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EC Strippers Raise Debate over Dorm Funds Use

By Mike Hall

Should residents of a dormitory be forced to fund activities to which they might object?

Reflecting national discussion over funding in American universities, residents of East Campus raised this question following a stripper party held in Talbot Lounge in November.

Under East Campus’s social program, each of the dorm’s ten floors is asked to host a party in Talbot Lounge during the term. Each floor receives funds collected from East Campus’s mandatory house tax. Funds are allocated by the East Campus house government.

East Campus’s Second West floor took its turn hosting on Friday, November 19. Members of Second West, continuing a hall tradition, decided to rent strippers for the party. Benjamin A. O’Connor ’00, former chairman of Second West, stated that, although support for the party was not unanimous, “it was a foregone conclusion that [the stripper party] was going to happen.”

Tradition spiced up in 1999

A total of four female strippers were present at the party: two purchased by Second West, one that came free with purchase, and an apprentice stripper sent to learn the trade. At first, the strippers avoided extreme physical contact with the audience and each other. Later, audience members offered tips to the strippers and suggested more intimate performances. Before commencing, the strippers warned the audience that they were beginning explicit sexual acts and advised those objecting to leave Talbot Lounge. The strippers then performed lap dances and simulated intercourse with dildos.

Segments of the audience were uncomfortable with the intensity of the strippers’ performance. “[The strippers] were a little more hardcore than I expected,” said Kristin E. Raven ’00, a Second West resident. O’Connor added that Second West did not know exactly what acts the strippers would perform. Other party attendees who declined to be named said that the show was more intense than in prior years.

Strip show echoes national debate

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System vs. Southworth, a case stemming from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s mandated student activities fees. In 1996, three Wisconsin law students sued the Board of Regents, claiming that the university used their activities fees to support groups they opposed, including the Amnesty International and the International Socialist Organization. The Board of Regents countered by arguing that funding an array of student activities allows every group on campus to have its voice heard, thus promoting a diverse learning environment.

Two lower-court decisions supported the law students, with the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stating in its decision that “forcing objecting students to fund private organizations ... violates the First Amendment.”

While the Wisconsin case does not directly apply to private universities, it may influence MIT’s system of distributing of mandatory activities fees. Second West’s stripper party received funding from the dorm’s house tax, and since all residents of East Campus contributed to the fund regardless of their support for the party, the party raises the larger issue of compulsory funding.

“Paying for one’s discomfort”

Objectors at East Campus to the stripper party drew parallels between the Wisconsin activities fees and the East Campus house tax, arguing that their residence fees should not be used to fund activities they oppose.

“It’s partially my money and it bothers me,” said Mary Ann Rasku ’00, an East Campus resident. Rasku objected to having a portion of her house tax fund the strippers. “I don’t think stripping should be outlawed,” Rasku said., but “I just think [Second West] should go off-campus and use their own money.”

Other objectors who asked to have their names withheld were critical of Second West’s rental of strippers with funds from the house tax. One objector argued that she “should not have to pay for [her] discomfort.”

Diversity and hall autonomy

Defenders of the party stated that every hall at East Campus has the right to use its apportioned money in the way it chooses. Jennifer A. Frank ’00, president of East Campus and the Dormitory Council, argued that the advantage of East Campus’s social program is that each hall has autonomy to decide what type of party it will hold, exposing the entire dormitory to the diversity of its residents. Frank added that residents can choose to attend dormitory activities and that no resident was forcibly exposed to the strippers’ performance.

“When you come to East Campus, you know it’s not always going to have activities you approve of,” stated Ryan D. Williams ’03, a resident of Second West. Williams supported the current distribution of funds, arguing that the house tax contributes to “the general social activity at East Campus.” While each activity may not please every resident at every time, Williams contended that the system is successful overall.

In 1987, East Campus was the focus of similar debate. During Registration Day for the spring term, Adam L. Dershowitz ’89 showed the pornographic movie Deep Throat to a closed audience in Talbot Lounge, violating an MIT rule at the time restricting the showing of pornographic films. The debate over Dershowitz’s showing, however, concerned censorship rather than forced funding of student activities.