Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive

clubs

New International Relations Club creates space for discussion, new perspectives

in News by

In a Kohlberg classroom on Sunday, April 29th, the new international relations club had its second official meeting. A discussion that started with the Yemeni Civil War flowed into topics including current events, globalization, and citizenship. Heewon Park ’21, founder of the club, and the members hope to create a space for people who are interested in international relations to discuss with each other as well as an opportunity for people to learn more about what is going on in the world.

Park developed an interest for international relations after taking “International Politics” with associate professor of political science Dominic Tierney her first semester at the college. She also noted that since it is easy to get wrapped up in day-to-day life on campus, she wanted to create a space for people to discuss affairs around the world including places that fall out of the mainstream news cycle.

“You just get caught up with what’s happening here on campus, or here in America, and then you lose sight of the fact that the world is such a huge place,” Park said. “I.R. tries to address things that are happening in other parts of the world that usually aren’t as acknowledged.”

Sam Jacobson ’21 feels that the club opens up another avenue for him to pursue his interest in international relations.

“I read a decent amount about what’s going on in the world and have really enjoyed doing readings for my international politics class,” Jacobson said. “But before the club, the only way that I’ve interacted with international relations was mainly just academic and reading in my free time.”

Park stated that she wanted to create the international relations club to allow for people who are interested in international relations like Jacobson to have more discussions with people who also share that interest.

“I feel like there’s so many people interested in international relations, but there’s no platform for people to express those views or talk about it,” Park said. “I feel like [the college] is very fertile grounds for discussions but we didn’t have a structure in place to allow for it.”

However, the goals of the club are not limited to attracting a crowd of political science majors. Park is interested in increasing the club’s attendance from people with varying levels of knowledge.

According to Zackary Lash ’19, an honors peace and conflict studies major, the club fills in a gap for both people who want to learn more and people who want to engage in conversation. Lash expressed that the club is a really useful space especially for people who might not have the ability to take international politics classes, which are typically some of the most popular classes in the political science department.

“I was lotteried out of International Politics twice, so I couldn’t really access any other I.R. courses,” Lash said. “I think [the club is] filling in a gap in two ways. Since there is no department, the club is trying to fill the academic side of it where people want to learn more about international relations, but it’s also filling in that social aspect where people want to talk about it and engage in it in non-academic ways.”

According to Jacobson, this space allows for people with many different backgrounds and perspectives to share ideas and broaden views on issues around the world.

“I want it to be open-minded and for people to take away from the club, however they interact with it, a broad viewpoint of varying topics, to understand multiple viewpoints, and become more open to different views,” Jacobson said. “I think that clubs and people here tend to have a single-minded view of things, which is fine, but I think it’d be cool to have this club be an avenue to discuss different viewpoints.”

Park also hopes for the club to be a way to invite a diversity of opinions. One of her aims in creating the club was not only to expand the topics of conversation around campus but also to introduce a space to allow for a greater variety of perspectives.

“I think the bigger goal I have is to broaden Swarthmore’s dialogue of what we talk about every day and integrate discussions about the world instead of just America,” Park said. “I want to provide a space for people who are interested in going into international relations or just want to learn more. More importantly, I want to make a space that allows for a whole range of levels of knowledge as well as a whole range of ideological perspectives that will help foster really good conversation and be a welcoming enough environment where people can speak about their beliefs about issues without feeling like they’re going to be attacked.”

Lash expressed that he was interested in the club because it was presented as a space for people with different academic niches to gather and collaboratively learn as Park intended for the club.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it would not only be a cool space to learn about different things going on in the world, but also a place to get different perspectives, because everyone has different knowledge spaces,” Lash said.

In addition to hosting weekly meetings, campus-wide discussions and events, and inviting guest speakers, the club is also planning on launching a website to make learning about international issues more accessible to students.

“The site is supposed to serve as an online hub of really accessible news,” Park said. “My idea for it was creating a space where students could write pieces about what they think about an issue or a crisis going on and present an easy way for other people to access that.”

Jacobson stated that he is excited about the website and the ability to both publish and have access to different students’ works.
“A lot of social science and humanities classes are given essay prompts that can be taken a lot of different directions, and it would be cool to have people share what they’ve written about, because there’s a wide variety of things to read and learn about,” Jacobson said. “I think it would also be very cool to give students the opportunity to have something that they’ve written to be published somewhere.”

While the website of students’ work is set to be launched next semester, the Swarthmore International Relations Club will continue their weekly meetings on Sundays at 3 p.m. and have their first club event, a student-led discussion on the Syrian War, on Friday, May 4th at 6 p.m. in Trotter 203.

Swat Central fails to ease event scheduling process

in News/Uncategorized by

As Swatties return to campus, it is out with the old Virtual EMS and in with the new and improved Swat Central. Swat Central is a new software aimed at making scheduling and reserving spaces easier.

According to the college’s Events Management website, Swat Central is “Swarthmore’s new system for promoting events and reserving space on campus.” Swat Central will act as a one stop shop for event management and information. With this new system students will be able to view all scheduled events on a school wide calendar. According to new Director of Events and Programs Susan Eagar, the program is more accessible to student groups and more efficient.

Swat Central has streamlined the process of placing event requests and creating event posts on the Campus Calendar. It’s also made it easier for student groups to get any assistance and support they might need from the Office of Student Engagement,” Eagar wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix.

However, some students do not feel that Swat Central has made scheduling easier.

I’ve not heard anyone who has had positive things to say about Swat Central,” Arthur Davis ’19 wrote in an email. “While a few people have, after a little bit of fiddling, found that they could use it well enough, I have yet to hear anyone compliment it. Even then, it’s just neutral: ‘I could live with this.’”

As a former frequent user of the old Virtual EMS system, Davis feels there is a large difference between the two programs.

It was easy to see the availabilities of all spaces laid out, and easy to select your space,” Davis said in reference to the Virtual EMS system.

Davis was not the only student dissatisfied about the program since its launch. Olivia Smith ‘21 has also had some negative encounters with the new system.

“I used Swat Central to reserve a room for the Coed Volleyball Club two weeks prior to needing it, but our reservation apparently did not go through and wasn’t on the system,” Smith said. “There was another team in our space, so I’m guessing Swat Central double booked, or neither of our reservations went through.”

Due to the malfunction, Smith’s team was unable to practice in their space on that night. Smith’s first experience with reserving space on campus was through the Swat Central programming.

“Swat Central was user unfriendly and added stress to my team and the new leaders of our club,” Smith said.

“When I used the program for Photography, I experienced the same problems,” Smith said. “The program was very specific and did not have my clubs listed, so I had to place it under ‘other.’ It really delegitimized my clubs.”

Though the college offered Swat Central training sessions for students at the beginning of the semester, some students feel it should be more intuitive.

