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How Explicit Is Too Explicit?

November 14, 2006

At Swarthmore College, the first day of Coming Out Week each fall dawns reliably, the first light falling on sexually explicit messages chalked on campus sidewalks by gay student groups the night before. It is a tradition, organizers say, meant to facilitate free expression among gay students and encourage all students to question the reigning “heteronormative” culture.

The chalkings typically attract some degree of controversy, but this year, the debate reached a fever pitch, with about 150 students filling the pews of the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse Thursday to debate the merits of the chalkings. The messages and images scrawled around the sidewalks have inspired “counter-chalkings,” passionate dialogue in the pages of the student newspaper and even a Facebook group, “I Have an Opinion About the Coming-Out Week Chalkings,” with 43 members and 123 postings as of Monday afternoon. More ominously to some, they’ve also inspired some localized showers -- the administration believes that a couple of the drawings were washed out by students, said Myrt Westphal, associate dean for student life at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.

A number of particularly explicit and prominent drawings that stand out from those of years past seem to have ignited the intense debate this year, Westphal said: “There was a feeling both in the queer community and outside the queer community that this had gone over the top and actually was hurting the cause of Coming Out Week.”

Among the most controversial chalkings were a “cartoonish” depiction of a female with a “strap-on” device engaged in anal sex with the caption, “Anal Sex is for Everyone,” and a drawing of a vagina on the patio of the college’s dining hall that was intentionally washed away, said Tatiana Cozzarelli, a junior at Swarthmore and one of the organizers of the National Coming Out Week activities, celebrated at Swarthmore the week of October 30.

Other chalkings ranged from combative -- “Don’t assume I’m straight and I won’t assume you’re an asshole” -- to cutesy, including a drawing of two penguins holding hands with a caption, “Even penguins are gay.” Members of all five of Swarthmore’s queer student groups participated in the chalkings, as did a group of straight allies, Cozzarelli said, although not all members of the college queer community agree with the chalkings.

“The purpose is not necessarily to offend people but to raise the issues and put the issues out there,” said Cozzarelli, who called the chalked images “more political than pornographic.”

“There’s not one message of the chalkings. But some of them challenge heteronormativity and make straight people think about their sexuality in a way they often haven’t in the past.” Cozzarelli cited, for instance, the message, “When did you come out as straight?” -- a chalking meant to encourage straight students to question why their sexual identity is privileged in such a way that they typically never had to think in those terms. “When there’s a vagina in front of Sharples [Dining Hall], the idea behind it is for people to look at the vagina and say, ‘Why does this make me uncomfortable?’”

Yet, many students felt not just uncomfortable but offended: As one student posting on a Facebook discussion board on the topic put it, “I just think that it's kind of remarkable that the explicitly sexual chalkings have managed to offend everyone I've talked to who is not in" the Swarthmore Queer Union. The student then cited six main criticisms she’s heard around campus: that the postings assume the students reading them hold positions they do not in fact support, that the chalkings reinforce stereotypes that gay people are obsessed with sex, that the discussion surrounding Coming Out Week ignores debate about social action in favor of more intimate details, that “a sex-positive agenda” is taking precedence over discussion of gay history, identity or rights, that thinking about genitalia in public is a matter of poor taste and that it’s “shocking to see little kids"  visiting campus "playing on pictures of masturbating women.”

“What I felt originally was that it was simply violative to put those drawings on the ground in public where it was basically unavoidable to see them,” said Abigail Graber, a junior at Swarthmore who objected to the particularly explicit images. “Based on my understanding of laws regarding pornography and obscenities, you can’t show someone pornography against someone’s will, because it’s basically a sex act and you can’t perform a sex act on someone without their consent.”

“Everybody has the right to offend. Some of the chalkings that were just words were certainly offensive, they implied things about straight people and they implied things about the Swarthmore community in general that people were uncomfortable with. But you don’t have a right to offend in a sexually violative way,” said Graber.

Students counter-chalked following the original chalkings, and after a rain, gay students chalked again, Westphal said -- an escalation of a “chalk talk” that hasn’t been seen in previous years. Cozzarelli said many gay students were disappointed with the counter-chalking, feeling that they had one week per year to express their voices, “not to create a dialogue of voices of people who aren’t normally silenced on top of the chalkings of people who are silenced.” One of the counter-chalkings, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up already?” was particularly upsetting, Cozzarelli said, as it “contributed to this norm of silencing queer people.”

On the other hand, Sven David Udekwu, a sophomore, wrote a letter to Swarthmore’s weekly newspaper, The Phoenix, disagreeing with the notion that gay students are typically silenced at Swarthmore. “It made me feel that everyone in this school has put it into their heads to not allow the queer culture to flourish at any other time of the year,” Udekwu said in a Monday interview. “To say that straights dominate all aspects of life for most of the year in Swarthmore is tantamount to voluntary blindness,” Udekwu wrote.

Furthermore, some students upset by the chalkings also felt silenced. Westphal said she knows of a couple of students who feel less safe on campus as a result of the chalkings and the subsequent debate, having expressed fear that they would be labeled “homophobic” if they stated their concerns. “I feel like it got more emotional than intellectual. But there were very intellectual elements of it too,” Westphal said.

Yet, Elliot Ratzman, a visiting professor of religion who helped lead Thursday’s discussion in the meetinghouse , said he was impressed that students primarily focused on whether the chalkings were an effective tool to best express the gay student groups’ message. “I noted at one point that 15 years ago, a school couldn’t have this conversation because the sides would have been too hostile toward each other. Now it was simply an argument about tactics instead of the merits of Coming Out Week which is, I think, neat.”

“Heteronormativity is on the wane here.”

In fact, an article in Swarthmore’s online digest, The Daily Gazette, traced the history of the pro-gay chalkings to 1986, and notes, “The increasingly confrontational chalkings have appeared as overt homophobia at Swarthmore has diminished. While chalkings started as spontaneous and deeply subversive acts. . .frequently in direct response to anti-gay vandalism or violence on campus, over the past five years, the chalkings appear (to) have become something of a yearly ritual.”

“I’ve noted before that the longer you’re at a place like Swarthmore, the more that the ritual repetition of some of these debates is vaguely frustrating,” Timothy Burke, an associate history professor at Swarthmore, wrote in his blog, Easily Distracted. “It’s part of a learning experience, though. The students who object learn some things, the students who do the chalkings learn some things. Or so one hopes. Among the things I hope that the students who did the chalking learn is to stop believing that the efficacy of activism is measured by the degree of antagonism or discomfort it produces.”

 

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