Lisa Chavez speaks out

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Lisa Chavez is a tenured Associate professor in English at University of New Mexico, where she teaches creative writing--mostly poetry and nonfiction. She has two books of poetry published: Destruction Bay and In An Angry Season. She writes about issues of race, gender, class and sexuality.

On March 24 I wrote about the conflict that had erupted at UNM after some BDSM photos got Chavez into trouble with some of her colleagues. Yesterday I learned from the dankprofessor, who himself learned it from The Daily Lobo, UNM's student newspaper, that the head of the creative writing program is resigning over the matter. Sharon Warner submitted her resignation letter and is expected to step down at the end of next week. Her reason for resigning, according to the student newspaper report is that "her colleague has not been punished for posing in sexually explicit photos with students.” Those photos were advertisements for People Exchanging Power (PEP), a BDSM phone fantasy service and did not represent a sexual relationship. The students were graduate students already working for PEP. The Deputy Provost found no reason to sanction her.

Lisa Chavez has graciously agreed to talk to us about her work for PEP, the situation at UNM, about relationships between faculty and students, about misconceptions of BDSM and the difficulty some people have distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and about and the impact this is having on her life and the lives of some of the other gay, lesbian and bisexual faculty in the department. I am grateful that she agreed to talk with me about her story:

What happened that brought this incident to the attention of the university?

My department chair received an anonymous letter purportedly from “appalled parents.” I don’t know who wrote the letter, but I believe it may have been someone who had a grudge against me.

How did you get involved with PEP?

I had directed the dissertation of a very talented writer who’d been a sex worker for several years, who worked for PEP, and who wrote about sex work. Through her I’d heard of PEP and met some of the other women who worked there.

What kinds of involvement did you have and why? Was it primarily about a second job? Was it a community you wanted to be involved in anyway?

I started working for PEP originally because I needed another job. I initially began working at the office only, doing data entry, then moved on to taking calls.

I began working as a phone counselor for several reasons. One, I was very curious about what actually went on during the calls, and I hoped to write about it, mostly in fiction. Also, taking calls pays well, and I needed the money. I thought it was a perfect job, since I could do it from home.

While I was interested in the dynamics of BDSM relationships, and while I have always been interested and supportive of any type of “alternative” sexualities, I was not involved in the BDSM lifestyle myself.

How long were you involved before the storm at the university started?

I had begun working at PEP in February 2007, and the anonymous letter arrived in July.

The news coverage makes it sound like the colleagues who are upset are upset because of impropriety with students. The deputy provost found no such impropriety yet those colleagues are still upset. What is the source of their objection?

I’m not sure, because people are claiming they don’t have problems with me on the web site, but they have problems with me on the website with a student. I don’t really believe that--I believe they would have found a way to go after me even if a student hadn’t been involved. Frankly, I’m a victim of other people imposing their morality on me.

How much do you think that adult students need to be “protected" from faculty, and are there any benefits to students from close relationships with faculty? I wonder sometimes if we haven't separated faculty and students too much in our reaction to issues of harassment, etc.

I suppose this is part of what other faculty are angry about; however, I was not in a relationship with the student in the photos--other than the relationship between co-workers at PEP and as friends.

I do not think adult students need to be protected from faculty. Of course I believe sexual harassment and any coercion are wrong, but I don’t believe consensual relationships are wrong. In fact, there are cases of such relationships in my department, but they have always been heterosexual. There are also cases of true harassment, which have not been pursued. I believe I am being treated this way partially because the purported relationship was between two women, and also because they see a certain “luridness” in what some in my department called the “sex trade.”

I do think students and faculty both can benefit from close relationships--not sexual relationships per se, but friendships--and this is especially true in my field of creative writing. I have become friends with a number of the students I’ve worked with (and, for the record, I have never had a sexual relationship with a student, though I do not mean to condemn all such relationships), and I believe that the friendship helps us work better together. Creating writing is often a sort of soul-baring, and I believe that to work well together, we need to build up a mutual trust, which is something that goes beyond a formal student/teacher distance.

I believe part of the attacks on me stem from my good relations with graduate students. I have been told in the past that I should not be friends with students, something I utterly reject. Not only because I believe such friendships enhance our working relationship, but because as an unmarried woman in a department of married people with families, I often find I have more in common with the graduate students than I do with my colleagues. I have never had a problem with graduates students understanding the boundaries of our friendships—i.e. my friendships have never influenced me in terms of grades or treatment of students, nor have they expected it to.

It sounds like you and the student were simply working for the same organization and that the photos were taken in the context of advertising PEP’s services. Why do you think people seem unable tell the difference between fantasy, performance, and reality? Do you think those of us who do understand that difference have an obligation to educate others about it? Presumably you've been trying to explain this difference to colleagues and they don't understand. What seem to be the biggest roadbloacks?

I am continually surprised how my well-educated colleagues seem unable to tell the difference between performance (i.e. the photos) and real-life sex. This is particularly ironic in an English department. Recently, I was very publicly accused of participating in violent and coercive pornographic acts with students. This shows a profound (and I believe willful) ignorance of both the nature of the photos (i.e. advertisements) and of BDSM itself.

As most people would guess, PEP’s photos are staged. PEP is in the business of fantasy conversation and support for the BDSM community, and the founder of PEP, Nancy Ava Miller, is quite clear on what is legally deemed “pornographic” and none of the PEP photos fall into that category. Photos are meant to be suggestive, but that is all they are.

