Allegheny College’s president wishes a sexual education program had been held at a site other than the college’s Ford Memorial Chapel but he defends the on-campus presentation of the material, as well as other topics that might offend or upset, as key to the college’s mission.
An Allegheny College student’s write-up of the “I Love Female Orgasm” program Wednesday at the chapel went viral, appearing on Fox news website, the Drudge Report and other outlets after being posted Thursday on The College Fix, which bills itself as “original. Student reported. Your daily dose of right-minded campus news.” Reaction was swift as the college received a sudden influx of emails and social media responses, many fraught with factual discrepancies.
The attention led Allegheny President Jim Mullen to issue a statement Friday, that read, in part: “The decision to hold this event in our chapel felt disrespectful to members of the Allegheny community who regard it to be inappropriate for a house of worship. Whether or not everyone agrees with that feeling — it is a matter of respect to take those feelings into account and to accommodate them if possible. That could have been accomplished — without restricting open discussion — by selecting another site. I wish that another venue had been chosen.”
The student who sparked the controversy has an issue with more than just where the program was held, however.
“They say it’s to educate people on making healthy sexual decisions,” said Katie McHugh, a senior from Washington, D.C. “But it’s about forcing their point of view on other people to humiliate them.”
McHugh reported sitting through the two-plus hours of presentation and subsequent question and answer session and recalls the feeling of embarrassment hearing the program’s explicit, graphic and detailed nature.
“They wanted to challenge Christian morals and encourage people not to feel guilty about promiscuity or the sexual choices they’ve made,” she added.
McHugh was among more than 200 students who attended the voluntary, non-curricular program sponsored by a student organization at the chapel, which is used for ecumenical services, Catholic mass and a wide variety of non-religious events ranging from presentations and talks to concerts.
McHugh’s article states Allegheny Dean of Students Joe DiChristina and Allegheny Chaplain Jane Ellen expressed no problem with the location, citing the program’s history of advocating responsible decisions and inclusion of options for students of faith.
“I Love Female Orgasm” has been presented through 500 programs in venues around the country, including colleges and universities, businesses, churches, conferences and adult education centers, according to its organizers, Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot.
A previous visit to Allegheny’s campus about three years ago left a positive-enough impression to warrant a second visit, said Cassandra Dellas, vice president of public relations for Reproductive Health Coalition (ReproCo), an organization run by Allegheny students that was one of the sponsors of the event.
“To my knowledge, they’ve been to over 300 campuses and spoken to over 100,000 people across the country,” she said.
ReproCo partnered with student groups Young Feminists and Queers and Allies to bring the program back to campus on the grounds that it makes the subject of sexuality less taboo and creates an atmosphere where students can feel unashamed discussing.
“The intent is educational,” said Dellas. “It encompasses a lot more than genitalia and masturbation. It’s also about relationships and being comfortable with yourself and your partner.”
ReproCo had intended to hold the program in Shafer Auditorium. Students organizing the program’s return were told by the college’s Office of Student Involvement that a scheduling conflict arose and they were advised to choose another location.
Ford Memorial Chapel was picked — and OK’d by the college employees who run the Office of Student Involvement — for its ability to house audiovisual technology and provide a close-knit, comfortable space for students to feel secure discussing the subject matter, Dellas said.
“We considered other locations, but they wouldn’t have worked; Ford was the last possible choice,” she argued. “The chapel’s not a church. We know that’s splitting hairs, but we hoped that explanation would be enough.”
Dellas realized her explanation wasn’t enough for people she says responded with hostility against the school and its student body more so than the presentation itself. She asserted the program was about the promotion of safe decisions over sexual acts. She also took issue with some of McHugh’s reporting.
“Many quotes are taken out of context, making it seem like a pornographic event instead,” Dellas claimed. “I know the board had no intention of people disrespecting the chapel or its worshippers. A lot of what’s been reported is definitely inaccurate.”
While college officials respect McHugh’s freedom of speech and right to an opinion, they said that secondary reportage of her story and many of the responses the college received are inaccurate.
“It’s dismaying to see how the original issue spun out of control into a variety of assertions and charges beyond inflammatory,” said Brian Dalton, vice president of enrollment and communications.
“We’re seeing more and more responses suggesting this was an established course,” he added. “This is not the case. We have received a lot of communications by a majority of people not associated with Allegheny College who have asserted untrue claims.”
While Dalton expects no direct policy change from the presentation and negative attention, he believes future events will be subject to additional discussion in the interests of Allegheny’s liberal arts environment.
“When the issue came to a head, we had natural questions about the process,” he said. “I do know from our standpoint that you can mandate certain things with strict consideration to an event and its audience. Our approach will harken back to values to guide these procedures.”
Strict policies are not the Allegheny way, Dalton explained, allowing the liberal arts college to function for 200 years through community collaboration and the free exchange of ideas which he believes can be accommodated with vibrant debate and dialogue within the campus.
“No one is clamoring on campus; we defend the right of campus organizations to promote presentations like this as we defend the students who would disagree with them,” Dalton added. “We are reluctant to impose policy upon chapel usage, but we will take greater consideration regarding its impact.”
“Our campus is and will be a place where a wide range of ideas and topics can be openly discussed, and that includes conversations about sexuality that might be uncomfortable for some,” said Mullen. “The notion of the Allegheny campus as a safe place for such free and open discussion is one of our most cherished values.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.