All this fuss over a misdirected joke

Could there be a more perfect nanostory than the sad tale of what happened when a university vice-chancellor made a joke about sex? A nanostory, you may recall, is one of those small media events which, in our fast, emotion-led culture, helps us to understand more important, long-term issues – sexism, for example, or suppression of thought.

On the face of it, no story could be smaller than the row which has enveloped Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, since he was commissioned by the Times Higher Education to write 500 light-hearted words on lust as one of the seven deadly sins of university life. Sex, Kealey wrote, is a fact of academic life because “universities are where the male scholars and the female acolytes are”. Then he became more skittish in his advice. “There will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays… Enjoy her! She’s a perk… You should admire her daily to spice up your sex life, nightly, with your wife.”

If there is a lesson here, it is about writing, not sex. The problem with Kealey’s article was that it was not terribly good. He aimed for irony and missed. It is a disastrously nervous half-joke, neither outrageous enough to be parodic nor entirely serious. As a general rule, it is rarely a good idea for a man of late middle age to write about marital sex; suggesting fantasies about young students as a way of improving it does not help.

The reaction to Kealey’s piece has been altogether more interesting. Academics, representatives of students and concerned members of the public have whipped themselves up into a state of ecstatic outrage. The editor who commissioned him has been forced to explain her actions. The usual regiment of mad, embittered bloggers have demanded that Kealey should resign or “undergo training”; one suggested that he was “smelling of old person like a pee-soaked slipper”.

In response, the beleaguered vice-chancellor issued a sad little statement, explaining – one can almost smell the sweat of panic on him – that “because transgressional sex is never appropriate, the piece uses inappropriate and transgressional language to underscore the point.”

Here is, I suppose, another victory for the nags and bores who appear, keening with affront, every time a person in a position of responsibility makes any remark, however lightheartedly, which can be deemed offensive. In the past, the only sensible reaction to these busy outriders for the Inappropriate Police has been laughter. Now academics lead their campaign.

Surely even those who work in universities are now grown-up enough to agree certain things are part of everyday life. Lecturers occasionally find students attractive, and vice versa. Women are not helpless victims. While it is a bad idea of academics and students to have affairs, that does not mean that any reference to sexual feelings, even unexpressed, between them should be banned. It is possible to write about misdirected lust without condoning it.

When did these things become so difficult to understand, so fraught with complexity? Universities are supposed to be the place where ideas are exchanged, and jokes can be made without idiotic misinterpretation. When academics become so pathetically easy to offend, they show the rest of us how easily our culture can shift from stupidity to suppression.