It also speaks to an ignorance about the BDSM community, a community that I have profound respect for. I think about the terms we use: “scene” and “play” for example. Just those words indicate the nature of BDSM, as they imply both fantasy and the consensual nature of the acts. Safe, sane, and consensual is a commonly used phrase in the community, which to me says it all. I think about how the photos I was in were really no more risqué than ads in fashion magazines, and it makes me wonder if people really believe those photos are reality, or if they simply choose to say so to damage my reputation.

While I would like the opportunity to educate people further about these issues, I have been shunned and excluded and not allowed to speak, so I have not had an opportunity to try to explain what actually happened. In that way, I have been recreated as the classic minority subject: the brown women/whore who has no voice.

But I have not lost my voice; I’ve simply learned something about discretion. This situation has radicalized me: I am firmly in support of other sex workers, and of sexual minorities. And I intend to speak out about that, and to write about it.

Regarding the economics of sex work (and academia), I imagine there are people who would be surprised to learn that a college professor needed to supplement her income. Can you talk a bit about the disconnection of pay and prestige both in academia and sex work as you see it?

You’ve struck at the heart of the issue for me. I see this as a class issue, as well as an issue of gender and sexuality. I know people are surprised I needed another job, and I think if they knew how much many professors make they would be surprised. I was raised by a single, working class mother, and the answer to financial difficulties has always been to get another job. I tried other jobs first, but they didn’t pay enough. One of the ironies of this situation is I told my mother what I was doing (i.e. working at PEP) and at first she had the expected motherly concerns, but the next she said was “how much does it pay?” and when I told her $40 an hour, she agreed that it was a good job, especially since I did nothing more than talk on the phone. As a girl, I was surrounded by single women who took any job they could--often more than one--to raise their families. Years ago, one of my mother’s friends was a former call-girl, and my mother did not seem to make any judgment about that.

What I really think I am “guilty” of is not making moral judgments, and of thinking of sex work as simply another viable form of employment, and one that has the potential to be quite lucrative.

Had you been "out" about belonging to any alternative sexual community prior to this incident? (Had you been involved in an alternative sexual community before then?) Do you think it would be safe for a faculty member at your university to be out about being involved in a BDSM community or a sex worker community?

In terms of being “out” in alternative sexual community, I’ve been open about being bisexual, but I haven’t been part of any other communities per se. I absolutely do not believe that it would be safe for any faculty member in my department to be out in terms of being a member of a sex worker community or a BDSM community. In fact, the effect of this has been chilling: the few gay and lesbian members of our department feel that the environment is hostile enough that one is reluctant to teach a class on Queer literature again.

What do you think are the most important things the rest of us should be talking about/thinking about when we look at your case?

Class issues are the first thing that come to mind, as I outlined above. People seem to be completely ignoring the fact that this was, in fact, a job, and a legal and legitimate one. But more importantly, I see this as an attack on sex work and alternative sexualities. I have learned so much about sex work since I began working at PEP. Even with all the hell I’ve been put through, I do not at all regret working for the company. I learned so much, and the ladies of PEP have been incredibly supportive. I’m 46 and not in particularly good shape--hardly the stereotype of the hot young sex worker. Many callers wanted an older woman. Most callers wanted a dominant woman. I found this incredibly empowering--first in that older women were valued for their sexuality, and that I was able to explore my own dominance. I also learned to be even less judgmental than I had been before about other people’s sexual choices. So many callers had felt years of shame for their particular interests, and often it was a relief for them simply to be able to talk without being judged.

So when I hear all the condemnation, I think that first, many of the people who are harassing me know nothing about the realities and the wide variety of types of sex work. So many people hold onto the idea that women must be coerced into it, or that something “happened” to them in the past, implying that no “normal” woman would be a sex worker. It’s another aspect of the virgin/whore dichotomy.

They also know nothing about BDSM. I’ve often thought that we should all adopt some of the tenets of the BDSM world: the idea of discussing consent and what will and won’t happen sexually before starting, i.e. safe, sane and consensual.

Finally, I’m really struck by how fearful people seem to be of sexuality, as if it is dangerous, something to be controlled and reined in. People are trying to shame me for being sexual, and for making money doing it. I reject that shame.

What is going on right now in terms of action around this case? And assuming that no disciplinary action is taken against you, will the environment be too hostile to stay? Are you involved in any action that would discipline others for harassing you? What are the issues there, to the degree you can talk about them.

The administration of the university has not taken disciplinary action against me nor will they as far as I can tell. Is the environment hostile? Incredibly so, and it continues to get worse, as the people who are harassing me get more vocal all the time. I am pursuing legal action, but can’t say more than that at this time. The university itself has not made any attempts to stop the constant harassment of me.

Regarding Sharon Warner’s Resignation as CW director: Sharon Warner has done a lot for the creative writing program, and I think everyone at UNM recognizes that. I do think it is, however, time for a change in leadership in CW. I also find it very unfortunate that she has used her resignation as a way to continue her attack on me.


Technorati Tags: BDSM, faculty-student relationships, higher education, Lisa Chavez, sex, sex work

Update, 4/6/08: Liz Derrington is the graduate student referred to in this story. You can read her story, in her own words, here