A University of New Orleans student has filed sexual harassment complaints with the university and with two local sheriff's departments, saying her former philosophy professor, Alan Soble, violates academic propriety by discussing his own sex life and that of his students in his undergraduate class, Philosophy of Sex and Love.
"I didn't sign up for a class on pornography," says Margaret Marion, 47, a returning student who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology. "To go into graphic detail about your personal sexual experiences crosses the line of the teacher-student relationship."
Earlier this month, Marion sent a letter of complaint to Dr. Dennis McSeveny, an Associate Provost in UNO's Academic Affairs department. She also sent letters to Orleans Parish Sheriff Charles Foti and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, since the weekly class is held at UNO's Jefferson campus. McSeveny said the university is investigating Marion's charges and that he could not talk specifically about her allegations while the investigation is underway. "The university takes all complaints very seriously," he says. "We act if there's evidence." By presstime, neither sheriff's office returned calls for comment on the status of Marion's complaints.
Soble, a longtime UNO philosophy professor, deferred comment to the head of UNO's philosophy department, Edward Johnson, who has known Soble for decades. Johnson defends Soble as "a world-renowned scholar in his field" who has published several articles and books on the philosophies of sex and love. Soble teaches other courses in addition to the class in question, which can be taken by any student who has passed a prerequisite course in introductory philosophy.
Marion's complaints raise questions about academic free speech and whether classroom discussion can be construed as harassment if it's not directed toward any particular student. Johnson believes that as long as the discussion relates to the course topic, it cannot. "There's no predicting what's going to make every individual uncomfortable," he says, "and if we hobble our language too much, we fall into that political-correctness debate where it becomes impossible to say anything but compliments." He says the nature of philosophy is to challenge long-held beliefs, "and that can be upsetting to some people."
Marion doesn't believe Soble's freedom of speech in the classroom extends to revelations about his sex life. In her letter to the university, she said that "Dr. Alan Soble described in graphic detail the how to's for bestiality, anal sex, and what truly horrified me was his remarks on male masturbation. He commented on the number of times he has tried in a day until he was sore. ... This is a form of sexual abuse that should not be tolerated in a classroom."
Johnson doesn't think Soble necessarily crosses a boundary by bringing his personal sex life -- or his students' -- into classroom dialogue. "When you have a roomful of students, you have to go into what will work for most students," Johnson says, adding that Soble has received good feedback by others who have taken the course.
In a class where sex is discussed, "you've got to get beyond the giggles and blushes and embarrassment and discomfort," Johnson says. "Some teachers think that being honest and unafraid to invoke personal examples, where it's appropriate, makes it easier for students to relate."
Marion also complained she was not forewarned that the class would contain explicit sexual content. "I thought the topic of sex would be brought up, but not in graphic detail. As an expression of love between two people -- that's what I thought the class would be about," she says. "I would not have signed up for it if [the course guide] said it included sexually explicit material. ... I certainly don't want a teacher telling me how many times per day he's masturbated." The UNO course catalog describes the class as "an investigation of the nature of sex and the nature of love, and of the conceptual relationship between them. The course draws on both classical and contemporary philosophy, and addresses social and ethical issues about sexual behavior and love."
Johnson notes that in decades past, topics such as contraception and homosexuality were considered deviant. Today, they are generally tolerated in society -- largely due to academics who have been unafraid to broach taboo subjects, he says. "Attitudes shift and change and they do so precisely because we're able to talk about stuff and rethink it, and sometimes change minds."
Marion, who dropped the weekly class, says she has contacted an attorney and intends to pursue her charges if the university does not sanction Soble in some way. "I do not think porn should be thrust onto students under the age of 21," she says. "I want this guy stopped."