Southern Discomfort

Last month, I traveled to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) to give a lecture called "Sexploration," as part of the university's "Sexual Responsibility Week." I spoke to roughly 100 students about sexual anatomy, communication, masturbation, and safer sex. There was an extensive question and answer period; I fielded queries about everything from condoms to cunnilingus.

Mike Adams, a conservative associate professor from UNC-Wilmington, heard of my visit from some members of the UNCG College Republicans group (none of whom attended my talk), and he wrote two online columns attacking my credibility and chastising the university for bringing a "porn star" to speak at UNCG: "North Carolina taxpayers actually paid to promote pornography and anal sex in the name of 'wellness' and 'diversity.' " His column led to two statements by the university chancellor and a story in the Greensboro News and Record, which got picked up by the Associated Press, and appeared in about a dozen other newspapers and websites.

Let's get a few things straight. Calling me a porn star is like calling Michael Jordan a baseball legend. It's not only a gross, inaccurate exaggeration, but it devalues all the hard work actual adult performers do each and every day to create films that entertain and arouse people in a $10 billion-a-year industry. The average porn star's career spans 200 to 300 movies. I have appeared in exactly three: two videos based on my book The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, and one independent erotic short film produced and directed by the publishers of Libido magazine. Adams's attempt to latch onto the "porn star" part of my career, which makes up about 2 percent of my work in sex education over a decade, is merely a cheap shot meant to stir up trouble. Yes, I am a pro-porn feminist. Yes, if a student asks me a question about pornography, including why I am involved in it, I will answer it, but I do not proselytize about nor recruit for the adult industry when I speak at college campuses. But even if I were a porn star, that would not make me unqualified or unfit: Real former and current porn stars including John Stagliano, Sharon Mitchell, Nina Hartley, Devinn Lane, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, Porsche Lynn, and others have spoken at top universities around the country.

Adams and other right-wingers have attempted to trash my character, ignoring my extensive body of work, and claiming I have zero credibility because I embrace explicit sex ed in many different forms. I don't promote porn and anal sex, as Adams would have people believe; I do, however, inform students about many different forms of erotic pleasure, how to do them safely, and how to communicate about their needs and desires. What Mike Adams finds degrading and devoid of value, I consider necessary and empowering. (For someone who clearly abhors butt sex, Mr. Adams performs some inspired verbal analingus on Rush Limbaugh, presumably his role model, in his most recent column about how he got started as a conservative columnist.)

The language I use is explicit (Adams: "Virtually everything this woman writes is pornographic") but I use the words I do not to provoke or titillate but to educate people. Our culture is saturated with sex, but it's all image, no information. Especially when it comes to college students, I believe I must talk to them in a way they can relate to. If I got up in front of a room full of twentysomethings with one-dimensional anatomy charts and went on and on about how abstinence is the only real safe sex, they'd fall asleep.

I am not what anyone would consider an old-school sexpert. While pioneers like Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Joyce Brothers have paved the way for me, I am radically different from them, and it's not simply generational. I do not come from the medical establishment, but from a feminist sex-positive movement. My approach to the subject matter is neither clinical nor distant: I am on the front lines. I don't just write about how to find your G-spot, I actually find women's G-spots in hands-on workshops; I don't investigate various sexual practices and minorities from the sidelines, I immerse myself in them. I am not afraid to get my feet (or my pussy) wet in the name of enlightenment. Yes, Mr. Adams, I said pussy. Get over it.

Adams's piece generated several hundred letters of complaint, forcing UNCG chancellor Patricia Sullivan to issue a formal statement, where she claimed that officials didn't know about my background: "Had we more thoroughly investigated Ms. Taormino, I do not believe we would have invited her to appear," said Sullivan, adding that she "abhors pornography." Her personal opinions of porn aside, her claim of ignorance was totally false. Several days later, she issued a corrected statement where she apologized for her previous remarks and said that university administrators did in fact know about my involvement in pornography and still asked me to appear. In her mea culpa, she still maintained her anti-porn stance: "I am not comfortable with Ms. Taormino's pornographic associations and her website, and I do not think it is good for the reputation and image of UNCG to be associated with the promotion of pornography, directly or indirectly." After I spoke at UNCG, the staff member from the Wellness Center gushed over my talk and said she'd like to have me back. The chancellor's latest statement seems to squash that verbal invitation.

This is not the first time that my appearance at a college or university has generated controversy and conversation. In 2003, there was a vigorous debate on the campus-wide online bulletin boards about my impending visit at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, to talk about queer sex. Some conservative students were outraged that a portion of their student fees was paying for me (which was also the case at UNCG, where I was paid from a fund of student activities fees, not taxpayer money as Adams wrote). I was labeled a porn star, a prostitute, and an anti-feminist. The best part: The students who were angry showed up at my lecture. They listened to me, then politely asked questions and challenged me to defend my sexually explicit work. It sparked debate and dialogue where people respectfully disagreed and everyone was heard, and which continued months after my appearance. To me, that is precisely what our institutions of higher learning should be all about.

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