• August 28, 2015

'Sex Week' Should Arouse Caution Most of All

'Sex Week' Should Arouse Caution Most of All 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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.


1. chuckkle - August 29, 2010 at 11:42 am

Well, bring out the sex police!

And I thought that we'd gotten past the in loco parentis policies of the past. Aren't students adults, and shouldn't they be allowed, nay encouraged, to do their own programs?

What is Ms. Brooks so afraid of? Could it be sex itself?

Chuck Kleinhans

2. washingtonwarrior - August 30, 2010 at 11:48 am

Wow... I didn't know Bridgewater State is such a conservative, uptight place.

Warning to all forward thinkers: Avoid BSU's campus like the plague!

3. judith51 - August 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

Pleasure is what sex is about -- thus is central to sex education.

4. greeneyeshade - August 30, 2010 at 01:37 pm

1,2, & 3: Sex is indeed about pleasure, but that's not what it's *all* about. Grow up, my friends.

5. washingtonwarrior - August 30, 2010 at 03:59 pm

Greeney- we're no longer in the stone age when procreation was vital for survival. In our modern society (sans Bridgewater State), sex can be about pleasure, not necessity.

6. greeneyeshade - August 30, 2010 at 05:00 pm

ww, yes we agree...it CAN be about pleasure. Did I say differently?

And actually, it still *is* about survival sometimes, no?

7. ssas2429 - August 31, 2010 at 12:58 pm

The author assumes that there is a clear and "natural" divide between discussions of sexual pleasure and sexual health. There is not. To imply that what is going to be fun and exciting does not play into decisions around protection and partner choice is to be naive.

As to those folks who are interested in monogamy, abstinence, and/or the missionary position being *excluded,* all those individuals need to do is to turn on their tvs, fire up their Internet, or go anywhere else in the world where more traditional sex roles and sexual mores are being portrayed; in other words, the rest of the world that is not Sex Week on campus.

Finally, the idea of lay health educators is a long-standing, widely-accepted practice in health education, of which sexual health education is an integral part. To claim that those with lived experience have nothing to offer as educators is ridiculous.

8. olmsted - September 01, 2010 at 11:35 am

That these events appears, from the author, to be from an imbalanced view of sex, comes as no surprise. Nor does the predictable reaction of those who advance (predominantly or even solely) that perspective in their replies. Isn't this still another example of the hypocritical and partisan attitudes that occur on campuses (and throughout society) that are themselves exclusionary?

Sex as pleasure? Yes! Bring it.
Sex as continuing a species? Darn right! We need it.
Sex as health care issue? But of course! We can't deny it.

For all the sages on stages, campuses are full of morally indefensible views and individuals on this an other subjects. To suggest otherwise (especially to say every view is of equal value) is stupid. The academy should, on no subject, toss out scrutiny and reason simply because someone trots out that tired banner. Free sex is never free. Don't demean its power and worth by treating it so flippantly and casually. Sex has power, and that power can be wielded for good or, dare I say it, evil. But it's not without lasting impacts.

9. 11272784 - September 01, 2010 at 11:47 am

It's important to remember that college life has a couple of major aspects; one is education, but despite the increasing heterogenity of student age, another is socializing young people.

The institution constantly needs to examine its role and stance in the socialization process. When commercial interests start to take over activities such as those listed in the article, it's time to ask whether they're having an undue influence on the content and conduct of the events.

College students aren't prudes, and by nature most academics aren't either. But it's reasonable to ask institutions to reflect on these activities and take a planned role and position in relation to them.

10. 11319762 - September 01, 2010 at 04:58 pm

From the descriptions given in the article, "education" is the one thing that Sex Week was not about. Having a topless dancer demonstrate bondage techniques hardly qualifies as an educational endeavor. Given the epidemics in STDs, AIDS, and out of wedlock pregnancies recreational sex hardly needs to be taught much less promoted. We may be past the era of "in loco parentis" but the events described in this story are just loco.

