The sexual-misconduct policy at Morehead State University, a public school in Kentucky, states that “sexual gestures,” “degrading words,” and the display of “sexually suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters” count as examples of sexual harassment.
The policy, which was last updated in the fall, is so restrictive that it was named “Speech Code of the Month” by a pro-free speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform, Laura Beltz, told The College Fix that a major problem with the school’s policy is that it never clarifies that any of the listed examples have to be part of a “larger pattern of conduct that does meet the legal standard for harassment.” What’s more, the policy is impossibly vague — which, as The Fix also notes, leaves students with no other option than to simply guess what school administrators might consider to be “suggestive” or “degrading.”
Make no mistake: There are a ton of pretty harmless things that could be considered “sexual harassment” under Morehead State’s definitions. The Fix, for example, theorizes that Farrah Fawcett’s iconic 1976 swimsuit poster could be too “suggestive,” and that the commonly used “jerk-off motion” — which, as the news source explains, “may [mimic] the act of male masturbation” but is “intended to express [the] nonsexual message” that the gesturer is feeling “impatience with or contempt for an ongoing conversation.”
I can think of quite a few examples myself. Like, what about copies of Sports Illustrated? Those covers often feature quite a bit of cleavage, is that too suggestive? Or what about one of those inspirational-quotation posters where the background is of a woman doing yoga? (I mean, yoga pants are pretty tight.) What if an art student wanted to put up a photo of the Venus de Milo statue? I mean, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture, sure — but it also shows boobs.
Honestly, when I originally saw this policy, the first person that I thought of was my now-deceased Polish Catholic grandmother, who took the rules of the Catholic Church very seriously. (I’m talking “she had to give up the family’s cat because it kept getting pregnant because she thought spaying it would violate the Church’s teachings about birth control” seriously.) In other words: She was very socially conservative. She stopped getting her hair cut somewhere, even though it was conveniently located across the street from her house, because there was art in the bathroom that had boobs in it, and she thought it was a sin to look at it. She wouldn’t let my mom have a Barbie, because Barbies had (you guessed it!) boobs. She once demanded that my uncle immediately take her to confession because she’d accidentally seen two people kissing on TV. In other words? Grandma would have loved the policy at Morehead State — so much, in fact, that I’m not entirely unconvinced that she didn’t write it herself from the grave.
Then, that got me thinking: Is the supposedly “progressive” Left somehow actually becoming as prudish as the most socially conservative person I’ve ever met?
In the 1960s–80s, the sexual revolution championed sexual freedom and the open expression of sexuality — and it was a largely liberal, progressive cause. Are things, at least in some instances, starting to flip? After all, these sorts of restrictive policies are being espoused not by the Right but by the Left. I’m not, of course, saying that there aren’t conservatives who are socially, well, conservative (Hi, Rick Santorum!), but I also can’t help but notice how often efforts to censor sexual expression are promoted by the Left and opposed by the Right.
Now, to be fair, Morehead State’s policy in particular does have some vague conditions that must be met in order for one of the examples to qualify as “sexual harassment:”
Sexual Harassment can take one of two forms. The first form involves unwelcome verbal, electronic, physical and/or visual conduct based on sex, which both (1) unreasonably interferes with a person’s work or educational performance, and (2) creates an environment that both a reasonable person and the specific person being harassed would find intimidating, hostile or offensive.
This actually does not, however, make me feel any better about this policy. The language here is very ambiguous. Think about it: What even is a “reasonable” person anymore, anyway? After all, in my years of writing about speech and political correctness, I have written about countless things deemed to be “offensive” or triggering or otherwise inappropriate by people in positions of power in higher education (that is, people for whom “reasonable” is supposed to be a pretty crucial part of the job description) that I myself would find to be totally harmless.
For example: A survey that was distributed at several major universities a few years ago — it included a trigger warning to alert students that some of the questions would contain “anatomical names of body parts,” because apparently seeing the kinds of words you could find in any middle-school biology textbook might be too traumatic for college students to handle — comes to mind. (Wait — could a diagram of the human body potentially run afoul of Morehead State’s policy?) So does that professor, at Brooklyn College of City University of New York, who reportedly had to change his syllabus after an administrator decided that his portion about effort being 10 percent of the grade constituted sexual harassment. Oh, and that professor at the University of Kentucky who claims that he was punished for “sexual misconduct” for singing a Beach Boys song in class.
I’m all for teaching about important concepts like consent; I’m also very aware of how damaging and destructive it can be to be a victim of sexual harassment. At the same time, though, if some college bro wants to have a boobie poster on the wall of the room in his frat house, who cares? It’s his room, and plus, dudes have been disgusting since the beginning of time. In fact, I actually think that comparing something as innocuous as seeing a boobie poster to real sexual harassment (that is, the kind that meets the legal definition) only minimizes the truly harrowing struggle that those victims go through.
Look — it’s not that I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to have to look at frat guys’ boobie posters. I personally never really enjoy seeing them; I don’t really need the reminder of my own flat-chestedness. The truth is, though, even if a college kid wanted to have full-on pornography on the wall in his room at a public university, that right should be his — and so should the consequences of having a huge percentage of women exercise their right to leave as soon as they walk in when they see it.