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Sex, Journalism and Censorship

August 3, 2010

Student sex journalism is one of those topics that tend to arise in the context of controversy -- the sort that begins when a student publication offends a reader or readers; grows with a tussle between editors and administrators (as well as, often, editors and their fellow students); and ends when one side prevails or a compromise is reached (or when everyone's attention drifts elsewhere). While each incident typically engenders only a few days' worth of headlines, the same questions arise over and over: Should student journalists enjoy the same rights and protections as their professional counterparts? Does sex journalism promote serious discussion and provide students with valuable information, or does it simply encourage irresponsible behavior? Is a campus newspaper responsible for representing the college in a certain light? And who has the final authority over what students can publish?

In Daniel Reimold's view, the subject merited attention beyond what it had been getting: "a tidal wave of press attention ... two million miles wide and an inch deep." Reimold -- who is currently visiting assistant professor of journalism at Nanyang Technical University, in Singapore, and who will be taking a position as assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa this fall -- decided several years ago to investigate the questions that he felt were being ignored: "What are modern students actually saying about sex in the columns and magazines? What motivated the students to take on the sex columnist mantle? Why are these columnists such rock stars on campus? And what is it like for them personally and professionally?"

To answer these questions, Reimold says, he interviewed numerous current and former student sex columnists, reviewed the existing literature, and read thousands of student newspaper sex columns from over 100 different student newspapers in the United States and Canada. (Along the way, he also acquired -- courtesy of The Nation -- the possibly unique epithet of "leading expert on the student newspaper sex column.") The end product: Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, to be published by Rutgers University Press this fall.

Inside Higher Ed conducted an e-mail interview with Reimold.

Q: To what factors do you attribute the rise of campus newspaper sex columns?

A: Over the past two decades, this country’s sexuality has amped up and entered the mainstream – on television, online, in the Oval Office, and on college campuses. As one student columnist told me, “We’re not Baby Boomers or part of Generation X. We’re Generation Sex.” Students feel freer to talk about sex openly. They feel more comfortable sharing private aspects of their lives, in part thanks to the blogosphere and social networking boom. They have been spoon-fed sex and sexuality their entire lives through countless media entities – from Pamela Anderson, Jerry Springer and the Starr Report to Internet pornography, Dan Savage, booty rap, and lad mags. They enroll in ever more classes dealing with sex and sexuality. They attend on-campus sex workshops. They pass by condom distribution points in student unions and health centers. They socialize, study, and engage in sexual activity in co-ed dorms.

Their decision to also engage in sex in column form can be attributed most directly to one main pop culture juggernaut: “Sex and the City” – the column, the book, and, most influentially, the HBO show. Among the students at the forefront of the sex column craze especially, “Sex and the City” was not a television series. It was a brand name. It was a lifestyle. It was an unparalleled socio-cultural phenomenon. As one columnist told me, “I really can’t overemphasize the impact of ‘Sex and the City.’ Every college girl I know is obsessed with that show, like seriously obsessed, like certifiably obsessed.”

Q: To what degree do you think such columns (and their writers) are representative of a campus’s student body at large?

A: The columnists are not outside observers. They are active participants in the same sexual and social universe that their student readers inhabit. As one columnist told me, “We’re in the trenches with other students. We see the world they see, you know, more than any outsider could. When we write, students can identify with us, with what we’re saying. They can say, ‘This is someone like me, writing about me.’” The columns occasionally tell stories of more extreme once-in-a-college-career moments and spread the sex-and-relationship campus legends we all hear about but never actually witness or experience firsthand. But more often, the columns are praised for their accurate depictions of student sex and socializing. Even while compressing the campus culture into eight hundred words a week and ratcheting up the sarcasm, the columns are realistically describing the highlights and lowlights of modern students’ love and lust.

Q: Still, sex columnists would tend to be something of a self-selecting group, wouldn't they?

