Why Sex Week Matters
Next week, I’m headed south to be a part of The 2nd Annual Sex Week at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville despite the fact that state lawmakers have put their opposition of the entire event on the record. On Monday, February 24, 2014, the Tennessee General Assembly will vote on—and, because of its strong support, very likely pass—a resolution that “condemns the organizers of Sex Week at the University of Tennessee and expresses its displeasure with the University for permitting ‘Sex Week’ to be held on the UT-Knoxville campus for a second consecutive year.”
Sex Week at UT (March 2-7, 2014) features talks by sex educators like me, Megan Andelloux , Reid Mihalko , and dozens of others speaking on subjects ranging from sexual health, gender theory, and hook-up culture to communication, consent, orgasms, and abstinence. UT Sex Week also features a poetry slam, an art show, and various lectures on the intersection of sexuality with history, culture, religion, law, and public policy. It’s a robust, diverse program that students worked hard to put together.
Last year, after state legislators complained about Sex Week and threatened to stall the passage of the university’s entire budget, the UT administration de-funded Sex Week, withdrawing $11,145 in state money from the event. Student organizers forged ahead and made it happen anyway with support from student fees.
State lawmakers couldn’t go after the money this year (it’s now funded solely from student activity fees), so they decided to stick with a more traditional route: the old moral high ground. The resolution was originally written to criticize the University, but in a surprise twist, it was amended in committee to condemn the students themselves. That’s right: legislators used their power to publicly shame sex-positive student organizers about sex. What a productive use of assembly time and taxpayer resources! Note to student organizers Brianna Rader and Jacob Clark (co-founders of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee and Sex Week): this should be listed on your resume under “Select Honors” as “Condemned by Tennessee State Assembly for organizing multicultural, educational events and advocating for fellow students, 2014.”
In another fascinating misstep by its conservative authors, the resolution specifically names “an aphrodisiac cooking class, drag show, and condom scavenger hunt” as examples of what the lawmakers call an “outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies,” ignoring one of the most controversial of all topics and speakers: me — lecturing on feminism and pornography. I’m usually conservative catnip, but I don’t mind being overlooked this time around.
Unfortunately, UT Knoxville is not the first university to face controversy and backlash over its Sex Week. Sex Week has become a popular event on campuses like Yale, Harvard, Northwestern, University of Chicago schedule, and Brown, and the general demand for speakers and lectures related to sexuality is high at universities around the country. In 2009, conservative Catholic students were vocal about their protest of Sex Positive Week at Georgetown University. In 2011, I was un-invited by administrators as the keynote speaker of the Modern Sex Conference at Oregon State University when administrators decided that it would be an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars to fund a feminist pornographer. Yale —which hosts one of the longest running Sex Weeks, founded in 2002—has faced numerous protests culminating in 2012 when the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate suggested banning Sex Week altogether due to a 2011 Title IX lawsuit filed against the university. That same year, student organizers made The New York Times amid the media scrutiny over Harvard’s first ever Sex Week. Protesting Sex Week has spawned its own organizing on the part of students and other non-university “interested parties.” But in all the pearl-clutching earnestness and talk of higher education and a higher purpose, everyone seems to be missing the point: Sex Week is what all students really need right now. Sex Week is prophylactic and Sex Week is emergency contraception. Sex Week matters. Why?
Sex Week counteracts a legacy of abstinence-only sex ed.
Tennessee state legislators are up in arms because the University is footing the bill for a week of sexuality and sex education programming, but it’s the students of UT who ultimately pay dearly. You can see the true cost reflected in the rates of sexually-transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies, and sexual assault incidents, not to mention all the clueless, wordless, unsatisfying campus hook ups. Before they arrive on campus, the majority of students are treated to a public high school sex-ed curriculum that is predominantly abstinence-until-marriage-only. This is true whether we’re talking about Tennessee or half the states in the nation. Research proves that abstinence-only sex ed is inaccurate, alarmist, and simply ineffective at stopping teenagers from having sex. This reign of abstinence-only education essentially continues when we send those same young people off to college where further attempts are made to stifle conversations about sex. It’s even more problematic since college is a prime time for sexual exploration. Away from home, students experience newfound independence and freedom, their sexual curiosity is high, and they have access to social situations that can scratch those itches. We know they are exploring their own sexuality and sex with other people, so why not give them tools, strategies, skills, and information about how to do it? Overall, the state’s message is clear: sex is full of danger and shame; besides that, let’s not talk about it.
