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Sex Faire tape not so titillating

Lawmakers get a glimpse at Penn State event

Wednesday, February 28, 2001

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- "The Tape" shows state Rep. John Lawless confronting helpful Penn State students about their Sex Faire, focusing the camera on provocatively named information tables and games, and showing close-ups of gingerbread men and women with artful icing.

All in all, the most anxiously awaited film debut since the last Star Wars movie, "The Tape" -- as it has become known in Harrisburg -- was a flop, some state representatives said.

State Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, chuckled through the viewing.

"I was very underwhelmed. This is what it was all about?" she said later, shrugging and blaming the hype on Lawless as "somebody, it seems to me, with a problem in his personality and it gets played out because he is in a position of power."

State Rep. Kathy Manderino, D-Philadelphia, couldn't stop grinning as the video was played yesterday at the House Appropriations Committee meeting on funding for Penn State.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, found "The Tape" to be much ado about nothing. "No, I wasn't offended. You can find worse things in advertisements in some mainstream publications."

Some of the more conservative members of the appropriations committee merely looked stoic as they viewed the tape. Several later said the tape was offensive, and that they were outraged that such an event was held Feb. 3 by a student organization, Womyn's Concerns, in a Penn State building on the main campus in State College.

The tape highlighted an information table for "Smut and Other Great Literature" and a game called "orgasm bingo." The tape briefly lingered on a bikini-clad female student who had written "this is my body sexually and politically" on her skin.

Only two intelligible conversations of note took place on the edited tape, compressed from two hours to five minutes of highlights.

In one conversation, Lawless, R-Montgomery, was lectured by an earnest female student who articulately explained why she believed a vulgar slang word for "vagina" is bad only because people decide to view it as a bad word.

The other conversation featured another student who explained to a silent Lawless that students sometimes gather for "dildo days" to discuss sexual aids.

Despite days of gum-flapping over the tape, no lawmaker brought up Lawless's suggestion that the state withhold a $334 million state appropriation to the university.

The direct cost of Sex Faire -- in which the small number of students who attended heard about sexually transmitted diseases and other aspects of human sexuality -- was $50.

Penn State President Graham Spanier sat stone-faced through the tape and the hours of questioning by lawmakers afterward.

He had to be there to plead for increased funds to keep what will likely be a 6 percent tuition increase this fall from becoming even larger. Penn State already has said that it plans to increase tuition to almost $7,000 a year.

In light of the controversy over the tape, Spanier said he would continue to safeguard academic freedom and free-speech rights on campus but would keep a closer eye on the wording of posters advertising student events.

Spanier also said banners would have to be approved by the university before they could be hung. Lawless and other lawmakers had complained about a word on a banner that was put up last November to advertise another sex-related event.

As for Sex Faire, Spanier said he and his wife attended it after Lawless did his videotape and found some of the material presented by the students to be "offensive." "I don't feel everything was wrong," said Spanier, who noted that he is trained as a marriage and family therapist.

The Sex Faire "tent of consent," where students could spend two minutes alone after learning about consensual sex, was closed by the university as "crossing the line," Spanier said. The rest of the event was allowed under a philosophy of academic freedom and free speech, he said.

There are 500 student organizations among the 81,000 student body and policing them for good taste and community standards is difficult, he noted. To help with that, the university will create a policy that states student organizations must get approval before using university buildings or rooms for events, Spanier said.

"Just let me say I'm sorry for all the anger, emotion and consternation" caused by Sex Faire, Spanier told the appropriations committee. "We will try to do better."

Lawless said little during the hearing, but appeared distressed when he talked about uncomplimentary e-mail messages sent to him by students over the last few weeks.

During a break in the hearing, Lawless gave interviews and took at shot at Spanier's academic freedom defense. Lawless noted that Penn State's senate once voted to prohibit booing at Penn State sporting events.

"This is academic freedom?" he snapped.

Committee members, in general, seemed satisfied with Spanier's answers.

"The university is in a very awkward and difficult position," said Rep. Manderino, a Penn State grad who was in a student Christian organization that used university facilities when she was a student. "I don't want government morality police. I think that's what some people want the university to do."

State Rep. Samuel Rohrer, R-Reading, one of the most conservative lawmakers in Harrisburg, blasted Sex Faire as immoral and shameless and blamed Spanier.

Spanier's defense of the event yesterday was "clear unequivocal proof why we have problems at Penn State, have had problems at Penn State, and will continue to have problems at Penn State. There is no moral compass," Rohrer said.

Still, he said, there is little lawmakers can do, and withholding state funds will not happen.

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