At the kickoff event for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's inaugural Sex Week in 2013, hundreds of students filled one of the largest halls on campus and sat in near-silence for more than three hours.
They were enthralled with sexologist Megan Andelloux’s speech. There wasn’t giggling when certain questions were asked. There weren’t smartphones out or side conversations.
You could have heard a pin drop, said Lynn Sacco, associate professor of history. "Students are dying for this information,” said Sacco, who sees the same interest when teaching a course about the history of gender and sexuality.
Interest from young adults aside, college Sex Weeks can be a headache for administrators, who face the risk of complaints from parents, students, alumni and in some cases, state politicians. This year, that criticism appears to have caused second thoughts about the events at some colleges.
Recently, the debate has played out most fiercely at Tennessee, where a new policy this year requires students to opt into paying a $20 student fee to go toward student activities, including Sex Week.
That comes after state representatives this past spring passed a bill condemning Sex Week, and after legislators' 2013 push for university leaders to pull funding for the event. Administrators have met some of the legislature’s demands, but they refused to ban the event, saying that would violate students' freedom of speech.
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville isn’t the only one to find itself in the headlines for activities related to Sex Week.
Last week, student senators at East Tennessee State University denied money for a three-day Sex Week event being planned on that campus. And earlier in the month, administrators at the University of New Mexico issued an apology, saying some of the titles of the events at the campus's first Sex Week were inappropriate.
Supporters of Sex Week events say they provide students the chance to have a conversation about sexuality and receive accurate sex education in a safe setting. Banning Sex Week events won’t stop students from having sex, nor will it cast any light on problems like unplanned pregnancy, diseases or sexual assault, supporters say.
Those critics who think the events are only about erotic topics or encouraging students to be promiscuous are wrong, Sacco said. Rather, Sex Week aims to answer important questions about human sexuality and relationships. What does it mean to be a man? What should I expect from a relationship? How should I act as a partner?
“Students are exposed to other students’ whose views are unlike their own or whose behavior is unlike theirs,” said Sacco, who’s a co-adviser for the student group at Tennessee that organizes Sex Week. “College is a time to learn about ideas that may be different from our own.”
Fear of funding cuts changes a campus’s plans
Max Carwile, a senior at East Tennessee State University, knew all about the controversy around Sex Week at the University of Tennessee, which is less than two hours away. But Carwile, the president of her campus’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance group, still didn’t expect the backlash the ETSU event is facing now.
Last week, the university’s Student Senate voted not to give the event the $9,340 it requested from a student activities fund.
Carwile was surprised by the decision, because senators aren't supposed to making funding decisions based on the content of the events. She also said that, after the initial controversy at Tennessee, the ETSU Student Senate had passed a resolution to support a Sex Week on its campus.
Student Government Association President Doretha Benn said that vote was made by a different group of senators, and the students elected this year felt that providing financial support for the event wasn’t a smart decision given the timing. The senators worried that if they used money collected through student fees for Sex Week programming, then state legislators might get involved in ETSU’s student activities money, like they did at Tennessee.
Members of the student government know that ETSU students need comprehensive sex education, and most of them support the idea behind Sex Week, Benn said. But the senators also know that ETSU can’t wage a war with state lawmakers, she said. “In an ideal world, I would love for the Tennessee state legislature to let us do what we want with our student fees and for us not to face backlash for certain programs,” Benn said.
Student senators suggested that organizers change the name from Sex Week, or alter some of the programming, but Carwile said she couldn’t do that singlehandedly. The name and the parts of the week were voted on by a planning committee, she said.
The purpose of Sex Week at ETSU is to help students learn how to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy in sexual relationships, Carwile said. “The whole thing is about empowering students to make the choices they want, whether it’s to abstain or have sex,” she said. “We want it to appeal to every single person on this campus.”
Events include sex education seminars, a women’s studies panel on slut shaming and double standards, and a Christian-focused discussion of abstinence. There also is an event about sex toys that has since been moved to an off-campus location and removed from the official calendar due to complaints, Carwile said.
"[U. of Tennessee's Sex Week] goes from the serious to the playful,” said Sacco, who listed events ranging from a workshop for sexual assault survivors to a drag show at the Knoxville campus.
Sacco said she hasn’t heard any complaints from students about activities during Tennessee’s two years of holding a Sex Week. If students aren’t interested, or dislike the topic, they just don’t go, she said.
As for some parents and lawmakers, Sacco said they often take issue with the titles of events, or a few select activities. “You know, they make them uncomfortable, to which I say, 'Welcome to a university.' "
Apologies for discomfort
When critics said they were uncomfortable with controversial titles that were part of the Celebrate Sex Week at the University of New Mexico, administrators didn’t say, “Welcome to a university.” Instead, they said sorry.
After the president’s office received more than 40 complaints, mostly from parents, Eliseo Torres, vice president for student affairs, apologized that the event didn’t have more oversight and that some sensational topics were included.
But the main source of the complaints -- titles about “Negotiating Successful Threesomes” or “How to be a Gentleman AND Get Laid” -- were designed to be attention-catching, organizers said.
The events were organized by the Women’s Resource Center, the Graduate and Professional Students Association and the off-campus Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center.
Summer Little, director of the women’s center, said the Celebrate Sex Week aimed to fuse topics such as safe sex, healthy relationships and sexual assault into one group of events.
College students simply don’t turn out in droves for something titled “Sexual Assault Prevention” or “Sex Education 101,” she said. But they have turned out -- to the tune of some 750 students -- when the center twice helped organize an event titled “I Love Female Orgasm.” The center has also hosted The Vagina Monologues and a “Slut Walk” and never had any backlash against those, Little said.
Students speaking to the university’s newspaper gave mixed opinions of the titles and of Sex Week in general. Two representatives from the campus’s Students for Life group said they support the idea of sex education, but not the vulgar way Sex Week was presented.
UNM junior Katherine Schweizer, president of the Students for Life group, told The Daily Lobo that she attended some of the events, and while there was some quality content, she was opposed to the inappropriate titles.
Little pointed out that more than 1,000 people signed an online petition in support of Sex Week, compared to a few dozen complaints.
Jessica Fields, an associate professor of sociology at San Francisco State University, said she agrees with Little’s assessment of youth culture in that a provocative title is more likely to catch the attention of college students. Field is also a researcher at the university's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality.
“I think the adults’ anxiety actually makes it more appealing to the young people, because it feels risque,” she said.
College students are in a strange time in their life where they’re both independent and dependent, Fields said. They no longer live at home with their parents, but their parents still have an influence over them and may be helping to pay their bills. And parents are going through what can be an uncomfortable shift, where they’re watching their children become adults.
Controversies over Sex Weeks at public universities can be seen as an extension of the debate over sexual education in public schools, and that’s especially true in Tennessee, where lawmakers also have passed strict rules outlawing any discussion that may condone sexual behavior.
Sacco, the Tennessee professor, said the state’s abstinence-only education is exactly why college students need the information presented at Sex Week.
The state of Tennessee has high rates of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and divorce, she said. By threatening the existence of student-organized events that provide comprehensive sex education on college campuses, the state risks more of the same.
Fields said measuring the effectiveness of Sex Weeks is tough. When it comes to serious problems like sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases, little real progress is likely to be made in a week of workshops, she said.
But students behind Sex Week activities insist that sexual topics should be up for public discussion.
It's O.K. if those conversations make students or parents uncomfortable, Fields said.
“Learning how to meet the discomfort with something more than trying to stamp it out or ignore it, that’s what I think is important.”
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