A: It is wrong to assume that sex columnists are somehow “different” from their peers. They are students first, beset by the same questions, insecurities, and experiences as their classmates. They are not sex-craved fame whores, and they are not writing make believe. A majority define themselves as student journalists, beholden to the same reporting philosophy as others in their newsrooms – observe, interview, interact, follow-up, triple-check, and share with the world. I interviewed, interacted with, and examined the writings of more than 150 columnists writing for newspapers at schools across the country and in Canada. Most were down-to-earth, “normal” students. In a “Sex and the City” analogy, many more of them come across as Carrie Bradshaw than Samantha Jones.

Q: Are monogamy and romance really “dying” on today's college campuses?

A: Yes, along with dating. The columns’ declarations about their impending deaths are general or symbolic at times, but the sentiments are clear: Students nowadays exist mainly within a casual-sex-centric or “hook-up” culture. It is a socially ambiguous set-up filled with people whom students randomly meet, sleep with, and never see again, and individuals on students’ cell phone speed dial lists available for commitment-free sex after a quick “booty call.”

Collegiate couplings exist, columns note, but they skip the courting period, rushing from straight sex to hardcore commitment at a blistering pace and accompanied by heavy drinking and sexual activity typically from a pair’s first meeting. As a Cornell Daily Sun columnist once wrote, “People here don’t date. They either couple up and act married or do the random one night hook up thing.” A separate columnist refers to the loss of what she calls “dating with a lowercase ‘d,’ ” or the more casual one-on-one activities traditionally known as courting that “on the relationship spectrum ... falls after hooking up but before monogamous commitment.”

Q: Is it possible that sex columnists aren't conveying the true diversity of the attitudes and practices of their collegiate peers?

A: What I think helps insulate the criticism about columnists being off-base is the startling similarity of their observations and assertions. Over the past decade, without consulting each other, students separated by class year, gender, religion, ethnicity, political leanings, sexual philosophies, and geography have produced a stack of columns on sex, relationships, and college life that have come to the same basic conclusions. Of course, the experiences and conclusions of individual columnists occasionally differ from the majority... But the overall student sentiment is swaying sex-heavy, monogamy light.

Q: If, for college students, monogamy and romance really are dying, is that cause for concern?

A: The upsides of such a lifestyle include its freedom for experimentation and the related empowerment students feel to engage socially and sexually as they see fit. On the downside, safe sex is an issue, arguably now more than ever. Columnists also discuss negatives with which I agree, such as students’ growing emotional disconnection from each other (spurred further by the rise of online-only communication), loneliness, and the lack of a stable lifestyle (for those students always partying, playing the field, and searching for the next score).

Further Reading: Reimold's Suggestions

Q: What differences did you notice -- in the columns, and in the reaction to them on campus and beyond -- among various types of institutions?

A: In the last 10 years, sex columns have appeared in student newspapers at every type and size of institution – from the community college level to the Ivy League. The difference in responses have not related to school type as much the type of power a school exerts over its student newspaper. Sadly, officials at colleges with direct editorial control or indirect authority over student papers (via funding or staff hires) have been more aggressive in criticizing columns and occasionally even attempting to stop their publication. The irony of such efforts: They often lead to a PR nightmare much greater than what a scandalous column might have provoked. And the school then becomes the bad guy in a fight that is no longer just about sex, but censorship and freedom of the press.

Q: What are some examples of the more drastic administrative responses to campus sex columns? Have any of these occurred very recently, or do you think in general the furor over these columns has died down?

A: Along with sex, the defining element of many columns has been controversy. Most columns spark disagreements, denouncements, and attempted censorship in various forms– from everyday battles fought via e-mail and private chats to what one columnist calls “full-blown wars” aimed at stopping sex in the student press. These wars have actually increased in recent semesters. For example, late last September, Towson University’s president publicly condemned a sex column published in The Towerlight, [Towson's] student newspaper. He threatened to pull needed university advertising from the paper if the column continued running, a stance from which he eventually backed down. The fight led to the resignation of the paper’s editor-in-chief. Critics called the president’s attack posturing that did nothing but inflame tensions and put Towson in the spotlight as a school boasting leaders who do not believe in editorial freedom. As The Baltimore Sun noted, “There may indeed be little journalistic value in ‘The Bed Post’ [column]... [But] it should have been up to the students to come to those conclusions, not have them dictated by lawmakers and university administrators. The first lesson student journalists in a democracy learn should not have to be how to survive under the censor’s arbitrary fist.”