If Swat has to host training sessions for the new system to even be functional, it isn’t user-friendly,” Davis said.

Smith can agree with Davis about the user unfriendliness of the system.

“Training is definitely needed to fully understand how this program works,” Smith said.

In addition to the technical bugs, many students have found the Swat Central design to be rather unappealing.

When it is loaded, Swat Central quickly proves overwhelming. There are tabs here and there, there are a whole host of options that do not seem clear– ‘Your Starred Resources,’ but what is starring? What are the resources? Why would I even want this? –there are strange graphics which are visually distracting–the page for events? A cube for locations? A pyramid for resources?–and so on,” Davis wrote.

While Davis found the software overwhelming, Smith said that “the design of Swat Central is old looking, which is kind of surprising since it is new software. It is not really appealing.”

Although many students are not pleased with the new system so far, the college has implemented this program with the hopes of making things easier.

Our goal in upgrading the scheduling system was to improve how we schedule events and to encourage our community members to publish their events on the Campus calendar,” Eagar wrote.

With so many changes to the old system, the feelings towards the new system are divided. The ability to reserve rooms is a privilege many students have come to enjoy and appreciate, but with this new system in place, it appears that this privilege is starting to become a bit of a struggle.

Student Budget Committee adopts policies to address budget surplus

in News by

The Student Budget Committee has had an ongoing issue with student groups not spending the the money they apply for during the organization’s spring budgeting process, where student groups apply for the funding they need for the next year. Although student groups typically hold more events during the spring semester than the fall, it’s unlikely that they will spend the full $395,000 budget. SBC Chair Roman Shemakov said the group approved the vast majority of proposals it received during budgeting but faced difficulties getting students to plan and execute events.

Student organizations chartered by the college have only spent $70,000 so far out of the $395,000 allotted to them for the 2017-2018 school year. SBC debated putting the extra money into a capital expenditures account, which acts as a quasi-endowment, with the goal of eventually eliminating the student activities fee students pay along with tuition. To totally eliminate the fee could take 40 to 50 years.

“Last year a quarter of the funds allocated to clubs was not spent, like $120,000, and that’s mind blowing,” said Shemakov. “They approve pretty much every single proposal and very rarely say no, but the issue is that once that funding gets given to the groups they usually never spend it. That’s why we have so many capital expenditures, because every year there’s surplus and surplus and surplus.”

According to Shemakov, the problem of surplus funding is unique to Swarthmore. The budgeting director of Haverford College complained that she runs out of funding in December while SBC has enough funding to last three years, Shemakov said. The organization is looking for ways to communicate better with club treasurers so they know how to use resources to inspire their missions.

“I know that we all have work and reading and friends and the first thing on your mind usually isn’t, ‘What is my club gonna do?’ or ‘Are we going to actually do the things that we listed out during spring budgeting?’” said Shemakov. “But we want to make sure that the funds that are there for students don’t just sit in a random account in the business office.”

Olivia Robbins ’21 agreed that the the responsibility falls on student groups to make effective use of the resources provided to them. She feels that putting the unspent money into an investment account will not cause a significant decrease in future tuition cost and therefore students are responsible for spending the money so it doesn’t go to waste.

“It’s up to the students to take advantage of the money, it’s up to the clubs to take advantage of the money. Putting it into an investment account will not impact anyone in the future, so it’s just a waste of money,” Robbins said.

The group is also working on a project to provide free SEPTA tickets to student organizations who need them. This would give clubs a way to schedule trips off-campus without having to rely on the random lottery, Dean’s Office or the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility which provide tickets only for selective purposes.

SBC aims to make itself more sustainable, so that it can run smoothly from year to year despite the turnover of committee members.

“SBC should be able to survive outside of the people that are in there year to year, because we’ll just keep leaving,” said Shemakov. “It shouldn’t depend on the person that comes in, whether they’re bad or good; it should be a well-oiled machine.”

SBC will move its proposal office online this year so that students don’t have to physically deliver their proposals during spring budgeting.

Shemakov acknowledged that one of SBC’s main goals for the semester is to encourage student groups to plan events and spend more money. Until student groups plan events and make proposals, opportunities will be wasted.

New club promotes financial literacy

in News by

The Swarthmore Wealth, Investment, Finance, Trade Education Club, SWIFT, arrived in fall 2017 as a newcomer to Swarthmore’s student organizations. The organization teaches students basic wealth management and investment skills. The organization recently gained attention around campus after releasing an email summarizing the finances of each meal plan.

The club began when Joshua Collin ’20 realized that many students lack a basic understanding of money and wanted to create a space in which the community could learn about it.

“It started the summer before this year when I said to myself, ‘I’m broke and I don’t know anything about money … how can I better understand money?’ After doing research I thought to myself, ‘I’m not the only one. I’m not the only college student who’s going through some money problems.’”

The club, headed by Collin, offers interactive workshops twice a month. The workshops aren’t run by the club leaders, but rather by guest speakers. A financial educator, Loan Vu, helped to get the club started and will run many of the workshops this spring. According to Collin, the workshops focus on life skills that students won’t learn in the classroom.

“People have been interested in talking to us about things like credit score and tenant laws,” said Collin. “Things people don’t really think about, like car insurance. It’s not just stocks and bonds, or how I can get my bread up.”

David Buckley ’21, another leader of the club, described how the workshops compare to classes.

“The workshops are very similar to a class in that you’re learning a lot,” said Buckley. “But the things that you’re learning in these workshops are going to be things … applicable to your life and immediately applicable to your future.”

To Kevin Zheng ’21, who took part in some of the meetings, the opportunity to learn everyday skills differentiates SWIFT from other investment-related clubs.

“I think what they’re doing makes a lot of sense,” Zheng said. “It’s almost a joke; when people finish college, they’ll say: ‘I know so much about how these cells interact, but I have no idea how to do my taxes.’”

Zheng described the information covered in SWIFT’s workshops as basic but necessary, and structured like a lecture class. In one of SWIFT’s first workshops on Dec.10th, Swarthmore director of investments Frank Gorsuch covered topics such as stocks and bonds. He also spoke about how to look at one’s personal needs in terms of risk assessment. According to Collin, the club plans to have workshops covering other useful skills such as using spreadsheets and Microsoft Excel.

The first few of meetings of the club attracted about 13 to 15 people according to Collin, but SWIFT plans to expand and add interactive elements. For example, it recently sent out a meal plan guide to help students to budget their meals.  They have already attracted attention from Tom Spock, Chairman of the Board of Directors, who may want to get involved, Collin said. He also envisions the club expanding beyond Swarthmore, possibly to Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. He hopes that students will share the skills they learn with friends and family to influence a larger community.

“We have ideas to expand to other colleges in the area because this affects everybody,” said Collin. “You have to learn how to manage your wealth and how it’s going to work for you and your family in the future.”