11. 22228715 - September 02, 2010 at 07:46 am

Although there are some good points about discussing, challenging, and questioning (which are all central activities on a campus, and should be done!) I think the author goes too far when the recommendations then move to administrative and faculty control of all events. This is suggested in the name of "diversity" but sounds far more about power, censorship, and infantilization of legal adults to me. If individuals or groups violate policies, fine, take action. If students are choosing legal, permissible actions that are risky, unwise, or just tacky, for goodness sake step up the advising and start a discussion. But taking over student life seems a bit draconian.

There is also a tone of 'the sky is falling' and 'these young kids...' to this essay. However, I remember events like these happening in the 1980s (someone else will have to think back to the 1970s or 1960s). Some "Sex Week" annual events are celebrating 30th anniversaries or more. Is this really a crisis that requires immediate strict grown-up intervention across the board?

That said... I can certainly imagine that private religious institutions (or others that promote and admit students with a transparent culture of conservative values or parent-like control) might want to take some of these suggestions to heart.

12. ohmegan - September 02, 2010 at 09:41 am

Oh Ms. Brooks,
The workshop at Harvard was actually called The Female Orgasm workshop, not "the vayjayducation" workshop. If you had actually sat in the audience, there were many, many sexual health recommendations that were provided along with promoting healthy choices and sexual pleasure.

As for this "sex educator" who in nationally certified through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapist and The American College of Sexologists, I can assure you, once again, that I have far surpassed the requirements to be considered an expert talking about sexuality issues.

Yes, sex educators get paid to deliver high quality workshops that teach people about health, pleasure and politics. Just as you are paid to deliver workshops on economics. Being paid to talk about sex in an open format is not unethical or seedy, it is a form of education that reaches an audience that requested it and desperately need medical facts and a safe space to have questions answered.

Thank you for your concern but really? Single sex workshops? Are we back in the 1950's? Or do you just wish we were. It's been proven to be more effective and promote healthier attitudes to keep the workshops open to any gender.

Megan Andelloux

13. 11121641 - September 02, 2010 at 10:13 am

College stuedentsd are adults and legally permitted to make thier own choices. Sadly, America is still largely erotophic -- afraid of sex. The Chronicle shows its true colors in this very poor choice. Ms. Brooks may find a much more receptive audience among the fundamentalist-and-teabagging crowd. It does NOT belong here.

14. willynilly - September 02, 2010 at 10:28 am

None of that stuff needs to be taught or presented in college campuses. The students have known all about these things since they were 13 - and have probably used more of than have the presenters. Nothing new here in this essay.

15. crunchycon - September 02, 2010 at 10:50 am

11121641 - your insulting comments are offensive. And wouldn't "teabaggers" like a sex week exhibition? TEA partiers, in the political sense, are not prudes -- they include conservatives, independents, and yes, even some (gasp!) democrats!. Fundamentalists, legalistically minded in any "religion", definitely would not like the idea of a "sex week".

Stop stereotyping and namecalling. It is beneath an intellectual, is it not?

16. drnels - September 02, 2010 at 11:33 am

You cannot have sexual pleasure without sexual health. And a discussion about bondage is a discussion about health. It's about boundaries and safety and pleasure. And that's not the kind of conversation students have in high school. If more places would do things like this, and do them smartly, then a lot of students would be saved a lot of pain. I am known as the "sex and death" guy on campus because pornography, rape, illness, and other issues related to sexual cultures are part of my classes. It's stunning what students reveal to me about how little they know about how to engage in (psychologically, emotionally, physically) healthy sexual activities.

Also, I know that not all of these events are organized by students. Or, if so, faculty are often involved. We don't have something like this at my campus, but I've been asked for guidance by students at other campuses near here that do them. And, usually, it's faculty who call or email asking for help.