Q: Do you see these disputes continuing, and in the same sorts of ways?

A: The disputes will continue. A push for more student newspapers’ independence will help marginalize the severity of some administrators’ anti-column campaigns. But as long as school funding is tied to pleasing alumni, outside donors, and politicians, there will be occasional flaps about sex in the student press. As past fights over columns have proven, it only takes one critic to trigger administrative action and media frenzy.

Q: You write that “the sex columnist position... been female-dominated since its start." How do campus sex columns tend to differ by the gender of their authors -- and are these differences important when it comes to defending (or attacking) these columns overall?

A: Overall, male and female columnists generally tackle the same topics with the same dry wit. The more high-profile male sex scribes I have come across do seem to favor a slightly more self-deprecating style, especially when addressing their own sexual experiences. Overwhelming misogyny – even in jest – seems to be the main off-limit tact for male columnists to take. As a whole, the women are more aggressive in attacking the male species and its sexual and romantic shortcomings than vice-versa (with exceptions of course). Most likely, I imagine even the male columnists would agree that the men deserve it.

Q: Why do you say that “[c]ollege women depicted in the columns espouse a brand of modern female empowerment" that is, if anything, "a goodbye-wave (to) feminism”?

A: Female students respect the feminist movement and its history, columns say, but they are increasingly turned off by the contention that being openly, proudly, even promiscuously sexual is somehow a setback for women’s rights or a disemboweling of a woman’s full self. Within the columns, college women express confidence in their sexuality and physical beauty as extensions of their intelligence, personality, and ambition. They are aspects of themselves that they enjoy flaunting for the personal rush and power such behavior yields. To this end, columnists use phrases such as “boob power,” “owning our mini-skirt,” “Slut Pride,” and “let[ting] the inner slut out” to describe young women’s utilization of their sexual selves to achieve whatever results they desire – whether it is a free drink, a bit of fun or even a full orgasm.

Q: There is a long-running debate, you say, over whether “column content [is] promoting promiscuity or reflecting reality.” What’s your take on this?

A: In my opinion, in the game of chicken-versus-egg, the columns are not the cause of the current student sex craze and resocialization. They are the outlets chronicling it. And in this role, their conclusions have proven inviolate. Numerous research studies, news reports, and experts have verified the general relationship and lifestyle patterns appearing in the columns. Have the columnists possibly “normalized” certain student behaviors by choosing to feature them? Yes. But even when they discuss more extreme or risky sexual behaviors, they do not singularly glorify them. The columns simultaneously stress the behaviors’ potential dangers, downsides, and larger implications.

Q: On a related note, can you outline some of the reasons why you see these columns as generally beneficial to students and campuses?

A: The columns are providing, by far, the most frequent, diverse discussions about sex and relationships in the United States, during a time in which sex education and public sex dialogues are sorely lacking and superficial at best. They are modern students’ most significant reflections on sex and relationships that are free of outside interference. They tell students’ own sexual stories, in their own words. They are coining an astonishing number of terms and defining acts, issues, and trends that previously had no name or no scrutiny outside of campus bars, house parties, and darkened dorm rooms. And they are allowing students to take control of their own sexual messages, many of which had always been aimed at them instead of provided by them.

Q: What are some of the benefits (and downsides) of campus sex magazines, which you address in the book’s penultimate chapter?

