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Nearly six years ago, Todd Starnes, a Fox News personality, wrote a column with a headline certain to make the eyes of his conservative audience pop:

“University of Tennessee Uses Student Fees to Pay for Lesbian Bondage Expert.”

The piece summarized the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s inaugural Sex Week in 2013 -- how student fees paid for a campuswide condom scavenger hunt and for a leather expert. These tidbits might seem salacious, but colleges and universities nationwide often sponsor sex-related events with these types of activities -- even on other public campuses in Tennessee -- with the idea that students who are sexually active will learn how to do so in healthy ways.

The widespread publicity set off the public and horrified state Republican lawmakers, who pressured university leaders to kill Sex Week. Knoxville’s chancellor at the time, Jimmy G. Cheek, pulled more than $11,000 in funding for it that year, determined that state tax dollars or tuition money wouldn’t be used, but students raised thousands of dollars in private donations and held it anyway.

This act of defiance set off an extraordinary half-a-decade-long battle between one student group and the Tennessee Legislature, which has gone to astonishing lengths and spent a considerable amount of time trying to curtail Sex Week, passing a law that state money can’t be used to pay for it and rejecting nominees to the university system’s Board of Trustees who politicians perceived as complacent with the event.

At times, the controversy has veered into personal and ugly attacks. Lawmakers have deemed Sex Week “disgusting” and “evil,” and framed its organizers as unintelligent and worthy of public scorn -- a sign of frustration, perhaps, from representatives from a state that limits sex education in K-12 public schools to abstinence only.

This week, the Tennessee comptroller of the Treasury released a 269-page report on the history of state funds with Sex Week, an inquiry ordered by the General Assembly last year and made public Wednesday during a State Senate Education Committee hearing.

It includes a list of possibilities on how lawmakers can address Sex Week. They range from ignoring the event, as has been done in some years -- the writers of the report hinted that the attention from the capitol and the media has strengthened the student group that runs Sex Week -- to legislatively banning it, which the comptroller’s office suggested would surely invite a First Amendment lawsuit.

Randy Boyd, University of Tennessee System interim president, pledged that Knoxville will stop allocating the fees to student groups, by which Sex Week is primarily funded. Instead, the university will directly control nonacademic student activities. It is unclear whether this would diminish some of the programs during Sex Week.

The week's organizers, the student club Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, or SEAT, and supporters adamantly maintain that despite the sensational format in which the material is presented, the sexual health lessons students glean from Sex Week make it worthwhile.

“We have always treated human sexuality as a topic of utmost intellectual importance,” SEAT said in a statement Thursday. “Our programming has been and is still largely put on by professionals, doctors and professors. We were the first organization to bring many sex education-related topics and ideas to campus.”

A Controversial History

Sex Week usually happens in early April every year and features sessions on sex and sexuality, everything from anal intercourse -- playfully named Butt Stuff, a lesson that has generated quite a bit of flak -- to sex toys (called Batteries Not Included) and sex workers.

Attendance has ranged from 1,650 participants to more than 3,500 -- and not just students.

In one particularly fascinating session this year, a black sex worker will present. She requires her clients to listen to black feminist literature, said Joan Heminway, faculty adviser for SEAT and Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law.

“Students are experimenting with that kind of thing, too,” Heminway said about BDSM. “You know, 50 Shades of Grey, the sexual behavior portrayed in that film was emotionally destructive, that kind of sexual behavior, a picture the students are trying to correct.”

In 2014, the year after the first Sex Week, multiple bills were proposed in the General Assembly that sought to weaken the event -- one would even have prevented student fees and other institutional funds from paying for guest speakers at public campuses, a plan that didn’t make it out of committee. Tennessee’s House of Representatives did pass a resolution condemning administrators for allowing Sex Week to continue (which was later amended to denounce the student organizers instead).

Cheek, the former chancellor, met with the SEAT leaders that year and asked if they would consider “toning down” the event. In response, the students leased a billboard on Interstate 40 in Knoxville advertising for it, a marker of what would be their recurrent conflict with administrators and the General Assembly.

Lawmakers continued to press and question why university leaders hadn’t stopped Sex Week, but nothing happened legislatively until 2016, when the Legislature approved a law preventing state funds from being used for Sex Week (it also prohibited state money being used to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns on campus or promote or inhibit the celebration or religious holidays).

Outside of donations to SEAT, student fees were the only way that the group paid for Sex Week -- and the university in the 2015-16 academic year made it possible for students to opt out of their fees going toward the event. The maximum SEAT ever received in student fees was $29,800 during the 2016-17 academic year. 

During the next legislative session in 2017, politicians passed a free-expression law lauded as one of the most comprehensive in the country that stated it is “not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrongheaded.”

Critics have pointed out that GOP lawmakers’ attempts to restrain Sex Week -- which they find distasteful -- seems counter to the measure they championed.

Last year, the controversy became an issue for Franklin Graham, a prominent Christian evangelist who espouses far-right views and has attracted a significant political following. On his Facebook page in April, he attacked former Knoxville chancellor Beverly Davenport, who was abruptly fired last year for what the then system president described as "very poor" communication skills and a "lack of trust, collaboration, communication and transparency" in relationships. Graham urged the governor to step in.

“They’re actually pushing this filthy trash on young people whose parents are paying good money to send them there for a quality education,” Graham wrote.

