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Talking (Very Frankly) About Sex On Campus

Organizers of the campus Sex Week event at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Courtesy of Nicky Hackenbrack
Organizers of the campus Sex Week event at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

"Losing Your (Concept of) Virginity." "Negotiating Successful Threesomes." "Vagina 101." These aren't your parents' college classes.

Consider this a syllabus for Sex Week, a series of workshops, discussions and screenings dedicated to, well, you know what, that are becoming popular — and controversial — on campuses around the country.

Yale University held one in 2002 and since then there have been at least 20, including at the University of Chicago, the University of Maryland and Harvard University.

While the seemingly brazen subject matter has certainly ruffled some feathers, organizers say the goal isn't to sensationalize, but to encourage community dialogue around healthy sexuality.

"Students really know that they need this information," says Nicky Hackenbrack, a senior biology major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She's a member of a campus group there that's organizing Sex Week for 2015.

She says Sex Week is all about cultivating "sex-positive" attitudes — encouraging open communication and informed dialogue about safe and consensual sex.

For Sex Week 2015, slated for April 6-11, organizers are designing programming aimed at a spectrum of identities, including discussions on religion and sex, asexuality and non-intercourse sex. Typically more than 4,000 students get involved each year, Hackenbrack says.

It's true that some of the events focus on ... let's say, techniques. But many seek to engage students in thoughtful dialogue about the queer experience and gender issues, such as female genital mutilation or Beyonce's place in feminism, says Alli Shapiro, a junior journalism major and co-chairwoman for Sex Week at Northwestern University.

"I think that Sex Week is not necessarily based around how-to," she says. "It's very much based in sexual education and LGBT issues and feminism."

The Cost Of Sex Week

Critics, however, say Sex Week sounds more like Woodstock than a high school health class, and too often glosses over the consequences. Some students are worried that Sex Week falls short of its claim to be an inclusive dialogue, often pushing away students of religious communities.

In Tennessee, for example, administrators pulled $11,000 of state funding two weeks before the 2013 Sex Week at UT Knoxville, in response to pressure from state representatives. Months later, the Tennessee legislature passed a resolution condemning the $25,000 program as "an outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies," citing a drag show, condom scavenger hunt and an aphrodisiac cooking class.

"People who disagree with that shouldn't be forced to pay for it," state Sen. Stacey Campfield told WVLT Nashville in March.

Now, UT students must "opt-in" to allocate $20 of their student fees to fund events like Sex Week that "may be considered by some to be controversial or personally objectionable," according to the University of Tennessee Student Life page.

UT is hardly the only campus that's seen this controversy. The first annual Sex Week at University of New Mexico last year triggered an avalanche of phone calls, media hype and an act of vandalism from an anonymous pro-life protester.

"While we knew not everybody would be into it and agree with it, we certainly weren't expecting anything like what happened," says Summer Little, the Director of the Women's Resource Center at UNM. "Because we're not in Tennessee, we're not in the South, so I think we just had a different expectation."

As the conversation spilled into the surrounding community, student organizers say they fielded daily calls complaining Sex Week was pushing a radical agenda and squandering taxpayer dollars. The backlash spurred UNM Vice President of Student Affairs Eliseo "Cheo" Torres to issue a public apology for the program after Sex Week ended.

"While the university administration believes that it is important to offer opportunities for sex education to college students, it should be done in a careful and respectful manner," the statement reads. "We will do a better job in the future of vetting and selecting programs offered through campus groups."

Back in Evanston, Ill., junior Alli Shapiro says officials at Northwestern University have been largely hands-off since she got involved with Sex Week.

"We're definitely careful with not making them too uncomfortable," she says of the administration. "You'd be surprised. We've done a lot."

What's In A Name?

While they recognize the titles can seem offensive, student organizers counter they entice students to participate in a larger conversation about healthy relationships — something they hope can help stem sexual assault on campuses, a topic that's much in the news lately.

At UNM, organizers say Sex Week was a way to expand their sexual-assault prevention training in a fresh, engaging way. For the past two years, UNM has hosted a sexual education seminar called "I Love Female Orgasm" that attracted around 700 students for each year. The popularity of the event inspired her team to put their modest budget toward a week of similar programs.

"We want to come at it from a positive perspective and say we all are adults, let's have a conversation about this," says Little. "Our primary goal was kind of just having all these different topics to open up that conversation and decrease that feeling of apprehension and awkwardness."

To spark that conversation, Omar Torres, the university's program assistant for men's health programming, says the team chose provocative titles such as "How to Be a Gentleman and Get Laid" so students would actually show up and talk about important topics of consent, communication and boundary-setting.

"The only way [to draw students] is to give people something to be interested about," says Torres. "No one wants to go into a workshop that's called 'How to Have a Good Relationship.' "

But some student took issue with their approach. Sade Emsweller, a junior and the vice president of the campus group Students for Life UNM, wrote a letter to the dean of students protesting Sex Week's edgy programming. She argued that it inadvertently objectified women and rarely discussed consequences of sex, such as unplanned pregnancy.

"I think the titles were controversial, and students didn't know what [the programs] were about," Emsweller says.

She adds that Students for Life is looking forward to working with other groups to organize a Sex Week next semester that will have renewed focus on sexual violence prevention and self-defense.

"If you're going to say you're talking about sexual assault then let's actually do it," says Emsweller. "We all have the common goal of helping women, we just have different approaches."

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Lindsay Sandoval