Thong wars

When asked not to go bare-assed at the campus pool, a professor wages a constitutional battle.

Published March 8, 1999 11:28AM (EST)

Since Monica Lewinsky gave us the modern-day koan -- what is the sound of one thong snapping? -- that strappy modern loin cloth has achieved a new, politicized stature in American consciousness. Now a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is bringing the niggardly panties to a new stage: making them the center of a debate over nothing less than our constitutional rights.

On March 1, G. Roger Davis sued officials at Miami University, claiming the school violated his constitutional rights by forbidding him to wear his thong swimsuit at the university pool. Davis, an associate professor of music at Miami, asked U.S. District Judge Herman Weber to order the university to allow him to wear his thong and to pay unspecified compensatory damages, plus attorney fees.

Davis began wearing his thong to the pool for workouts in the fall of 1996. The following November, Miami officials presented him with a dress code banning the skimpy suit at the school's Recreational Sports Center. Davis kept on wearing a thong, so in December 1998 the university revoked his paid membership at the rec center.

Miami spokeswoman Holly Wissing said Davis' bare bottom began drawing attention when "concerns were expressed by other users" of the pool. The new dress code states, in part, that "thongs and see-through swimwear" are strictly forbidden.

Miami officials pride themselves on the school's cultural diversity. The university's Web site claims that "as part of its educational mission, Miami University aspires to be a community that attracts and welcomes individuals from diverse backgrounds and with different experiences and beliefs." When asked how the banning of thongs jibes with the school's aim of cultural tolerance, Hissing responded, "They're not related at all."

Not everyone would agree. Bob Morton, chairman of the Naturist Action Committee -- the political action arm of the Naturist Society -- said, "The state of Ohio has no law regarding the wearing of thong swimsuits. But Miami University, a state-funded school, has unilaterally decided to ban this type of swimsuit."

So the Naturist Action Committee is joining Davis in his lawsuit. "We promote body tolerance" Morton said. "This is a case of incremental body tolerance. There's nothing more personally expressive than what you choose to wear. If you believe the human buttocks are obscene, let's cover up all the statues."

So the battle lines of swimwear decency are drawn in Ohio. Now we'll have to wait for a District Court judge to name the victor. In the meantime, the campus pool's rank as an oasis of democracy hangs -- with G. Roger Davis' butt -- in the balance.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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