'Sex Week' Should Arouse Caution Most of All

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 29, 2010

Sex-toy raffles and giveaways? Workshops featuring graphic, violent pornography and simulated sex techniques? Teaching about polyamory but not about monogamy or abstinence?

All those events have transpired recently on campuses across the country—perhaps unbeknownst to many parents, alumni, and even professors. As the word gets out about such controversial programs, university administrators must decide what kinds of sex-education programs should be offered to their students, and who should be teaching them.

In recent years, weeklong programs dubbed Sex Week were held at institutions including Brown, Northwestern, and Yale Universities and the University of Kentucky. Student groups, not administrators, organized the programs. The events, billed as educational, used the universities' names and facilities. They were open to everyone, including the outside community. Sex-industry representatives were significantly involved in many of the programs and sponsorships, along with contributions from nonprofit groups such as the Kinsey Institute and Planned Parenthood.

Judging from the program descriptions, the emphasis of most Sex Week programming seems to be more on providing entertainment and promoting pleasure, rather than teaching students about sexual health and safety. While some sessions covered topics like women's health and sex trafficking, others featured such offerings as pornographic-film screenings; a lingerie show using college students as models; and a topless porn star demonstrating bondage, discipline, dominance, and submission to a student audience.

Similar programs are appearing on other campuses as well. In April, a "vayjayducation" workshop at Harvard featured a raffle for $1,000 worth of donated sex toys and the showing of a graphic film clip of a woman's genitals.

Make no mistake about it—adult stores and sex-toy companies are actively seeking access to students through campus resources. Not only do such academic connections boost their corporate credibility, they also provide opportunities for sex-toy companies to market to young people through raffle donations and direct financial sponsorship. Some companies seek direct opportunities for their representatives to teach sex-toy workshops on campuses. Many event promoters working for such companies are using social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with student leaders, negotiate sponsorship deals, and advertise scheduled events.

Using similar strategies, pornographers are also making significant inroads into college sex-education programs. At Brown's 2010 Sex Week, the first 100 people in attendance were given packages of two prepaid, 30-minute cards for VirtuallyAdult video on demand. At Yale's Sex Week, Nathan Harden, a recent Yale graduate, calculated that 11 of this year's 34 events featured or were led by pornography stars or producers—nearly one in three.

Privacy is a grave matter of concern in other on-campus sex programming, too. Dozens of pictures of students, some posing with sex toys, are featured on the Facebook page of a frequent presenter at college sex workshops. News stories identified some of the student attendees by name and showed them wearing strap-ons or being flogged by the workshop presenter. Even if the students gave permission at the time for their pictures to be taken or recorded, such stories and images can exist forever on the Internet, and years later can negatively affect students' chances of finding employment.

Public controversy about college sex programs does sometimes erupt. A research study conducted by the economist Dan Ariely at Duke University came under fire last year for offering participating students demonstrations and discounts on sex toys. Despite some student protests, University of Wisconsin Law School administrators canceled a sex-toy workshop that was scheduled to take place in April 2008 because they felt it would violate university policy regarding the promotion of commercial products. A screening of pornography at Yale's 2009 Sex Week was stopped "midreel after organizers became alarmed by the film's depictions of sexual violence against women," according to an account of the event published in the National Review Online. And in March, the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity, a nonprofit organization founded by five Brown alumni, publicly questioned the use of university funds for Brown's Sex Week and the lack of other points of view being presented during the event.

Clearly, teaching students about sex is not the same as teaching about other subjects such as architecture, politics, or economics. Special considerations must be made for student safety and privacy, institutional policies on commercial sponsorship, and the need to comply with state and federal laws on issues such as minors and sexual harassment. If sex education is to be offered at all, college administrators must take a leadership role in the scheduling, financial support, and monitoring of those programs.

If colleges plan to offer sex education, they must answer some fundamental questions to ensure that their programs are appropriate and safe:

  • Who will choose the programs and schedule of events? Although administrators can and should work with student leaders to develop the program, administrators should make the final decisions. Sexuality can be a controversial topic, and when most or all session presenters promote just one limited point of view—say, multiple-partner sex—it violates principles of intellectual diversity. Those students who may be seeking advice on abstinence, how to engage in safe sex, what it means to get or receive consent for sexual activity, or how to have meaningful monogamous relationships could be excluded from the program entirely, or find themselves having to sit through pornography screenings to try to get information that will help them make healthy decisions. True diversity means developing programs that foster inclusion and respect for all.
  • Who will teach them? Ideally, sex education should be taught entirely by the college's permanent faculty or staff. Current employees have already gone through a credential assessment and reference checks as part of the hiring process. They are familiar with the college's resources, policies, and personnel. They have offices on the campus in case students want to follow up later with questions. The sex-education curriculum can be evaluated in accordance with the college's own governance processes. If circumstances require guest speakers to be brought in to supplement the program, then before hiring them, administrators should carefully review their credentials to see if the applicants' qualifications are a good match for the program's needs. Many people claim to be "sex educators" nowadays, including porn stars, sex workers, and sex-toy representatives. They may not have sufficient training to present students with accurate information or be capable of leading sensitive discussions about sex in a respectful, safe, and inclusive manner. Administrators must conduct simple background checks on outside speakers, including a review of their professional Web sites, before they are hired. Anonymous post-event assessments can also be done to ask students for feedback on the speakers' ability to present topics and interact appropriately with the audience.
  • Who can attend? College-hosted sex-education events should be open to enrolled students only. Prohibiting outsiders from attending provides students with a safer learning environment in which they can feel comfortable sharing their ideas and questions. In fact, universities should even consider setting up same-sex sessions to afford students a further measure of comfort when viewing presentations that some students may find embarrassing in mixed company, or when seeking answers to sensitive questions. In addition, sex-education conferences or open events for the general community should require participants to register and provide identification. That simple act will discourage sex offenders from attending the event and provide a measure of safety to student participants. Minors should not be admitted to college sex events under any circumstances. The university should provide strict enforcement of that policy, as there can be criminal liability for exposing children to sexually explicit materials. Even with a parent's permission, children cannot legally be admitted to X-rated events.
  • Who pays and who sponsors? If a college is committed to providing sex-education programming to students, then it should provide sufficient financial support. Otherwise, student organizers may feel compelled to seek commercial sponsorship. If external sponsors are needed, then administrators should do the asking. Only they have the knowledge and authority to negotiate contractual terms regarding the use of the college's name and facilities. Only they should decide which products are appropriate—or not—for raffles and giveaways.
  • Who sets the policies about what types of programs are allowed on campus? Colleges must always be sure that their policies are followed at campus events and that all related activities are in compliance with state and federal laws. That responsibility cannot and should not be passed to anyone else. Students are transitory members of the university community, and outside speakers are independent consultants who are literally here today and gone tomorrow. Important liability issues are at stake. Universities should adopt policies that prohibit presenters from using images that benefit their own publicity purposes but that could potentially harm students' futures. In addition, to prevent sexual-harassment violations or physical-injury claims, universities should always prohibit presenters from humiliating or making physical contact with audience members. They must be vigilant about preventing nonphysical forms of sexual harassment as well, such as presenters calling women sluts or creating a sexually hostile atmosphere by showing degrading pornographic films.

It is clear that many people and organizations claim to be experts in the field of sex education and are eager to gain access to the hearts, minds, and yes, perhaps even the bodies of our college students. Strong measures are needed to preserve students' sexual health and safety, as well as colleges' integrity and reputations.

Margaret Brooks is chair and a professor of economics at Bridgewater State University.