Zheng agreed about the importance of learning wealth management skills.

“Saving for retirement might seem easier than being pre-med, but it’s equally important,” Zheng said.

Reformation of Swarthmore Progressive Christians

in Around Campus/News by

On Jan. 23, the Swarthmore Progressive Christians assembled for the first time in many months to provide an inclusive space where individuals of all sexualities and Christian denominations could talk about Christianity and meet together.

According to Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life, the renewed interest in SPC came after Swarthmore Voices published the article “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem” which detailed the group’s policies prohibiting openly queer people from being in leadership positions.

SCF’s leadership policies apply to behavior and beliefs, rather than identity itself,” the Voices article stated. “In SCF’s eyes, that means you must resist your same-sex attractions, rather than celebrate them, because these desires are tempting you towards sin.”

After the Voices exposé, many vocalized discontent for the lack of progressive Christian groups on campus.

“I think it’s because of the [Swarthmore Voices] article coming out that there was a sudden interest in reviving the group, “ Tompkins said. “After the article, a bunch of people came to me [about the reformation of SPC].”

While SPC was founded in 1982, it recently morphed into what is now known as Swatties and Service, a faith-based service group.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a past and current member of SPC, believes that the renewed interest will help sustain the club.

“SPC has historically ebbed and flowed according to students’ needs,” Seitz-Brown said. “Now, I think that we’ll have new energy and that we can exist as a more diverse group that is more queer- and trans-affirming.”

At SPC’s first meeting on Jan. 23, many people shared their own past experiences with Christianity and why they felt the need for an inclusive space. Seitz-Brown described his own story about growing up in a progressive Lutheran household in a conservative area.

“The congregation was always conservative, so I always felt that I could not be open about what I cared about, like social justice,” Seitz-Brown. “I’m excited to have a space where people can talk about the challenges they’re feeling.”

Isaku Shao ’19 told of her experience growing up as the child of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor.

“Religion has been a pretty regular part of my life but when I came to Swarthmore, I abandoned church,” Shao said. “During sophomore year, I was trying to figure out my faith. I started looking into Christian groups.”

After discovering SCF, Shao was hesitant to attend because of its exclusionary policies.

“I looked into SCF and heard rumors that they were more conservative and were not really gay or queer friendly.” Shao said, “I’m a trans, bisexual girl, and that’s not somewhere I really want to go if I’m not welcome.”

While SPC’s first meeting focused on future goals and plans for the group, some discussed the potential for engaging in a conversation with SCF.

“I’m open to conversation with SCF, but I don’t think that’s the purpose of the group and the purpose is providing a safe space for everyone,” Seitz-Brown said.

Shao, however, was not interested in SPC maintaining communication with SCF.

“I don’t think SCF’s policies are ethical,” Shao said. “I read the Voices article and was honestly furious. I have very strong convictions about what Christianity is. I think that Christianity at its heart is an accepting and liberating movement.”

T. J. Thomas ’21, another an attendant of the meeting, who was raised Christian and attended a Jesuit Catholic all-male high school, shared that his church echoed similar sentiments — that Christianity is a religion that prioritizes the idea of love for one another.

“At my church, we were always taught that above all we should love one another. That’s been the message of my faith,” Thomas said.

Thomas also sees the renewal of the club as a way to change perceptions of Christianity on Swarthmore’s campus.

“I think that there are a lot of people who struggle with their faith or see it being portrayed in the media as radical and right-wing conservative, but people should know that there are true progressive liberal Christians,” Thomas said.

Shao shared similar views on how conservative views of Christianity have been portrayed as mainstream.

“When you go into the ministry, they give you a canonized interpretation of the [Bible], and it’s what the institutions have said is the right way to interpret the [Bible] even though that may not be true given historical context,” Shao said. “I think throughout Christianity’s history, which is a history haunted by violence and oppression, it’s also a history punctuated by intense commitment to liberation, to uplifting the poor and the marginalized, and to equality and viewing all those under God as equal.”

Attendants of the meeting discussed various ideas on what the group would become and what it would do. Some played with ideas that the group would provide group worship while others discussed the need for a conversation, and later, more faith-based service.

Though no consensus was reached, Tompkins is hopeful that with the resources she can provide — SPC still has funding allocated to it by the College — the group will come to an agreement on how the club will progress.

“I feel like what I can do is provide a space, budget support, my own background in Scripture, and ideas so I can help lead the group,” Tompkins said. “But I want the group to be what [the students] want it to be.”

Swarthmore Christian Fellowship has a sexuality problem

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

In the spring of 2015, Dayna Horsey ‘18 was confident that she would be the one of the next leaders of the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF). She had been happily active in the group, going to SCF events almost every day, and was under the impression that most who applied for a role would be given a leadership position .

What she didn’t know was that her application was doomed from the start: over Sharples dinner one night, SCF’s president, David Tia Zhou ‘15, explained to Horsey that she was too accepting of gay sexuality to be a leader in the group. Then, he hugged her and wept.

“[H]e was just, like, crying on me,” Horsey recalled.

Not becoming a leader didn’t bother Horsey too much. “I’ll find something else to do,” she remembers thinking, and indeed, she left SCF soon after. But she was angry—while she wasn’t queer herself, she had queer friends who had been hurt by religious intolerance. And she was shocked at how wrong she had been about SCF, Swarthmore’s largest Christian group.

“I didn’t realize at the time how conservative SCF was,” Horsey said.

Here’s how conservative it is: SCF’s leadership believes that God designed humanity for only one kind of romance, heterosexual marriage. Any relationship should exclude pre-marital sex, be heterosexual, and lead to marriage.

People who disagree with this stance, or those who date people of the same sex, cannot be leaders within SCF.

This policy may be little-known around campus, but SCF makes no attempt to hide it. The SCF leaders interviewed for this article did little to sugar-coat their beliefs or evade questions; rather, they gave long, candid interviews in which they explained their doctrine and clarified how their policies work in practice.

“According to the Bible, God has a specific design and purpose for sexuality,” SCF co-president Michael Broughton ‘19 said in an interview, adding, “the act of sex is designed for a specific purpose that can only be enacted in [God’s] will between a husband and a wife, specifically.”

To practice any other form of sexuality, in the group’s eyes, is sin. To many Christians, sin is a sort of spiritual crime, an action out of sync with God’s plan. Other sins include murder, theft, and, according to some, premarital sex. Sinning doesn’t necessarily condemn a person to the eternal torment of hell—SCF believes that everyone occasionally slips up and falls short of God’s teaching. However, failing to recognize and repent for your sins means that you haven’t truly accepted Jesus Christ as God, which is the only path to salvation and eternal paradise. In SCF’s eyes, that means you must resist your same-sex attractions, rather than celebrate them, because these desires are tempting you towards sin.

