Feb. 7, 2008 -- Duke University has come under fire from some students and conservative commentators this week for hosting a performance that involved strippers and burlesque dancers, two years after an infamous case in which lacrosse players at the school were falsely accused of raping a stripper at a team party.
The Sex Workers' Art Show, a traveling act that features discussions about the sex industry as well as performances by strippers and burlesque dancers, performed on campus on Sunday. The event was sponsored and paid for in part by the Student Health Center, the Duke women's center, the Women's Studies department and the sexual assault support services, among other groups.
The show has been performed at colleges around the country. But, given the controversy over the lacrosse case — and the initial criticism of the lacrosse team by some members of the Duke faculty and administration — the decision to host the performance has been controversial.
"I think the hypocrisy is extraordinary," said Kenneth Larrey, a member of Students for an Ethical Duke.
Jay Schalin, of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative group, wrote on the Center's Web site that the administration "made a bad choice, using university funds to pay for a monstrously offensive event."
"It certainly raises the question 'what were they thinking?' Or rather, 'are they thinking?'" he wrote.
Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, said the performance "raised issues for discussion." Asked about the difference between the art show and the lacrosse team's hosting strippers, he said, "one served the purpose of personal gratification and the other had educational value."
The show, according to Shalin and Larrey's description, and clips posted on YouTube, was well received by the audience. The head of the show, who goes by the name Annie Oakley, said most of the performances were readings that described performers' experiences in the sex industry. The performances also included a male stripper who crouched on his hands and knees in a kiddie pool and appeared to put a lit sparkler in his rear end.
"People who work in the sex industry are kept in the dark," she said. "If you're concerned about getting women out of the sex industry, it's certainly to your benefit to hear about what their experiences are."
Martha Brucato, the event's student organizer, said she intended for the event to "get people talking about sexuality. People are having sex here, but they're not talking about why they're making those decisions."
She said the point of the show, unlike inviting strippers to a party, was to educate students about the sex industry and show that sex workers "are not solely defined by their career."
All the charges stemming from the lacrosse case were dropped last year and the state attorney general's office declared the three indicted players innocent.