Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unsolicited, Indeed: A Letter From Professor Patti Adler

Wow, did I get a weird email today. 

First, quick backstory: Professor Patti Adler is a professor of sociology at University of Colorado Boulder. Last year, a class she teaches about prostitution came under fire. There were conflicting reports about her being fired or leaving voluntarily, but it seemed she had left. Then, she came back. (Or maybe she never really left, it’s unclear to me.)

Adler, who called the class "the highlight of the semester in my signature course," described what goes on during the prostitution lecture: Professor Adler has some of her teaching assistants (who are undergraduates) dress up as various kinds of prostitutes -- she named as categories "slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services." They work with Adler on scripts in which they describe their lives as these types of prostitutes.

During the lecture, Adler talks with them (meaning: the teaching assistants, in character) about such issues as their backgrounds, "how they got into the business," how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS. The class is a mix of lecture and discussion, just like most classes, she said.

So basically she has student dress up in sexy outfits and stand up in front of the class and recite stories she teaches them about sex work. Presumably the students can also ask questions, which the students-pretending-to-be-sexworkers will answer, based on the information Professor Adler has taught them.

My impression, based on reading the stories about it, was that this was really not cool. Professor Adler’s list of sex worker social groups sounds extremely dated at best, and hardly academic at all. Her repetition of the word whore is offensive. And having student dress up in costumes and talk about what types of sex their character has is clearly a titillating feature that has no place in a classroom. 

But the real point is: there are real sex workers who could speak about their lives, but are not permitted to. I myself have visited college classes and talked about being a sex worker. Having a guest come and speak to a class on this subject is very much a thing that can be done – if the professor wishes it. Professor Adler apparently does not want actual sex workers to speak in her class, she only wishes to have her students say what she tells them to say. 

I guarantee you that a lot of sex workers have had to sit in that class and watch all that. I myself have sat in college classroom and seethed as professors lectured the most arrant nonsense about my life. I cannot imagine how I’d feel if I had to watch a bunch of not-sex-workers dress up and play-act little skits about being me, and see that be represented as a college-level of education about sex work. I was glad she wasn’t going to teach it any more.

So that’s backstory. Today, out of nowhere, I got this email. And wow, do I have a lot of thoughts about this. I’m framing them, but in the meantime, feel free to reply to me on Twitter. 

Mistress Matisse,
Leonard says you might be open to giving me some help with my skit this semester. I’ve only gotten a 1-semester reprieve, and then I have to go, but I’d like to be more sensitive than I might have been and make sure I don’t insult or misrepresent anybody. I can’t have people come to my class because the class is really not about prostitution, it’s about deviant subcultures, and I use the example of prostitution to illustrate a stratification hierarchy. Many college students have only one image when they think about prostitutes and that’s probably a streetwalker, but I used a dozen people to come down and be interviewed by me starting with the slave role, the crack-addicted role, the streetwalker (male/female/pimp), women who frequent bars to pick up customers, brothels, and escort services. With that many people I can only give about 3 minutes to each and I ask most people the same basic things:
What’s your family background, your educational background, how did you get into what you’re doing now, what do you do and how much do you charge, what’s your risk of violence/arrest/disease, and what are your future prospects.
Might you be willing to give me some feedback on a particular stratum or two? Can you tell me what your area of expertise is?
Respectfully yours,
Patti Adler

From: Leonard Fahrni []
Sent: Friday, January 24, 2014 9:04 PM
Subject: some unsolicited advice
Hello Dr. Adler
I am a CU alum and I teach Math and Science classes at Metro State in Denver. I followed with some interest your brief notoriety and I am glad to see that you have been reinstated. I wrote a letter of support to president Benson and I'm sure my effort did very little to tip the scales in your favor. I was just so outraged at what looked like an attempt to censor your academic freedom that I had to vent. In full disclosure, Bronson Hilliard and I played on the same team in the CU trivia bowl in the 90s and I got him to help me direct my letter.
My unsolicited advice comes from my reading of an unusual group of authors on Twitter. I'm sure @mistressmatisse and @Maggie_McNeill don't represent the opinions of the entire sex worker community, but they both criticized you based on the assumption that people who are actual sex-workers need to have a voice in any discussion of them. I think that point has some validity. I also think either of them would be glad to share their experiences and knowledge with you. I am almost certain that a letter from you would totally floor them, so it might be worth a look just for that. Maggie mentions you in her blog here and can be contacted at; You can take a look at my contentious discussion with Mistress Matisse on Twitter on last December 16
here's an excerpt, where I claimed you were fired for the content of your class (Bronson and Phil DiStephano both said you weren't "fired" and I guess you weren't after all) I suggested that it would have been cool if she had been a guest in your class and she agreed with me there.
mistressmatisse ‏@mistressmatisse Dec 16 @LeonardFahrni I've been to lot of college classes where I talked about being a sex worker, and no one got fired. Because everyone involved was respectful.
Leonard Fahrni ‏@LeonardFahrni Dec 16 @mistressmatisse This one did, no matter what the administration claims. Too bad, she should invite you to speak.
mistressmatisse ‏@mistressmatisse Dec 16 @LeonardFahrni I would have. But there are lots of cool, smart sex workers in Denver. Some of them may have been students in those classes.
She can apparently be contacted at
Thanks for taking the time to look at this mess. I admire the fact that you are able to generate such long term interest for your class. I mostly teach service classes like Business Calculus or classes for Education majors. In the latter, I am always doing anything to get them to show a little independent thought. I tell them to question authority and it is always a disappointment that more of them don't see the irony in that statement coming from a person in my position.
Have a great semester
Leonard Fahrni
CU class of 77, 79, 88, 97, 05 and 10 (so far)