“[T]o not repent—to not orient one’s lifestyle away from all sin, where ‘sin’ happens to include homosexual conduct—is a very likely indication that the process of accepting salvation has not been fully experienced,” Broughton wrote in a follow-up email. “And yes, not accepting Christ’s salvation is grounds for spending eternity in hell.”

By this logic, being gay alone does not send you to hell; however, rejecting what SCF believes are the Bible’s teachings about sexuality might make eternal damnation more likely, though God makes the final decision about the fate of your soul. More immediately, a queer-affirming opinion makes you ineligible to be an SCF leader: Students who do not agree that acting on same-sex attractions is sinful cannot be leaders, period.

SCF’s beliefs also have effects outside of leadership selection. For some queer students, leaders or not, it translates into an unwelcoming environment throughout the organization. In a group that both current and former members describe as a close-knit, cathartic spiritual community where people build long-lasting friendships, this institutionalized homophobia can be a bitter deal-breaker that pushes members away. And at a time when Christians across the United States increasingly embrace queer love, SCF’s position shows no signs of softening.

Before I go on, a little digression about terms: When this article uses the word “queer,” it mostly refers to cis students who are attracted to individuals of the same-sex, since it’s unclear how trans folks fit into SCF’s view of sexuality.

One thing should be clear: SCF’s leadership policies apply to behavior and beliefs, rather than  identity itself. Celibate queer students who condemn their same-sex attractions (or “lust”) are welcome to lead, and students of all sexualities and opinions can join the organization as regular members.

 

PAIN

No story I heard embodied the SCF position’s murkiness and potential to cause suffering as concisely as David Falk’s. In August 2013, David Falk arrived at Swarthmore for freshman orientation. With an outgoing, gregarious personality, he made an immediate splash.

“[David] is a hoot,” Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins recalled, smiling.

When Falk told me his story over video chat, his backdrop rarely stopped moving as he paced in circles, sometimes giddy about his exciting present, at other points riled up about the painful past.

Falk enrolled at Swarthmore a devout Christian. In high school, he had come out as gay, but had lived a sheltered four years. When he arrived on campus, he dated a series of male students and joined SCF, assuming, based on Swarthmore’s liberal reputation, that it was a relatively tolerant Christian group. Although he worried about how fellow Christians might see his sexuality, he himself felt he had reconciled his faith with being gay.

“I kind of just expected, ‘Okay, Swarthmore’s kind of progressive and there shouldn’t be any problems. I’ll just fit in,’ ” Falk recalled.

David Falk during his freshman year at Swarthmore.

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda ‘17, provided by David Falk

At first, he seemed to fit in just fine. Once in SCF, he enjoyed being a member and began to think about becoming a leader. Then began a painful step-by-step discovery that would test the harmony between his faith and his sexuality. Falk’s first clue was the existence of Swarthmore Progressive Christians, a much smaller alternative to SCF.

“I was like, ‘Huh, that’s interesting. Does that mean, like, they’re more progressive than Swarthmore Christian Fellowship?’ ” he said.

The answer he received was that SCF was more politically inclusive, so it included both conservatives and progressives. For a while, that put Falk at ease, but he began to hear about queer students who had fallen out with SCF leadership. After asking around, he discovered that SCF was a member of InterVarsity, a national, evangelical network of Christian student groups. That led him to Google, and soon he was reading reports of InterVarsity chapters around the country forcing queer students off of leadership. SCF didn’t just welcome conservatives—it was conservative.

This discovery began Falk’s alienation from the group. Other events worsened it, like the realization that dating his then-boyfriend would disqualify him from leadership.

 

SCF’s position on same-sex dating is muddier than its position on sex. SCF leaders clearly disapprove of it, but they aren’t sure if dating someone of the same gender makes you a sinner.

“The idea of ‘dating’ in a very basic sense might not technically be sin,” Broughton wrote in an email, “but there are various physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries that those in dating relationships tend to cross before they get to marriage, and crossing those boundaries in a homosexual context would probably come closer to constituting sin.” Plus, he said, dating someone of the same gender probably means you disagree with SCF’s conservative ideas about sexuality.

“For these reasons, same-sex dating would disqualify someone from being a leader,” he concluded. Sin or not, same-sex dating and SCF leadership do not mix. (Again, it is unclear how trans students fit into this gender-based dating policy.)

A low point during Falk’s freshman year came after a Friday-night musical performance sponsored by InterVarsity, during the Spring semester. Falk stayed behind to talk with the musicians.

“I was talking with this guy InterVarsity paid money to bring, and he was saying, ‘Are you struggling with anything?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m struggling with my role in this community, and reconciling my sexuality and my faith.’ ”

The musician, whose performance had struck Falk as beautiful, responded viciously.

“[H]e was like, ‘Do you seriously believe that God would think that it’s any way acceptable […] for a man to stick a penis in another man?’” Falk remembered the man saying. “How can you not see that God finds that revolting?’ ”

Falk alerted SCF leadership to what he had been told, but he said they offered no emotional support and simply told him SCF didn’t endorse what the performer had said.

“It was one of the most horrible nights of my entire life, where I went back to my room and I was crying for hours, being like, ‘God, why did you make me like this?’ ” Falk said. “And I went through that alone.”

Falk fell into what he called a “spiritual identity crisis” around his sexuality. At SCF, one way members can process spiritual crises is by sharing testimonies at an event called SWAT Night, which happens once to twice a year. These testimonies tend to be deeply personal reflections on an SCF member’s relationship with divinity.

“I said one day, ‘I think I need to do one of these, because, you know, I’ve been hurting and this is a story that needs to be heard.’ ” Falk said. “And I was told by someone on leadership that, you know, we can’t, as a group, officially have a message that’s affirming [of queer sexuality].”

 

Falk’s testimony was rejected. David Zhou, who was already a leader at the time, said that he didn’t reject Falk’s testimony personally, but that he agreed with the decision:

“I think a space like SWAT night presents itself as a platform to teach and any teaching should be consistent with what the Bible teaches,” he wrote in an email. “For example, if someone said they were dating a non-Christian and felt that God blessed that, that person would be asked not to share about that during SWAT night since it directly contradicts God’s Word.”

Zhou, who would soon run SCF, wasn’t just any leader. He was known around campus for his penchant for enthusiastically preaching to passersby; he also epitomized the lifestyle SCF encourages in its queer members. In Zhou’s own words, he “experience[s] same-sex attraction.” This wording is intended to identify his sexual inclination without celebrating it.

“I’ve been told many things, including that I’m repressed and that people feel really bad for me,” Zhou wrote in an email. “I understand that’s said from a place of love and care, but I’m really beyond thankful for being able to live according to God’s plan. And the most beautiful part is, when I still struggle, when I fall, when I give in to lust, God’s grace is enough for me. His grace is sufficient for us because His power is made perfect in weakness. If there is one thing I can communicate it is: Jesus is worth it.”

