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By Index on Censorship / 14 August, 2009

johnozimekA college lecturer is facing disciplinary action after showing erotic material to his students. John Ozimek wonders what the problem is

Just what is it about sex that causes such apoplexy amongst the British managerial class?

The latest outbreak of prudery appears to have taken place at East Surrey College, where lecturer Simon Burgess faces disciplinary proceedings for having the effrontery to expose students on a level 3 photography course to the works of noted international photographic artist, Del LaGrace Volcano.

The problem? Del LaGrace’s work focuses on an exploration of transgender life and sexuality. Much of this work is wholly innocuous: some of it could be interpreted in a sexual context. The artist himself admits that the imagery contained in “Love Bites” — one of the works that may have been displayed — is more focused on the erotic side of the scene than the bulk of his material.

From there it may be a short hop to deciding that the pictures are “pornographic” and “inappropriate” — and that any lecturer exposing young minds to such work may be guilty of misconduct.

Precise facts are hard to come by, as the college has declined to comment on the case in detail beyond issuing a statement confirming that there is an ongoing investigation. Simon Burgess is also declining to discuss the case. What we do know is mostly based on a leaked email in support of Mr Burgess, sent by fellow academic Dr Eugenie Shinkle at the University of Westminster. Shinkle’s email criticised the college’s response: “Management are claiming it is pornography, salacious, grotesque, worthless and not relevant to or appropriate for 2nd year level 3 photography students preparing for higher study.

“Apart from being censorious, backward and homophobic, management’s stance displays a remarkable ignorance of contemporary debates and image-making strategies. This is a serious matter that has implications for all academics, teachers and students.”

East Surrey has objected strenuously to accusations of homphobia and points proudly to its anti-discriminatory policies.

Whilst the law makes it an offence to possess or distribute material that features under-18-year-olds in a sexual context, it remains mostly silent on the question of what it is appropriate for them to view. Rightly so: since otherwise, almost all television would be instantly subject to the most draconian censorship for fear that that some curious teenager might stumble across the racier output that is the staple fare of late nights on BBC2 and Channel 4.

Moreover, if there had been allegations of serious misconduct between lecturer and pupils, it is to be hoped that the college would not be dealing with the matter internally, but involving the police at the first available opportunity.

So what we have appears to be what has already seeped out into the blogosphere – and prompted some 200 academics to send messages of support to Mr Burgess. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell writes: “The censorship of legitimate academic and artistic explorations … is deplorable and should be rescinded immediately, as should any disciplinary proceedings.

“Lecturers should have the freedom to discuss with their students any and all relevant examples of creative work, including the work of Del LaGrace.”

But this may cut no ice with management. A class of mostly 18-year-old photography students has been exposed to transgendered imagery: at least one of whom was shocked enough to complain. The college authorities, instead of backing their employee, have cranked the disciplinary process into action.

It’s a familiar story, raising a multiplicity of questions about sex, art and pornography. It appears to provide weight to the theory that we Brits still regard sex as something uniquely dangerous. After all, if the government truly believed their own theory touted in support of the recent legislation on extreme porn — that people imitate what they view — they would surely have legislated against the works of directors such as Quentin Tarantino.

But no: violence is OK. Sex and violence are not. Or in this case, anything that even hints at sex is beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Del LaGrace’s works are on display this week in Glasgow, as part of an exhibition on lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender life. They are also to be found on public display — without apparent objection — in that centre of Catholic rectitude, Santiago de Compostela.

Only in Surrey, it appears, are such images considered inappropriate and worthy of disciplinary action.

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