Sex Week gives students access to comprehensive sex ed.
We need Sex Week because we know most people have few opportunities for frank, honest, accurate, inclusive, shame-free, judgment-free conversations about sex. I recently interviewed Heather Corrina, founder of Scarleteen, the most widely used online sex education resource for young people, who told me, “I think a lot of people misunderstand abstinence based sex ed. Not only does it [tell people to wait until marriage to have sex], it does it in a really fearful way. It involves a lot of religious messaging, a lot of homophobic messaging, a lot of intentional medical misinformation. Our users now are much more fearful around sex and sexuality than the users in the late nineties when we first started. We have a lot more misinformation rather than just a lack of information that we have to correct. We also have to do it through this haze of fear and shame and anxiety.” Like the work of Heather and Scarleteen, sex educators must counteract sex-negative scare tactics and fear-mongering, and college is a perfect place to do it: it’s where you’re supposed to investigate ideas from many different perspectives, challenge your own pre-conceived notions, think critically, and apply this new lens to your own life. It’s a time to figure things out, make mistakes, develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for. But you need knowledge and options in order to do that. If students don’t have access and exposure to this information at a public university, then where will they get it (and when)?
Sex Week expands the conversation about sex.
Some critics agree on the need to discuss STIs, birth control, and things related to sexual health, but their support stops once the conversation turns to sexual pleasure. They dismiss those portions of Sex Week programming as lightweight and frivolous, even perverse (see: incest and prostitution at Yale Sex Week, flogging and electrocution at University of Chicago , etc.). What they fail to realize is that sexual pleasure is a necessary component of sexual health. As sex educators, if we only focus on the risks and dangers of sex, we reinforce the notion that there is nothing more to discuss. When we bring pleasure into the conversation, we get students interested and engaged. When we give them information rather than withhold it, we empower them with greater knowledge about their bodies and the agency to make informed choices about what they do. When we give them a sense of the great diversity of sexual identities, practices, and communities, they feel less alienation, shame, and guilt. That piece alone is a gift: shaking the stigma off someone’s desire can go a very long way toward making them feel more whole.
Sex Week is a quintessential college experience.
Sex Week covers diverse perspectives and topics that intersect with other academic and non-academic interests. Each time I hear about someone protesting a Sex Week, I immediately think it’s a knee-jerk reaction. It is. Critics fail to look at the programming and its context, preferring to dismiss it all. For example, UT Sex Week ultimately fulfills one of the University’s stated missions: “to move forward the frontiers of human knowledge.” We are constantly putting sex in this special category, separate from everything else—like politics, economics, writing, or art—subjects that we use time and resources to study and experience first-hand. Sex must be re-centered as one of many valuable areas of academic study and personal inquiry, and Sex Week does just that.
Sex Week raises the visibility of minorities and allows for the discussion of taboo subjects.
When you look over the speakers and topics featured during Sex Week, you often see programming that highlights minorities, including trans*, gender variant, and intersex people; those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer; and people living with HIV. Students who organize Sex Weeks make a concerted effort to provide intersectional approaches and perspectives, and they often include conservative and religious points of view. Sex Week may be the only time during the school year when funding and space is provided for a nuanced discussion outside the classroom of taboo yet relevant topics related to sexuality like sex and religion, BDSM, alternative relationship models, sex worker rights, and pornography. It’s also a time when consent culture and sexual assault prevention can take center stage.
Sex Week provides students with both a forum and the inspiration to talk about sex on campus.
Each time I’ve participated in a university’s Sex Week, it has generated a tremendous amount of conversation on campus. Whether it’s letters to the school newspaper, local media coverage, or debates between student organizations, Sex Week gets people talking. In fact, it’s not just about the week itself, since the discussions continue throughout the school year. Students have written to me nine months later and said “your talk at Sex Week changed everything.” In those cases, it’s clear that Sex Week is just the beginning of fostering more discussion and community around sexuality issues. Sex Week plants the seeds, opens the lines of communication, and ultimately makes for a richer, fuller college experience.
What can you do? If you’re a University of Tennessee student, you can sign this petition to protect student fees from being micromanaged by the State Assembly. If you’re a Tennessee resident, contact your representatives with your opinion of legislators using state resources to condemn UT Sex Week. If you’re a member of the general public, share this post on social media to help spread the word about what’s happening or link to our Press Release
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