Zhou’s is the sort of queer struggle that SCF felt comfortable hearing about at SWAT Night, and Falk’s story did not fit the bill. (Recent SCF presidents are split on the issue: Daniel Park ‘18, who led the organization last year, agreed that Falk’s testimony should have been rejected, while current co-presidents Michael Brougton ‘19 and Emily Audet ‘18 said that nowadays a student would be allowed to share queer-affirming testimony at SWAT Night.)

The rejection of his testimony ended Falk’s involvement in SCF. Dismayed at his inability to be a leader and the rejection he felt from the group, he met with then-Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Lili Rodriguez to discuss his situation with her, but ended up not pursuing a crusade against SCF.

“I was just, like, ‘I just need to get out of this,’ ” Falk remembered.

For reasons both SCF-related and not, Falk’s freshman year was becoming miserable. Spring 2014 became Falk’s last semester at Swarthmore.

Falk’s departure saddened Joyce Tompkins, who had long been troubled by SCF’s policies and had hoped that Falk’s experience might spur a public dialogue about queerness and Christianity.

“I thought maybe he was going to rock the boat, but he ended up transferring instead,” Tompkins said.

Falk is now a senior at Penn State, where he has started an LGBTQ Christian group called Receiving With Thanksgiving, which recently hosted a series of prominent queer Christian speakers. At Swarthmore, he had felt alienated from both the queer and Christian communities; at the much larger Penn State, he has found a home.

“I’ve felt like my intersection of identities has been appreciated and respected here,” he said.

SCF leaders characterize the organization’s stance as an apolitical, purely religious position that has no bearing on how it treats its queer members. But stories like Falk’s—whether of pain, alienation, or outright bigotry—complicate that notion. Intentionally or not, SCF’s stances are inflicting pain.

When I told him about how Falk had come to weep at his allegedly sinful sexuality, Daniel Park ‘18, who led SCF during the ‘16-’17 academic year, gave a surprising defense of this pain.

“I think every Christian should come to a point when they are on their knees weeping at the brokenness of their selves, about everyone being corrupted,” Park said. “Everyone should come face to face with their imperfections against God’s standards.”

According to Christians like Park, all people sin, and “homosexual” lust is just one sin among many.

“Homosexuality is a sin, much like pre-marital sex, lustful thoughts, drunkenness, selfish ambition and myriad of others that literally everyone is subject to; it is not somehow special and set apart in the Bible,” Park wrote in an email.

So why, during leadership selection, emphasize homosexuality over so many other sins?

“I don’t think we’re singling out homosexuality just to single out homosexuality,” current co-president Michael Broughton said. “This just happens to be an issue that is relevant in our cultural moment and also on Swarthmore’s campus. Additionally, it is something that in the Christian community is also creating a bit of tension. […] Since it’s particularly relevant, we’re talking about it more; and since we’re talking about it more, it seems like we’re putting emphasis on it.”

That said, the choice to emphasize homosexuality during leadership selection is partly a deliberate, strategic choice.

“[I]t is a place where we, as a leadership team, seek some unity, as it is a divisive issue on campus,” Audet  explained. “And so we think it’s important as an organization to have some sort of unified definition of what a leader is. And this is one of a few different issues that we use to self-define.”

While the SCF presidents I spoke with said the group’s queerness policies were uncomfortable to implement, they took full ownership of them and appeared confident that they were theologically correct. I asked the current co-presidents if they wished the Bible wasn’t so heteronormative.

“I mean, there’s a part of me that never wants to cause anyone pain. And the fact that [our policy] does cause people pain—that bothers me,” Audet said. “But […] you can’t wish that the Bible said something different. That doesn’t make any sense, because I believe it’s the word of God. […] But it is not my favorite SCF policy by any stretch of the imagination.”

 

UPROAR

Falk’s story of feeling rejected by SCF is one among a myriad, and there have been times when student discontent with SCF has bubbled to the surface. Tompkins remembers the group hosting gay conversion therapists as guest speakers in the early 2000’s, which caused an outcry. The most recent uproar overlapped with the Spring of Discontent in 2013.

It started in October 2012, when The Phoenix published an article highlighting SCF’s membership in the conservative InterVarsity network. While InterVarsity doesn’t fund SCF—the College does—it has provided resources like dedicated staff advisors, access to Christian retreats, and guest speakers. In turn, SCF abides by InterVarsity’s doctrinal stances, which include its conservative position on sexuality.

To some SCFers in 2012, news of this membership was a bombshell, since back then SCF rarely used InterVarsity’s name and did not advertise the affiliation widely. Most shockingly, the article said that the InterVarsity chapter at SUNY Buffalo had essentially fired its treasurer for being gay. SCFer Nick Palazzolo ‘13, who was a senior at this point and was queer, had never even heard of InterVarsity.

“For me it was like, ‘What? I didn’t know this!’ And I felt like something had been kept from me for a while,” he said. “It was really frustrating.”

At the time, Tompkins was speaking to other SCFers like him, who discovered the group’s conservatism after they joined. Tompkins described SCF’s behavior at the time as “a complete lack of transparency,” since both its InterVarsity affiliation and its policies on queerness were little-known facts among the group’s most casual members. After the Phoenix article came out in the 2012, a group of SCFers decided to confront the group’s leadership. They worried that the organization’s policies on queerness were causing harm, and their desire for change led to a series of meetings with SCF leaders.

“The ones I sat in on were very painful,” Tompkins said. “A lot of very raw emotion.”

Palazzolo attended one such meeting in April 2013. SCF’s leadership had just gotten a letter from Swarthmore Progressive Christians; the much smaller organization was refusing to hold a joint prayer session with SCF, citing the latter’s policy on queerness. SCF’s leadership was discussing how to respond, and they invited Palazzolo to the meeting partly to hear his take as a queer person.

“A lot of folks […] were raising questions like, ‘Why can’t we just all pray together?’ ” Palazzolo recalled. “I tried to respond to that by explaining that a lot of folks feel as though they can’t, because there are policies that are alienating, that are hurtful.”

He also told his fellow SCFers about queer students’ worries regarding the leadership selection process, explaining: “Even if [queer SCFers] weren’t told ‘No,’ they know that they would be if they sought something like leadership.”

Briefly, the leaders present at the meeting entertained the idea of SCF endorsing a more queer-affirming position than it had previously. But Trevor Morse, a paid InterVarsity staffer assigned to Swarthmore who attended the meeting, drew a red line.