17. dpn33 - September 02, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Students are adults and can do what they please that is legally allowed. That doesn't mean they may use the name of their university or designate an event as an official event of the school without some input from that school. Nor can they use campus facilities without following the regulations set by the institution. If a student wants to have a sex toy demo in their own home, that's one thing. If they want to use campus facilities for such an event, it's not in loco parentis for campus administrators to say, "Hold up, not sure this fits our mission or rules about the use of our space." Just because students are adults doesn't mean that they can do anything they want wherever they want.

18. douglashusca - September 02, 2010 at 12:53 pm

What seems to have been missed in the comments is the author's emphasis on the commercialization of sex. It seems as if some of the companies at these campus events, and the ideas and products they purvey, are commodifying sexuality, trying to turn what should be a filet mignon into a fast food burger. Students, college-age or otherwise, do not need this kind of thing--they already seem to be saturated with it as it is.

19. adamreed - September 02, 2010 at 02:31 pm

Calling on administrators to dictate this or any other part of the higher education process is a very dangerous call. It may be reasonable to require that student groups get a faculty member - any faculty member - to sign off on events. Going beyond that, to having administrators make the decisions, compromises the integrity of the education process.

20. satris - September 02, 2010 at 03:28 pm

This could be an ideal case for the folks over at FIRE. (That is, if it doesn't make their heads explode.)

21. 19840183 - September 02, 2010 at 06:58 pm

"Teaching about polyamory but not about monogamy or abstinence?"
Loaded question. And loaded falsely. I remember that the Catholic Newman Center opened up a table at a similar event at the Univ of IL a few years ago to display their views on sex. It appeared they were welcomed just as all of the other organizations were welcomed; after all, everyone recognizes that the out-of-marriage BDSM may not be for everyone...if traditional Catholic reproductive sex is for you, have a great time!

The author is just spooked by out-there, non-traditional sex and conversation about sex. I'm not sure what point she's trying to make, other than that she doesn't like these events and administration should get involved so she feels better.

22. okieinexile - September 03, 2010 at 08:58 am

".if traditional Catholic reproductive sex is for you, have a great time!"

And your children and their children... ;)

23. lotsoquestions - September 03, 2010 at 09:59 am

There are a number of constituencies on every college campus that will be made uncomfortable by these programs -- including foreign students, Islamic students and fundamentalist Christian students. Nontraditional students who are both younger or older than average will also be made uncomfortable. Don't these groups have rights too?

It's easier to sneer and pontificate about how that just proves that "these people" are unenlightened and certainly not cosmopolitan enough to partake of the rarified high falutin' liberal atmosphere of your educational institution.

But perhaps instead you should consider how many of these displays are being read by at least part of your student constituency. When you bring a professional woman in to demonstrate bondage and the RA's in the dorms encourage the students to go, some female students may read this as "You disrespect women's bodies at this university. You violate and ignore my culture's views on modesty and chastity and seem to go out of your way to insult and denigrate them -- all while using my tuition money to do so, and using public university space. How and why should I believe that you simultaneously respect women's minds -- when you appear to think so little of our bodies?"

24. dwunsch - September 03, 2010 at 12:10 pm

In this budget environment, universities would be wise to remember many if not most students attend with parental funding support and involve their parents in the choice of a university. They are paying big bucks and will vote with their feet if they don't like what they see.

25. chuckkle - September 03, 2010 at 01:41 pm

18.'s concerns about "commercialization" would be more believable if the poster was also concerned about the proliferation of branding in student sports: you know, all those Nike swooshes on uniforms, etc. Attend a football game and count the number of commercial logos you see before you get worked up. What's wrong with an outside vendor appearing on campus? Student organizations commonly have events such as a class in wine tasting for beginners with someone from a liquor store or bar near the campus; tips on grooming, clothing and appearance at campus "job fairs" by local merchants are commonplace at schools I've taught at.

