Stephen Kershnar, a Philosophy professor at SUNY Fredonia, is under investigation for his comments about pedophilia made during one of his classes.
“Imagine that an adult male wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl. Imagine that she’s a willing participant,” Kershnar said. “A very standard, very widely held view, is there’s something deeply wrong about this and it’s wrong independent of it being criminalized. It’s not obvious to me that it’s in fact wrong, I think this is a mistake and I think that exploring why it’s a mistake will tell us not only things about adult-child sex and statutory rape, but also about fundamental principals of morality.” This quote is from a video titled “Sexual Taboos,” posted on a YouTube channel called “Brain in a Vat.”
His comments led a group of about 20 Fredonia students to hold a protest on campus. A petition to fire Kershnar also received over 15,000 signatures. SUNY Fredonia President Stephen Kolison released a statement saying “effective immediately and until further notice, the professor is being assigned to duties that do not include physical presence on campus and will not have contact with students while the investigation is ongoing.”
Throughout the video, Kershnar repeatedly says “adult-child sex.” That is called pedophilia. Calling it “adult-child sex” poses it as sex that children are willing participants in. According to Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, individuals who are under the age of consent do not have the capacity to consent to sex.
Free speech advocates including FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, have defended Kershnar, arguing he is protected under freedom of speech. Alyssa Bump, Editor in Chief of Fredonia Leader Magazine, put it well when she said, “The First Amendment may protect speakers from being censored, but it does not protect them from facing the consequences of what they say from the public.”
Kershnar’s speech is protected by the First Amendment and it is important to ask students questions that make them think critically. However, like a newspaper, professors are meant to present information and let students do with it what they please.
Kershnar is known for asking questions that strike up conversation about issues like slavery, torture, abortion, discrimination and God, so you would think the tenured professor would have perfected discussing without taking it too far. It is OK to make students uncomfortable because they are receiving new information, but not because they feel unsafe. Being taken out of context is always a concern in the age of social media and distrust in reliable sources of information, so it is important to make sure what you’re putting out there reflects you in a way you are comfortable with being perceived or be willing to face the consequences.