“[Trevor] was like, basically, ‘No, we can’t. […] I would feel as though I was sinning myself,’ ” Palazzolo recalled. “And I remember that being really hurtful and painful, and crying a little bit during that meeting.” (Morse said he didn’t remember the specific exchange, but he stood by the substance of what Palazzolo remembered him saying. “I do believe that, assuming a particular action is sinful, it is also sinful to encourage or approve of that action,” Morse wrote in an email. As evidence, he cited the Bible passage Romans 1:28-32, which ends in the sentence: “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”)

Others at the meeting shed tears, too. One SCF member realized just how much her beliefs about queerness were hurting others; for this harm, she apologized to Palazzolo.

“[S]he directly looked at me, and she was crying,” Palazzolo said.

Palazzolo left the meeting jarred by a conversation rife with sadness and self-condemnation, and angry that a group that preached God’s love felt so unloving. With these thoughts in mind, he sauntered up to Pearson, looked up at the rainy sky, and yelled at God. Within a few weeks, he had graduated.

 

THE LITMUS TEST

That semester of tears and apologies changed things, but only a little, and it certainly did not push SCF to be more inclusive. If anything, what followed was more like a crackdown. Every potential SCF leader is now specifically quizzed on what they think about queerness, and the wrong answer disqualifies them. David Zhou, who served as SCF president in 2014-2015, called the new litmus test a clarification.

 

“There [has] been hurt where some leaders and members were unclear about SCF’s interpretation of Biblical authority and sexuality,” Zhou wrote in an email. “These conversations led us to be more clear and explicit in the leadership process about the group’s interpretation.”

After the spring of 2013, “[t]he question about your stance on homosexuality became a part of leadership selection at Swarthmore—it’s not an InterVarsity thing, this is an SCF thing,” former president Daniel Park explained. Park described the test as a way to clarify the organization’s beliefs to potential leaders.

“This is our effort to be transparent,” Park said, speaking softly and weighing each word. “This is what InterVarsity believes, and we, as a chapter of InterVarsity, agree with that.”

On paper, SCF’s policy hasn’t changed. The group has always loosely expected its leaders to adhere to its doctrine, and applying to be an SCF leader has long included signing a statement of faith. But that statement is vague enough for many progressive Christians to agree with. Before Zhou rejected Dayna Horsey from leadership, Horsey had signed the statement of faith, unaware of its implications. She did not know that when she affirmed “[t]he unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible,” she was also expected to agree with SCF’s conservative view of Biblical sexuality.

Had SCF been more transparent, this confusion would not have happened. Horsey would have known, from the get-go, that SCF took a conservative stance on homosexuality, instead of finding out over an emotional Sharples dinner. Audet and Broughton insist that SCF has improved its transparency in this regard. Nowadays, they said, leaders explain the leadership application process to all potential applicants, and the explanation includes an explicit mention of SCF’s beliefs about homosexuality.

But the explicit question about homosexuality is about more than just transparency. Leaders see it a way to protect the doctrinal consistency of SCF’s upper ranks.

“The specific issue about homosexuality is a really hot-button issue. And it serves essentially as a weathervane, as an indication of the person’s broader stance towards the Bible,” Park said, calling a potential leader’s views of homosexuality a “litmus test for trusting in the authority of the bible.” If you don’t agree with SCF’s interpretation of Biblical sexuality, this logic goes, you probably doubt the authority of the Bible as a whole. Audet and Broughton, the current presidents, agreed that SCF treats the queerness question as a weathervane.

This rigor appears to be comparatively new. Andrew Cheng ‘12, a gay man who served as SCF president in 2011-2012—he was celibate at the time—was surprised and disturbed when he heard about the litmus test. He said it had not yet been implemented when he led SCF, and recalls leading a group with ample room for disagreement and some tolerance for alternative interpretations. Since then, he suspects, that has changed.

“You know, when I was there, we had a reputation for being this super-weird liberal Christian group,” he said, adding: “And it makes me kind of sad to see that that has changed. Not because I think everything should be liberal, but because the result of the change has been people being hurt and people leaving, especially my babies, my freshmen: Class of ‘13.”

That class includes SCFers like Palazzolo, who became disillusioned with SCF after the painful conversations of spring 2013.

“[If] current leaders are being asked on their views on one specific issue as a litmus test for whether or not they believe in the Bible… Yikes, that’s scary,” Cheng said.

 

INTERPRETATION

SCF’s views on sexuality are premised on Bible verses like these:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

Not everybody takes these passages at face value. Progressive Christians like Religion Professor Mark Wallace point to possible mistranslations, pedophiliac connotations, and other contextual clues that guide them towards a more inclusive interpretation of the same text.

Wallace came late to our interview last April. Finally, I found him rushing towards his Trotter office on a bicycle. An animated speaker who deeply feels every word he speaks, he painted a picture of Christian sexuality that sounds more like Judith Butler than St. Paul.

“Jesus is, in a certain sense, non-binary, queer, gender-non-conforming,” Wallace said, counting each adjective off on his hand and citing, among others, a Bible story in which Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. To Wallace, the Bible can be read as a queer-affirming text.

SCF’s current leaders have little time for such interpretive flamboyance. To them, the question is not what the Bible really means but whether you are prepared to accept the text at face value.

“You can context your way out of anything,” said co-president Emily Audet.

According to the SCF mainstream, progressive Christians’ inclusive reading of the Bible is not just unbiblical, but a concession to changing social norms. In our conversation, Park, the former president, referred repeatedly to centuries-long tensions between a changing society and an unchanging Bible. Christians, he said, must choose the latter.

“It’s okay if you feel tension, it’s okay if you’re angry, it’s okay if you have trouble. But when the rubber hits the road, are you able to say: ‘It’s hard, but I choose to trust the Bible over what society says?’ ” Park said.

To the average Swarthmore reader, this opposition between eternal Biblical truth and evolving social politics might appear naive. Yet SCF earnestly rejects any implication that branding same-sex romance as sin is a political position.

“We are apolitical,” Park reiterated several times during our interview. “We don’t even talk about political issues. We don’t tell members, like, vote for this, this is how you should think on this legislation. […] It’s more like, ‘This is what the Bible says.’ ”

 

THE FUTURE

On its website, InterVarsity maintains a list of campus chapters that have lost official recognition for clashing with university nondiscrimination policies. SCF leaders know that such administrative action is a theoretical possibility at Swarthmore as well, given that the group is a chartered organization that receives College funding.

While Tompkins disagrees with SCF’s theology, she said she does not want them to be derecognized, forced to leave InterVarsity, or otherwise pressured to change. Any change like that should come from SCFers themselves, she says. Tompkins primarily wants more open dialogue on the issue, which is currently virtually nonexistent.

Queer student leaders on campus, however, took a decidedly less accommodating stance towards SCF’s institutionalized anti-queer line.

“If you ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’— surprise, you’re still a bigot,” Swarthmore Queer Union president Gretchen Trupp ‘18 wrote. “Claiming love and acceptance and actually practicing accepting everyone are two very different things, and it’s all too clear which side SCF is on.”