23's worries about foreign students, Islamic students, and fundamentalist Christians: dodn't they have "rights" too. Of course, they can choose to not attend these events! And isn't higher education about learning more about the world than what's familiar from your family or home community? What's the big deal if they learn from a poster for the event or a report in the student newspaper that for some people "bondage" is a form of pleasurable sex play? Haven't they already had to deal with the fact you can get bacon on burger in the US? If students who come from societies where breast cancer cannot be mentioned in public or where polygamy is officially sanctioned learn more about US customs, that would seem to be a plus for learning.

24's idea that parents would pull students out of a college because of "sex week" is really bizarre. If they are so concerned with the campus climate, wouldn't they have checked it out before hand? And wouldn't the student be likely to see this maneuver as insulting their presumed adulthood?

Chuck Kleinhans

26. douglashusca - September 03, 2010 at 02:25 pm

to #25--On a rhetorical level, I'm a bit puzzled why one must discuss multiple aspects of a topic, eg., campus commercialization, in order to have something valid to say about a single aspect. On a most substantive level, I didn't mention the other obvious aspects of commercialization (sponsorship of organized sports, etc.) because such games aren't, at least to my mind, nearly as important as sex. Cheers

27. iamcuriousblue - September 06, 2010 at 05:41 am

#18 & 26

Pardon my rather extreme skepticism when social conservatives suddenly reinvent themselves as radical anti-capitalists when it comes to the issue of sex.

More generally, treating the participation of small sex toy shops and sex worker activists to be some great threat of commercialization, while simultaneously ignoring corporate sponorship of events like college football, or the outright buying out of entire research departments by large corporations (eg, the Novartis/UC Berekely Plant & Microbial Biology deal of about 10 years back) would suggest that one is missing a sense of perspective, or simply employing an anti-commercialization argument for rhetorical purposes.

28. stockbridge100 - September 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

"Teaching about polyamory but not about monogamy or abstinence?" Focusing on a topic does not always have to be comprehensive or always portray another side. Teaching about black history does not require covering white or asian history. Covering another side might help illuminate the differences or spectrum of lifestyles or culture but certainly isn't mandatory. Monogamy and white privilege permeates general society already and don't need extra time. I had no idea until after college of kink or polyamory (as opposed to casual sex or just cheating). Good intro presentations on kink or poly should emphasize that bdsm or poly is not for everyone. These events should be and are about creating a safe space and community for those marginalized and sometimes even vilified.

Viewing of pornography is still largely a solo or small group activity. By bringing some of it to large audiences, it allows for frank dialogue about aspects of it, such as the sex activities involved, different relationships between violence and sex, the role porn plays in society, as well as the commercialization or idealization of sex. The Alice in Wonderland musical porn (1976) provides a good juxtaposition with current porn about ideals or attractiveness of female figures/body shape. As with racism and many other "touchy" subjects, we as society must learn how to discuss them in open, honest ways and not hide it in a corner, hoping it will go away. It won't.

Companies seeking out these events are a potential concern. However, students may be seeking these companies out to provide resource for the events and to the student groups. Administrators may seem hesitant or resistant to approving or supporting such events due to their own personal views, or fear of public outcry or legislative backlash pulling funding strings. It's not going to be until many in the profession are willing to engage and stand up internally and externally to these pressures. As I've been thinking for a couple years now, kink/poly or animal welfare is going to be the next sexual orientation movement and I plan on doing my part in making progress.

29. goxewu - September 10, 2010 at 02:22 pm

Caller to registrar: "Do you have a Saxhauer there?"

Registrar" "We don't even get a coffee break."

30. cmeeker - September 26, 2010 at 03:11 pm

It seems like the author's comments apply more to academic courses than to student organzations.

Student organizations should be lead by students. Their advisor should help in terms of understanding University policies, regulations, and support.

Learning about bondage, stripping, and sexual practices is education, as is learning about chess, biology, or salsa dancing.

BDSM exists. Students should be able to learn about it in an environment where support is avaiable; why not on a colleage campus? If students want such educational organizations, then the University should work with them to support their needs.

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