we look for for the size of the group. We’re almost at what we consider to be our capacity. Although we discuss topics that may appear controversial, we do not prescribe any behavior or morality. We simply acknowledge that those issues exist as part of humanity.”