“This policy is pure homophobia, plain and simple,” wrote SQU treasurer Shayne Rothman ’20, adding: “I believe any group with any policy that singles out one type of person is promoting hatred and bigotry rather than love and acceptance, especially at an institution that seems to delight in thinking itself accepting.”

COLORS, a group for queer students of color, wrote in a formal statement that they do not support exclusive groups, unless they use their exclusivity to provide “more space for marginalized people.” Executive member of COLORS Byron Biney ‘19 added that “[a]n organization has a target; an idea of the kind of people in that organization and who they want to support. Claiming the standpoint of “apoliticalness” despite constantly making statements that have both religious and political implications […] is something that doesn’t make sense to me.”

“This group should absolutely be defunded,” wrote SQU vice president Maya Henry ‘20, adding: “Nothing is apolitical.” Trupp and Rothman agreed that SCF should lose College funding over its policies.

 

Park, the former SCF president, when confronted with a hypothetical loss of funding, seemed unfazed.

“Ideally, Swarthmore would have a space for conservative Christians on campus, and not just a version of religion that happens to fit a desired social narrative,” Park said, adding: “But, if not, Christianity has been oppressed at different points in time, and the Bible actually says that this is expected, this is the norm. Persecution is the norm for Christianity. […] And if SCF is defunded, so be it.”

Current co-president Emily Audet said she isn’t worried about losing funding. She said Swarthmore generally respects the autonomy of religious groups and, as far as she knows, administrators have never made an issue out of SCF’s policies on queerness. (Swarthmore administrators failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.)

It’s tempting to believe that history arches towards social progress, and that the conservative wing of a given issue eventually mellows out or goes extinct. Indeed, a growing list of American Christian denominations now recognizes LGBTQ relationships as legitimate.

“[A]nti-LGBT theology […] will eventually get swept away into the dustbin of history,” Wallace said.

But it’s also important to remember that this is no mere political struggle. Leading SCFers sincerely believe that holy scripture tells them that many queer people are tempted to sin. Scripture, in their view, was written by God, the all-powerful creator of the universe who holds the keys to heaven and hell. Such divine authority is hard to argue against, much less overturn, with moral or political arguments.

“We [Christians] are easily manipulable because of how important faith is to us,” Cheng, the 2011-2012 SCF president, said. “So if you believe in something that you would stake your life on, then the things you are taught about that become extremely important in your life and are hard to change.”

Despite the hurt it causes, the inevitable backlash, and its association with the worst elements of the Christian right, SCF leaders feel divinely compelled to accept SCF’s interpretation of the Bible. But they accept this interpretation while fully aware of the emotional carnage it can cause.

“I’m uncomfortable with it,” Park said, referring to SCF’s view of sexuality. “I have gay mentors, gay friends, gay people who are in my life who I immensely respect. […] I think, when God comes back, I want to ask him: ‘God, why?’ ”

 

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in Swarthmore Voices on November 29, 2017

Eating green and dancing quietly in Philadelphia

in Columns/Philly Beat by

 

Philadelphia and creativity are inextricably bound. After moving to the U.S. from Dubai, my greatest appreciation for Philadelphia was its quirky character, distinguished by the immense creativity that seems to reign all over the city. For example, The Magic Gardens, where household items are put together to form a stunning, intricate outdoor art installation, perfectly illustrates Philly’s unique spirit. From vintage thrift stores to South Street to Fishtown, creativity in Philadelphia is so abundant that it makes it hard to narrow it down to just a few recommendations. I am going to explore three very different examples of thrilling experiences you can have in Philly, including a unique, eco-friendly and vegan restaurant known as HipCityVeg, a great night out as a silent disco where you are able to pick your own music or have a conversation at any time you choose, and last, an ‘Art After 5’ cabaret, dinner, and drinks hosted by Philadelphia’s very own Museum of Art.

Many of Philadelphia’s restaurants have creative conceptual foundations, and HipCityVeg is certainly one of them. Personally, I have never been a huge fan of veggies and greens, and I seldom go a meal without eating meat. Coming from a family of huge ‘foodies’, I had always assumed that vegan food would be bland and lack the vibrant flavors that I had grown to thoroughly enjoy. So, as you can imagine, when a friend dragged me along to HipCityVeg, I wasn’t too thrilled. But to my surprise, it has become one of my favorite places to eat, and has impressed me more consistently than many other restaurants I have tried. The menu includes dynamic flavors in a fast-food style setting, and the creation of the flavorful dishes challenged my misconceptions about vegan food. I definitely recommend the Buffalo Bella along with the sweet potato fries and the arugula taco salad. The Buffalo Bella is rich and flavorful with a giant portobello mushroom that is crisp yet soft on the inside, and is perfect paired with the sweet potato fries that are a HipCityVeg signature, which improve almost any dish. The arugula taco salad is an excellent combination of a light, healthy yet delicious and satisfying lunch. I personally love to ask the people who work at HipCityVeg what their recommendations are, and they never disappoint.

 Located in University City and Rittenhouse Square, HipCityVeg has a plant based and eco-friendly philosophy unlike any other. As their website notes, HipCityVeg is “about health and compassion for living things and the earth, but the food is about tasting good. It’s as simple as that.” They do their deliveries by bicycle, are 100% plant based, compost all packaging and kitchen scraps, and the interior of the restaurant is composed of energy efficient and recycled materials. I would recommend the Groothie specifically for a detox or for its health benefits, but realistically, I would eat here at any time of the year — on and off a diet.

After a great meal at HipCityVeg or really anywhere in Philly, a night out away from the typical Swat social scene can be much needed. The problem is that at any party or club, everyone at some point experiences two things: 1) you are not a fan of the current song playing, and 2) you would like to have a conversation with someone, but this proves to be close to impossible over the blaring music. Those two scenarios are a little too familiar to most of us, and at a Silent Disco both of these issues are overcome.  Besides this, the Silent Disco provides a club experience like no other, and it’s worth trying at least once.

The concept of the Silent Disco is simple, yet genius. When you walk into the Silent Disco they hand you a pair of wireless headphones, and have three different DJ’s playing at the same time. You simply press a button on your headphones that light up blue, green, or red — each featuring a different DJ. Walking into this silent disco is somewhat bizarre, as you walk into an almost silent room, and still witness people dancing the night away, with the singing entirely out-of-sync as each person chooses to sing along to their favorite channel. Meeting someone new and getting to know them in a loud environment is always hard, but here you just take off the headphones and engage. If the conversation dies out or becomes relatively awkward (don’t worry, I got you covered, Swatties), then simply put the headphones back on and zone out back into your happy place. Tickets for upcoming events can be found on silentphilly.com

In my last piece, I briefly wrote about the Philadelphia Museum of Art and their pay-as-you-go option. The museum happens to be even more versatile than you probably thought. Rather than solely engaging in the everyday self or guided tours, visitors to the Museum of Art on Friday evenings can attend an event called “Art After 5.” From five to around nine every Friday evening, the Great Stair Hall becomes a unique cabaret, featuring different artists, music, and themes every weekend. Enjoy the live entertainment and the light food options available as well as the bar. Admission to the “Art After 5” performances and even guided tours are free during this time after you pay the standard museum admission. Admire the art on the walls along with art performances by some of the most creative minds. Upcoming events include Diwali Party, Holiday Jazz, Hanukkah Party, and Feliz Navidad. Stop by any of these events for a guaranteed great time! Philly has so much creativity to offer, much more than I could possibly cover in this column, but HipCityVeg, the Silent Disco, and Art After 5 are definitely three of my favorite unique go-to spots.