A: Along with the columns, student sex magazines exist as the most personal, comprehensive records of modern students’ sexual thoughts and experiences. As one former editor told me about her magazine’s aim, “I think it’s to make people think about sex. It’s to stimulate them to ask the question, ‘What do I think about sex? How do I think about it? What about it do I think about? What aspects of it are valuable or frightening to me?’” The magazines explore a variety of issues relevant to students, such as the fluidity of sexual identity; the positives and evils of online pornography; the dangers of date rape, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted infections; the difficulties in defining the allusive generational term “hooking up”; and the failures of sexual education in U.S. schools.

They are also significant for their portrayal of real students, away from what one former student editor calls “the all-too-perfect, airbrushed fantasy worlds of Playboy and Maxim.” In photo spreads specifically, the student models possess noticeable imperfections and a “body diversity” not seen in other publications. Separately, the magazines have been praised for their adoption of a more comprehensive sexual perspective than their mainstream predecessors such as Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Penthouse, Hustler, Seventeen and Maxim. Simply put, hetero is not normative in student sex magazines. Instead, there is an all-comers approach to the presentation of sexual activity. Many editors describe their publications’ perspective as pansexual, omnisexual, and sex-positive, or a belief in the essential goodness of sex regardless of specific orientation, behavior or even identity.

The magazines are still works in progress. Content errors, clichés, and awkward layouts abound. They are also generally beholden to extremely small, unpaid staffs. When students graduate, study abroad, or just lose interest, publishing schedules go awry or the magazines fold entirely.

Q: You take a strong stance in favor of campus sex columnists (and other student journalists). Is it fair to infer that you're in favor of allowing student newspapers to run anything and everything they choose?

A: As a college media scholar, I am a strong advocate of both freedom of expression and freedom of discretion for student journalists. Student sex columns are a perfect example of what can be produced when both of those freedoms are valued. The columns are candid, timely, sex-positive, and realistic. They are hardly ever overly vulgar. They are not being published for shock value. And they are not a slippery slope toward an anarchic, X-rated college press. A few columnists use the phrase “blinded by the sex” in reference to critics who are unable to get past the salacious nature of the topics promoted in headlines and see the actual treatment of such topics. The supposedly fantastical, sex-only-and-often lifestyle that critics claim the columns are celebrating is actually tempered by tons of critiques and questions that border on interrogations. Simply put, what columnists observe, they do not always advocate. Overall, campus media absolutely need editorial limits. What more administrators and outsiders need to recognize: The student journalists in charge are often the best judges of what those limits should be.

Q: The book’s last chapter is subtitled “The Journalistic Legacy of the Campus Sex Column.” What are some key elements of this legacy?

A: The columns are the most popular and debated features in modern campus newspapers. They are triggers for some of the most controversial free press and free speech fights within student journalism and higher education over the past decade. They lead to a fame and infamy for student writers that are unlike anything student journalists have ever before experienced. They are changing journalism in many ways, blurring once-solid boundaries separating information deemed public and private, art and pornography, and gossip and news. They are also showing that sexual issues previously considered unpalatable and unpublishable are newsworthy. Most importantly, outside research has determined that their insights and observations are accurate, making them incredibly valuable sources for future researchers attempting to encapsulate the post-millennial campus culture.

Q: Does this mean you think campus sex columns have affected journalism outside of campus? Are there lessons that mainstream journalists ought to be getting from student journalists?

A: Let me be clear: Student journalism is leading the way on coverage of sexual issues in this country. The professional press’s treatment of sex is deplorable. News outlets either ignore it or report upon it at the extremes with articles on sex crimes and celebrity dalliances. Even straightforward medical stories with sexual implications have faded as the HIV/AIDS scare has quieted. (One of the only related studies, conducted by The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, confirms these statements.) College media are filling in the Grand Canyon-sized gap in this coverage – via sex columns, sex magazines, full-blown campus newspaper sex issues, and even a few high-profile sex blogs. They are rightfully proclaiming that sex is a worthy component of every news cycle. Sexual issues, behaviors, and trends are incredibly significant and relevant factors in our lives. They deserve more, and more responsible, news media attention. Student journalists have figured this out. Professional journalists should follow their lead.

 

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