The Scarlet “SW” for Sex Worker


I first heard about the U of New Mexico controversy via Facebook, when Joy Harjo left a status update reporting that she’d had to quit her job because the university was preventing her from protecting her students from sexual harassment. Based on just that description, I was sympathetic.

Based on the description in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which Harjo also posted on Facebook and commented upon fairly neutrally: “here’s some background”) I am not.

The crux of the matter is not that one faculty member, Lisa Chavez, took on side-work as a phone dominatrix and that this work put her into association with her students in ways that do not positively support the ideal student-professor relationship — that much was admitted by Chavez, and, as the Chronicle says, she “quickly quit the phone-sex job, admitted to a serious lapse of judgment, and was not found by the university’s administration to have violated any law or policy.”

No, the crux of the matter is that afterwards, other faculty in the English department went on a witch hunt. And “witch hunt” is really the phrase for it, with more-than-average appropriateness: just as Medieval women who did not sufficiently conform to contemporary ideas of womanliness were pursued without reason, taunted, tortured, and deprived of their lives, some at the U of New Mexico want to pursue Chavez without reason, shame her, torment her, and deprive her of her job.

Because despite her stopping, apologizing, and being cleared of wrongdoing, others from her department have quit and sued the university, angry to be denied the right to “punish” Chavez themselves by faculty panel. The fact that they believe she should be punished when she’s been cleared of any wrongdoing is irrelevant to them. They are seeing this situation through their own moral filter, and they are so upset that others don’t share that filtered vision, and so convinced that their vision is the correct one, they’re fighting well beyond the point of absurdity — it’s as much as madness.

I’m not going to boil this down to a simple fight between 2nd and 3rd wave feminism, or sex-positive feminism vs. anti-porn feminism, because, even though both dichotomies apply, what gets me more is the attitude (especially among those who have quit the department or are suing) that Chavez, because she has done this thing, is now somehow permanently tainted, that her admitting she made a mistake and quitting the side-work isn’t enough, that she must be dragged through a ritual whose only use would be to try to shame and humiliate her and then possibly oust her from the department.

It goes beyond “Biblical”: I mean, the Bible talks about forgiveness too. But those are the later parts. Bronze Age desert dwellers would certainly recognize what Harjo and Warner and the others want to do: they want to purge by fire what they perceive as an uncleanness in their community. They want to wash their hands in Chavez’s metaphorical blood.

I remind anyone who reads this that Chavez “was not found by the university’s administration to have violated any law or policy.” That sentence should read to you, if you value a just society of rules and laws, as a closed case. There are those, though, whose sense of “morality” obeys no rule or law: it is a creature capable of redefining “justice” to match its repulsion for the “other,” and its need for hierarchy and revenge.

The people in the U of New Mexico English department who took this witch hunt upon themselves actually left naughty photos of their colleague on their department chair’s desk with a note suggesting the pictures were from “Appalled Parents.” This crass maneuver, designed to shock their chair into taking action against Chavez, reveals a lot about their way of thinking.

First, it reveals that they see their students as children. This is an unfortunate way to see undergraduate students but a ridiculous way to see graduate students, who, especially in a creative writing program, are probably closer to 30 than 20, on average.

More importantly, though, their goal was to raise the specter of the disapproving authority. Parents are the persons between us and whom (rightly) lie the most sexual taboos and barriers, the most crushing moral judgments; parents are the people who can, with a word, return us to uncomprehending children twisting in the throes of guilt and shame, and make us feel those emotions with the intensity of childhood, when our yet-undeveloped brains couldn’t put feelings or events into perspective or context.

With that action and those two words they revealed that they want the others around them to get all a little bit more Lord of the Flies–only with more slut-shaming. They would prefer if everyone stopped thinking about inconvenient facts like, no university law or policy was violated, and started looking at emotionally incendiary pictures with their child- (if not their lizard-) brains.

It is not the role of universities (or creative writing programs) to degrade adults into judgmental shame-mongers who care not for the letter of the law. In fact, almost all university missions include expanding student empathy and acceptance of differences, and of respecting codes of ethics be they law or rules against plagiarism. But the goal with this little picture-leaving move was to get people to shut down the higher reasoning centers and “other” her into something “dirty” that must be hidden from mom and dad.

Again, there is no law or even a rule against what Chavez did. Her actions merely complicated the student-professor relationship — hardly an unprecedented consequence in the world of creative writing graduate programs, where everyone’s an adult and people get very close by virtue of the work they’re doing. Among us there are many male professors who are sleeping with their female students — an infraction far worse than anything Chavez did, one that actually does violate most universities’ rules of conduct (while Chavez violated none). Those rule-breaking men are often reprimanded, but rarely are they dragged through the mud, or fired, for what they do or did. They are certainly never saddled with a label as loaded as “prostitute.”

What’s happening to Chavez not only shows the bias against women in this position, but against sex work — even completely legal phone dominatrixing, which is essentially a kind of voice-only interactive performance. Her colleagues are characterizing her (wrongly) as a prostitute. This also tells us a lot about their frame of mind: to them, anyone who profits from something vaguely sexual is clearly an exploiter, a victimizer (of their grad school “children”), and they must be allowed to “protect” the students from this person — meanwhile, any woman who uses men’s desires to make a few bucks after work (even if it’s just voice work over the phone) is a prostitute.

Not, she used sex work to make a few bucks. No: she is a prostitute.

It’s the label-of-being as opposed to the describer-of-doing. The way our world (mis-)sees it, a man can be a fireman for 40 years, and when he quits, he’s not a fireman anymore. But if a woman “sells it” once, she is a whore. It becomes what she is. It’s the worst kind of sexism. It’s also common, and runs deep. Chavez never performed a sex act for money — her colleagues are just flat wrong to use that phrase — but because they are making this mistake, using this label, they are invoking the cultural biases that surround it.

And this is why, I believe, some in the U of New Mexico English department have lost their minds. They have ceased to see Chavez as a person — with whom you reason, from whom you accept apologies and make peace. They now see her as a beast: an unclean danger to the innocent who must be destroyed lest this imagined corruption spread. The basis for this view is sexism, but not the simple kind: it’s a complex built of the anti-woman attitudes that make some want to label and objectify and destroy a woman, just because they don’t like how she uses sex and her sexuality; attitudes that make them want to drag her before an assembly of disapproving peers to have them yell “shame, shame!” like the red-clad girls in The Handmaid’s Tale; attitudes that make them want to sew a scarlet “SW” for “sex worker” on the lapel of a woman who dared earn money dominating men on the phone.

I use the literary references for a reason. This is an English department we’re talking about. They study history and culture and society and psychology, they exercise empathy daily just to understand what they read, they live in the world of perspective and points of view. They should be able to see beyond their own. They should know better.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Amy Letter is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in PANK, Puerto Del Sol, Quarterly West, and other journals and magazines. She is the Digital / Electronic / New Media Literature Editor at the Rumpus and assistant professor of Fiction and New Media at Drake University. More from this author →