US colleges face backlash over Sex Week

US colleges face backlash over Sex Week
Executive Board members and student supporters painted "The Rock" on campus after they took away funding before the first Sex Week.

Besides their regular classes last month at Harvard University, students could pop into talks and discussions titled "Losing your (concept of) virginity", "Jungle fever: On exotification" or "What in the butt: Anal sex 101". All were part of a student-organised Sex Week, a programme which has caught on across campuses in the United States.

Institutions such as Yale, Brown, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan have all held Sex Week or a version of the event, causing controversy that is putting schools under pressure to stop funding these activities or rein in their students.

The topics go beyond the regular sex education classes promoting safe sex, and touch on fetishes, sex toys and even include screenings of pornographic films.

At the University of Chicago, for example, the porn parody Star Wars XXX was one of the films on offer during its Sex Week in February, and the film's director was invited to speak on "stereotypes stemming from porn".

There were also talks on religion and sex, discussions on asexuality and free HIV/Aids testing, according to the website.

Also in February was the University of Michigan's three-day Sexpertise, which included a workshop on sex toys and a presentation of current research on "sexting", the sending of sexually explicit messages through mobile phones.

Ms Hilary Armstrong, a research assistant at The Centre for Sexuality and Health Disparities (SexLab) at the University of Michigan, says her presentation on sexting focused on how it "plays into relationship dynamics, health communication between partners, and online safety and privacy".

One of the most well-attended talks at Sexpertise was "Kink for beginners", according to Ms Laura McAndrew, a sexual health educator from the school's university health service.

Participants learnt "basic BDSM concepts and how to safely and respectfully navigate new experiences", according to the website. BDSM stands for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.

Ms McAndrew says: "I think its popularity shows that some young adults are interested in learning more about how to have respectful, safe and fun sexual interactions, but perhaps haven't had many opportunities to do so."

The goal of Sex Week, say many of the organisers, is to create a positive and inclusive space for students where they can learn about sex, relationships and sexuality.

Ms McAndrew adds: "Our primary focus is on sharing preventive strategies and skills in the areas of physical health and wellness, mental health, relationships and decision-making."

She says the school has not received any complaints about the programme.

But other universities have had to deal with backlash from students, the community and even lawmakers.

At the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, last year, pressure from state representatives led to the school administrators pulling about US$11,000 (S$14,400) of funding two weeks before the event which had activities such as an aphrodisiac cooking class, a drag show and a condom scavenger hunt.

The money was raised through private donors and the event went on as planned.

Later, the Tennessee legislature passed a resolution condemning the programme, calling it an "outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies".

Ms Nickie Hackenbrack, 21, co-chair of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, the student organisation that plans Sex Week at UT, defended the event. She said that while lawmakers were uncomfortable with the programme, "we have not received such complaints from students on campus. We provide a survey at the end of each Sex Week and we respond appropriately to student concerns".

Despite the opposition, funds continue to be raised through the event's website. Students can "opt-in" if they wish to contribute part of their fees to programming which includes Sex Week.

Plans are already under way for next year's Sex Week, in April.

Students have spoken up against Sex Week at the University of New Mexico (UNM), with one group - Students for Life, a pro-life activist group - saying in the school newspaper that the event would "lead students into irresponsible actions and lifestyle".

They took particular offence at talks titled "How to be a gentleman and get laid" and "Negotiating successful threesomes".

After the event, UNM's vice-president of student affairs Eliseo Torres released an apology saying it would do a "better job in the future of vetting and selecting programmes offered through campus groups".

Stressing the need for Sex Week, Ms Hackenbrack says students in Tennessee are taught "not to have sex, instead of how to have safe consensual sex when they choose to become sexually active". She believes such abstinence-based education "perpetuates sexual shame and inequalities" and a "negative sex culture".

While sex educators are hesitant to say if any topic should be strictly off limits during Sex Week, they do have some words of wisdom for organisers or students thinking of attending such events.

In particular, they should take note of the quality of the speakers and facilitators, who should preferably have proper credentials or experience in conducting open and informative discussions on the topic.

Says Ms Richelle Frabotta from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counsellors and Therapists: "A quality sex and sexuality educator is going to be knowledgeable in the subject matter and provides information or messages from a sex-positive, medically accurate and research-supported perspective."

This article was first published on Dec 07, 2014.
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