Later that month, Davenport sent a letter to the lieutenant governor and former speaker for the House of Representatives, suggesting she was embarrassed by the language used in the Sex Week sessions and stressing no state money was being used.

“We do not organize, promote or condone these events, but we are obliged by the law to allow the student-funded and organized event to take place. This applies across student-funded events,” Davenport wrote.

Then came the controversy with the system Board of Trustees. The General Assembly had moved to reduce the size of the board from 27 members to 12, with 10 of those members being nominated by the governor and confirmed by representatives from both chambers in the Legislature.

Senator Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said at the time:

What we have seen in the conduct, for example, of Sex Week on the UTK campus, is not education. It’s not even the free exchange of ideas. It seeks nothing more than to glorify depravity, and it takes the name of the university and drags it through the trash that we have seen touted as educational in lofty phrases and terms. Human sexuality is a legitimate academic field of inquiry and should be approached in a scholarly manner. It is not a circus by which the dignity of the human person is denigrated and besmirched. What a betrayal. Thus, we are here where the sequence of events from divergent paths cross. This governor and this Legislature seek new leadership and new perspectives in the governance of the University of Tennessee. And the events on the flagship campus made us a spectacle and a national embarrassment again.

So, for those candidates for confirmation here, present, heed my words. We expect better. And we expect lots better.

None of the original board members were confirmed. One hopeful initially on the board withdrew from consideration.

Many in the public attributed this to lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with how they handled Sex Week.

What Will Happen?

Boyd has promised to be more transparent with the public about how funding for student groups works, and consider how Knoxville can “reduce the perception of bias” in how it distributes student fees.

But beyond this, it’s uncertain how administrators will proceed. Boyd and interim chancellor Wayne T. Davis haven’t expressed much support for Sex Week. Boyd said during the Senate hearing Wednesday that the system didn’t “condone the sensational and explicit programming … often provided.”

“We believe it has damaged the reputation and overshadowed the many achievements of our university,” Boyd said.

He and Davis wrote a joint letter to the comptroller saying that too much of the event had focused on the sensational, and noted that previous discussions with the student leaders, asking them to focus on human sexuality just as an academic pursuit, have failed.

John Compton, current chairman of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, said in a statement he "endorses the comptroller’s review and fully agree[s] with President Boyd and the actions he and his team are taking to resolve this unfortunate distraction."

Other suggestions by the comptroller were that Knoxville could declare that it is the sole provider of sex-related education on campus, which would also effectively ban Sex Week. Funding to student groups could be reduced, the comptroller’s report states, which may limit Sex Week’s offerings.

The comptroller also noted that Knoxville could start to charge for use of its facilities. Right now, student groups use them for free, which again, would likely make Sex Week more difficult to pay for.

Heminway, the faculty adviser, said that she appreciates the legislators using a real fact-finding arm -- the comptroller -- because of widespread misinformation about Sex Week. But she said lawmakers’ crusade against Sex Week wastes taxpayer money.

“Some of these things make me uncomfortable,” Heminway said. “I’m a middle-aged woman. But what I understand from going to some of these programs is that things students may be doing otherwise are harmful to themselves or others. So, yes, it’s being taught in a proactive way with proactive titles. It’s a way at coming at the educational process not as a textbook process, but driven by personal examples. It’s an unorthodox way of educating.”

As the report points out, other public campuses in Tennessee host sex workshops, some just as long as Knoxville’s.

East Tennessee State University planned multiple sex weeks in 2015 and 2017, though there was backlash, and the student government denied the organizers money, forcing them to crowdsource for it.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also arranged a sex week in 2015 through 2017, though not on as large a scale as Knoxville’s. The event there had sessions called Dildo’s and Don’ts and Cunts, Cops, Cocks, Consent: Oh My! with little controversy, though no university funds were used for it.

Sex education weeks are generally a fun way to raise awareness about an issue that is deeply minimized in Tennessee, said Emi Canahuati, a board member of the Tennessee Alliance For Sexual Health. She also runs a business called Talk and Thrive, which consults with parents and others on discussing sex with children.

In Tennessee public schools, children are only taught abstinence education. And in 2012, Governor Bill Haslam signed a law saying teachers can’t promote “gateway sexual activity.” Teachers can be disciplined for teaching activities that could lead to sex, and the law blocks outside speakers such as Planned Parenthood from coming into schools.

Canahuati called it the “breathing bill.”

“Because even breathing can lead to sex,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is growing in the mid-South, and nationally.

Doctors diagnosed two million people in the country with STDs in 2016, according to the CDC. And in Tennessee, the rate of people diagnosed with chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2018 was up by double digits from the previous year, WMC 5, a local television station, reported.

Canahuati said that the Legislature has “hampered sex education at every turn.” She said students should be learning about sex from an early age. When students arrive at college, they will inevitably experiment, but they don’t have the knowledge on how to have sex safely, Canahuati said.

She said colleges should not be taking away opportunities for sex education -- such as they seem to be doing with Sex Week at Knoxville -- but providing more.

“A lot of the messages they’ve gotten is that sex is dirty,” Canahuati said about students. “They’ve been told, save it for the one you love, and just don’t it, and then they do, and they have no sense to keep themselves or their partners safe.”

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