Academic Freedom, Disability, and a Little Thing Called Human Sexuality

planet of the blind

We are living in the age of autocracy, a matter that’s clear, as every conceivable matter of public concern is about who controls what. It is hard to derive solace from the assertion America was always an oligarchy, that our founders were aristocrats, wealthy, and privileged. The second President of the United States, John Adams, was a small town lawyer and dirt farmer. And while Alexander Hamilton promoted a national bank, he was met with sufficient disapprobation by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to have had to settle for less. These times are starting to feel Orwellian in a particularly “Animal Farm” way: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Nowhere does this seem clearer just now than in Higher Education where assaults on academic freedom are legion, and often misunderstood. When these attacks are reported in the news they are generally misrepresented as quaint disputes, as odd and unfamiliar as dueling. But colleges and universities are our nation’s “agora”—the public square where free men and women can exchange ideas in democratic safety. I believe “safety” is under increasing duress and I’m certainly not alone. Free speech is in danger in the academy and in turn, human dignity is at stake. Please don’t label me a hysteric. Free speech is in danger and human rights are at stake. This is neither a liberal or conservative issue—it is a fundamental matter of American consent.

In Ken Burns’ PBS film about Thomas Jefferson, the conservative columnist and public intellectual George Will points out that in America we know precisely who we are—that the Declaration of Independence is our national catechism. Being American Will says, is to consent to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and moreover, that “all men are created equal”.

I like George Will when he talks about Jefferson, and I like him when he writes about baseball.

Moreover, I like his defense of free speech.

Not so very long ago, my colleague and friend, Professor Bill Peace found himself in the crosshairs of academic freedom’s opponents for writing a story about being a paralyzed man in a rehabilitation ward. The story recounts how some nurses attempted to assure frightened patients they could still have sex. As a matter of clarification, Peace’s narrative makes clear that human sexuality and disability is a largely taboo subject to this very day.  Peace’s essay was harshly attacked and trivialized, which is to say, the content of what he wrote was misrepresented in a number of stories. Misrepresentation is essential if the goal is to limit freedom. Simply say that a story involving free speech is salacious, or politically incorrect and most readers, even academics, will shrug. (One saw this during the Steven Salaita story—some academics actually opined that withholding a professor’s tenured appointment at the University of Illinois was OK because, after all, the man wrote some angry tweets about Israel. As if anger, expressed, in any form, is not a right; not essential to freedom of speech.) Well alright. Bill Peace wrote about disability and human sexuality for a journal called Atrium. A journal published by the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Peace is a famous disability rights activist, a professor of bioethics, and a public intellectual. In case you’re wondering, his Ph.D. in Anthropology is from Columbia University. The “storied” Anthropology program at Columbia. All of which is to say, Prof. Peace is no middling scholar.

The issue of Atrium in which Peace’s article appeared was edited by Alice Dreger, one of this nation’s best known bioethicists, and was devoted to stories about women and medicine. The title of the issue was “Bad Girls”. As a matter of concern, in terms of an ethic of patient care, when should a nurse (or other medical practitioner) break the rules? Does patient care always depend on a strict adherence to protocol? This is not a summary question. Ethics seldom lend themselves to easy taxonomies.

Peace wrote about being a young paralyzed man—a teenager in fact—who, during a long rehabilitative hospital stay learned he could have sex from a nurse. His article was about the tricky subject of paralysis and sexuality, a matter that is both probative and essential both for human dignity and reproductive rights. He recounted instances in which nurses helped frightened young men learn about sex.

Yes, the subject carries discomfort. Able bodied people don’t like hearing about disability and human sexuality. Or many of them do not want to know about it. Worse, perhaps, a cadre of academics, largely women, protested about Peace’s content, claiming the essay was demeaning to women. (I read the essay in draft form: this simply is not the case, unless one conceives of women as Victorian angels without human instincts.) Peace writes:

Shortly after Dreger and I went public about the magazine’s online censorship, the essay became widely discussed in the news, in articles of varying quality. The most absurd response was written by Rachelle Barina and Devan Stahl, who seemed to characterize my essay as pornographic. In a blog post on, they said my article “perpetuates views of women, sexuality, and professionalism that best serve male power, rather than the power of women.” They argued that “the ‘bad girl’ theme of the Atrium issue allowed for an article that imported expectations of female subservience” and went so far as to speculate that I might have fabricated my experience, essentially characterizing me as a fantasizing misogynist. Treating my essay as pornographic or misogynistic reinforces the social isolation of people with disabilities and falsely affirms their inability to establish intimate relationships.

Northwestern took the journal offline, scrubbed Peace’s essay out of the issue, and then put the journal back up. Later they shelved the journal.

Peace has now written an elegant and exact essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education that should be essential reading for any scholar or student, or college administrator for that matter, who is concerned about freedom of expression and the safety of the agora.

Professor Dreger has now resigned her post at Northwestern in protest over censorship.

I fear that as this is a story with a disability theme it won’t get the attention from academics it rightly deserves. Apparently the agora is surrounded by barbed wire;  political correctness can, in tandem with corporate administrators, erase ideas. And one must fair say, real lives are in the balance. Did you know that paralyzed people need education about sex? Did you?

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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