Professor discusses sex, law and politics

Separating the First Amendment and sexual expression can be as difficult as separating homework from school. Or that’s at least what Leigh Ann Wheeler, associate professor of History and American Culture Studies at BGSU seems to believe.

During her discussion, “The Origins of ‘Sexual Expression'” she said, “It’s possible to talk about the issue of pornography without talking about censorship. [Today], there’s an inability to talk about these issues without bringing in the First Amendment.”

Wheeler said there’s an inevitable shutdown of conversation when discussing sexual expression, a term which she said can include any or all information inclusive to sexuality.

Freedom of speech and accusations of censorship are used to close down discussion, she said.

“We don’t think of our actions in terms of what is legal and what’s not,” Wheeler said. “There’s very few things we think about in legal terms, so why do we think of sexual expression in legal terms?”

The discussion included her work on the American Civil Liberties Union and the First Amendment from 1920-32. The ACLU is a group that formed in the 1920s and still exists today. In the 1920s and 1930s, the group strove to protect those under the First Amendment, especially in the realm of sexual expression.

Because of the ACLU’s intention, the group has challenged women’s anti-obscenity efforts, Wheeler said.

The group has been tied with sexual expression most likely because of its members, according to Wheeler. Its creators, Roger Baldwin and Crystal Eastman led unconventional sex lives that may have led them to want to protect sexual expression, she said.

ACLU experienced challenges in the 1920s with censorship of sexual expression, Wheeler said. The government would censor homosexual plays but did nothing about burlesque shows. The government wasn’t censoring sex, it was trying to censor thought.

Scott Martin, chair of the History Department said he now understands what sexual expression means after learning the history of the ACLU, “even though sexual expression is an inherently fuzzy term.”

Vicki Patraka, director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society said that Wheeler more clearly defined sexual expression by including free speech, political activity and birth control.

“I was interested in the way that she included theater and censorship,” Patraka said. “That they would censor some things in movies but not others.”

Rob Buffington, professor of Latin American History, wondered if sexual expression was completely political or if it’s classified as an artistic expression.

“With sexual expression in modern society, the link between political and artistic expression gets messed up,” he said. “We have become a pornographic society in that we don’t censor most sexual expression.”

Because of the controversial subject matter, Wheeler said she has often been misinterpreted and has little chance to discuss her material openly. When thanked for contributing her ideas to the forum, Wheeler said, “thank you for giving me the space.”