GOP's war on "hookup culture": Tennessee Republicans enraged by college Sex Week

Local wingnuts are "fed up with the perversion" of a college event. A student organizer tells us the real problem

Published February 21, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>CatLane</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(CatLane via Shutterstock)

Next month, University of Tennessee students will hold their second annual Sex Week, with events on topics including a relationship workshop, a sex trivia night and discussions on topics including porn, transgender sexuality and “hookup culture.” But before Sex Week starts, Tennessee legislators plan to vote next week on a resolution – passed by a House committee on a Wednesday voice vote – that “condemns the organizers of Sex Week” and declares it “an outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies.”

The resolution – originally targeted at university administrators, but amended to target organizers instead – is the work of Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that his constituents “are fed up with the perversion.” Rather than “drag the [UT-Knoxville] brand through the mud,” urged Floyd, organizers should “go out there in a field full of sheep if they want to and have all the sex week they want.” Floyd’s bill, which has drawn 28 co-sponsors, follows political pressure last year that led to last-minute cancellation of taxpayer funds for UT’s inaugural Sex Week.

“Maybe they’re anti-fun,” UT senior and Sex Week co-founder Brianna Rader told Salon Thursday afternoon. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

How does it feel to be condemned [by Tennessee legislators]?

Mainly it’s just more disappointing than anything. Because all we’re doing is providing sexual health education on campus, and yet they are taking the effort to pass a legal document condemning us for doing that …

It speaks to the culture here.

What culture is that?

It’s extremely sex-negative … There’s not really room for open discussions …

The university is being more supportive, but the state sort of promotes a stifling environment .

The resolution specifically cites an aphrodisiac cooking show, a drag show and condom scavenger hunt. What do you think it is about each of these events that makes them draw that political attention?

That was very strange to us when we saw the first draft of the resolution ...

The drag show has been going on for several years -- it was around before Sex Week … Obviously they would attack the drag show, because they’re anti-LGBT.

But the aphrodisiac cooking class, you know, and the condom scavenger hunt … I don’t know if they think, because it’s the fun – you know, maybe they’re anti-fun …

The scavenger hunt is … just kind of a fun way to promote, you know, the use of condoms.

Why did you start Sex Week at UT?

As a freshman and sophomore I noted that friends are like, “Where do I find birth control,” and … dealing with relationships and sex … So [as a member of a UT committee] I brought a speaker to campus, and the event went extremely well, and people that attended the event spoke about it for like a week afterward … That’s when I researched how Sex Week was done at other schools, and decided that we should bring it to UT …

Tennessee is an abstinence-only state, so that means that in high school and middle school you don’t learn the sufficient knowledge you need to make healthy sexual decisions. And then when you combine that with … attending college away from home and alcohol … it’s just a dangerous situation.

Did you face controversy on campus about starting a sex week?

We were defunded last year -- two-thirds of our budget was taken away from us about two and a half weeks before the event, and we had to raise about $11,000 back. And we did that in less than 48 hours, because support came in from across the nation …

Last year was much more difficult working with the university. This year they’re being more supportive.

The private fundraising that you’ve done -- does that include corporate sponsorship?

No … The only large donation that we got was from the local Planned Parenthood, and they gave us $1,000.

The original resolution, which said that it [“condemns the administration of the University of Tennessee” and] “expresses its displeasure with the University for permitting Sex Week to be held on the … campus” – what is the significance of that language, and why do you think it was changed?

A large portion of our budget is approved by the state government. So they were threatening – they threatened this last year too -- that they would not pass UT’s budget if they allowed Sex Week to continue, or we’ll cut 3 to 5 percent of your budget …

What that implies is that if they pass a resolution that condemns the university for allowing Sex Week to continue, and then the university does not respond to the resolution, that they can come back and say: OK, well, we condemned you all, you all did not respond to the resolution, so now you guys are being defiant against the state, and we’re going to move forward with limiting your resources …

That was the big scare. That was the big problem …

Yesterday, our administration was in Nashville, which is our state capital, for the Education Committee meeting with the Senate, and they brought up Sex Week again, and it was a big deal, and they’re still making threats. But thankfully, yesterday they did still pass the budget. But they’re still making threats to maybe change the way student fees are being allocated …

It’s basically consumed everyone’s time. It’s what the state’s talking about, and it’s what our administration is talking about.

Are there situations you could imagine where it would be appropriate for state politicians to get involved, or pass legislation related to what kind of potentially controversial speakers or events are going to take place on campus?

No, I don’t see any reason for that. I mean, one of the bills that’s up for consideration is that you would not be able to use any funding to bring a speaker on campus. Whether that be like a Nobel Prize winner, or a sex educator … It’s just crazy.

I think that events like speakers, and that sort of thing, needs to be dealt with, like, internally by university administration, and by the board of trustees. When you have the state dealing with it, it’s definitely an overstep of power.

These politicians who are condemning you – what do you think their vision is for what students would know about sex, or how they would deal with sex on campus?

That’s a complicated question, because it goes back to … Puritan values. So I think … their message is: You don’t have sex until you’re married. And it’s between a man and a woman. And some people would even go as far as saying it’s for reproduction only … There’s no reason why we should be able to be discussing contraceptives, because you won't need them if you’re married.

What are the consequences of that?

The studies have proven that abstinence ed only actually results in higher rates of STIs, higher rates of sexual assault, and higher rates of unwanted pregnancy. So, I mean, there are serious consequences …

How much division or controversy is there about this among students at UT?

We don’t hear a lot of the controversy and complaints coming from students … I mean, the students that really oppose it are sort of just like “live and let live.” That they’re going to just decide not to go to the event. But we had 4,000 students attend our events last year.

How did you end up co-sponsoring an event with one of the Christian groups on campus?

We had an event last year called “Religion and Sexuality” … One of the guys that sat on that panel was the director of Cru, which is a more conservative Christian organization. And he was nervous at first, but we tried to get him to understand where we were coming from. And he actually really loved the event, and he loved that we were able to talk about these complicated issues … in a frank and open manner. And so we talked to him again this year, and we said: Hey, would you like to do more with us? And he really loved the idea. And so he proposed bringing these speakers from Colorado in, who he was familiar with, and running an event with us [“Long-Term Intimacy: Commitment and Sex”] …

We’re not promoting, like, one sexual lifestyle. We’re just promoting sex-positivity. Which means that is inclusive of abstinence and all different beliefs.

What does it mean to have a vision of sex-positivity that is inclusive of abstinence?

The way we interpret sex-positivity is … we approve of all consensual sexual actions. And that would be inclusive of abstinence or deciding to wait until marriage. And we embrace human sexuality, as like a primary experience as humans …

Sex-positivity does not mean that you have to embrace having sex like daily, or anything like that. It’s more about just realizing, you know, sex can be good.

Because the problem with sex-negativity is that it uses fear-based education. And it’s part of the idea that … sex is something you should be wary of, or you should be scared of …

Just because you’re sex-positive doesn’t mean you can’t wait until you’re ready to have sex.

By Josh Eidelson

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