New Theatre Company Explores Intimacy

in Around Campus/News by

Since the final weeks of last semester, posters for the American Masturbatory Theater Company have been posted across the Swarthmore campus. A cursory glance at the flyers has left many students perplexed about the nature of the club, which, as Sam Swift Shuker-Haines ‘14 puts it, is about “trying to find a presence, an honesty” as individuals.

Created by Shuker-Haines, the American Masturbatory Theater Company aims to bring Swarthmore students together in a search for intimacy and the pursuit of art born from it. The company has both laboratory and performance components; all members of the company participate in the laboratories, during which the group engages in exercises for the purpose of “being seen honestly and showing [themselves] to someone else honestly.” Members with an interest in theater are encouraged to join in the creation of a performance piece drawn from the work of the group as a whole. The actors of the company will execute the resulting performance later in the spring semester. Beyond this, the company also hopes to make an appearance at Crunkfest, an annual event.

Shuker-Haines and other members of the company are unsure of what the performances will look like or even what the work of the group will result in. The lack of this clear conception is largely due to the lack of a finalized group of participants, which is necessary for “real community-building work” to start. Shuker-Haines sees the future of the company as resting in the hands of the participants themselves.

The company will be holding its final open meeting in Old Tarble on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Though *they directed the first two workshops, Shuker-Haines hopes that once the group becomes closed, the actors in the company would take a more leading role in conducting the following laboratory sessions.

The origins of the concept are found in Shuker-Haines’s experience as a high school participant in programs hosted by Shakespeare & Company, a theater company based in Lenox, Massachusetts. During one particular exercise entitled “Actor, Audience,” program members stood up individually and shared revelatory truths about themselves, before pointing to a part of their body and speaking a line of poetry. The exercise, described by Shuker-Haines as “terrifying, painful, and absolutely beautiful,” prompted visceral emotional reactions from the members of the group. The cathartic nature of the “Actor, Audience” exercise was an impetus for the founding of the American Masturbatory Theater Company. Having since never experienced a space where the same sort of “pure unadulterated honesty” could be shared, Shuker-Haines sought to create a group for that purpose at Swarthmore.

Since its inception, the company has held two open workshops in Old Tarble, both of which took place in the last weeks of the fall semester. In these introductory meetings, participants engaged in a range of exercises; a number focused primarily on meditation, while others were a little more creative. In one activity, members of the group took turns standing in the middle of the room for five minutes while the others simply watched them. In another, participants moved freely about the room, following their impulses and making whatever sounds they wanted to express.

According to Shuker-Haines, the goal of these exercises is to fill a void they feel exists not just at Swarthmore College, but also most everywhere else. Shuker-Haines wants to create a space where students can “take the time, not to see what we expect to, but to actually look at the physical presence of someone who’s there, look at who they actually are in the space, in the moment right then.”

One participant, who wished to remain anonymous, commented that the meetings were “a really good stress reliever, which everyone at Swarthmore really needs.”
Another member of the company, Doriana Thornton ’16, admits that she was unsure of what the group would be doing before going to the first meeting, but was pleased with her experience.

“I found that the space was the perfect place to connect with myself,” she said.

The idea of being vulnerable in the way encouraged by the company sounds frightening to many – not everyone is comfortable with being so open both emotionally and physically. Shuker-Haines understands that the activities that the group engages in can sound intimidating. “It’s hard to have intimacy without vulnerability, without it being a little bit scary, because a lot of the sensation of intimacy is being seen honestly and showing yourself to someone else,” they said.

Participant Kerry Robinson ’16, who describes himself as a very “private person” who was uncomfortable with self-exposure, has attended both of the fall semester workshops. After he came across a flyer for the theater company in Sharples, Robinson joined, partly out of curiosity and partly because he wanted to experience the intimacy the group offered. He said, “It was something that I needed because I felt that I’m not a very intimate person.”

Having struggled with intimacy and vulnerability, Robinson said that the meetings were constructive for him. “It made me realize that I could invite people in a lot more than I felt like I could before,” he explained.

The company’s provocative name arises from the strong parallels between the nature of the group and the nature of masturbation itself. Shuker-Haines describes the work of the company as “the creation of a pleasurable experience out of nothing but bodies; it has no purpose other than its own… The company’s not trying to gain anything except the pleasure of being seen honestly and seeing another person in a loving way and sort of the inherent pleasure of intimacy.”

Though the company has no immediate plans for any actual group genital masturbation, Shuker-Haines pointed out that, should a member of a company begin to masturbate during a meeting, they would not stop that member from doing so – as long as the activity is useful to the exercise and no other member is traumatized by the action.

The student body’s reaction to the formation of the American Masturbatory Theater Company has ranged between enthusiasm, cautious acceptance, and confusion.

Reflecting the feelings of a number of students, Isabel Knight ‘16 sees the presence of the American Masturbatory Theater Company as a positive addition to the Swarthmore campus – but notes that she herself would probably not join. “I wouldn’t see myself going to it because you’re putting yourself in a very vulnerable position – and so is everyone else, granted, so that’s part of the experience but it takes a very brave, particular kind of person to do that,” she said. “It would probably be very easy to misunderstand, but I think it’s a good thing that it exists.”

Many students know nothing more about the group than its name. An anonymous junior asked if the group was meant to be a comedy club. Zequn Li ’16 had a closer, though vaguer, notion of the company, believing it to be a group of actors who wrote plays about masturbation.

Upon learning more about the group, Li said, “It’s a novel concept… I’ve never heard of anything like this. I think it’s great that they’re creating this new group.” Despite this enthusiasm, Li states that he, like Knight, would not be stopping in on a meeting of the American Masturbatory Theater Company.

To students who are wary of joining the company because of self-consciousness, Thornton offers words of encouragement. “I feel like a lot of people could really benefit from it,” he said. “One of the points of [the company] is to be able to feel discomfort. The group is beautiful because it’s a safe space in which you can feel that discomfort.”

*Sam Swift Shuker-Haines prefers to use the gender pronoun “they.”

Go to Top