Sex Week Arouses Conservative Ire

President Obama’s first budget proposal in 2009 redirected millions of dollars of federal funds from abstinence-only sex education programs to comprehensive sex ed. Unfortunately, many students are still graduating high school without hearing much beyond Joe Fridayjust the facts, ma’am” presentations on how to–or more likely how not to–“do it.”

Into this educational breach comes Sex Week, a fun- and fact-filled event at college campuses featuring lectures, demonstrations, games, vendors and as much information about all things sexual as a college student could ask for. The truth is, kids are sexually active at an early age and by the time they get to college many have been “doing it” for a few years–so now they’re ready for some real information. They’re adults by then, so it’s OK to speak frankly, right?

Not according to Margaret Brooks, chair and a professor of economics at Bridgewater State University. Earlier this week, Brooks wrote a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “‘Sex Week’ Should Arouse Caution Most of All,” warning against the dangers of Sex Week on campus.

She notes that Yale, Brown, Northwestern and the University of Kentucky have all held Sex Weeks recently and points out that student groups–not administrators–were the organizers. For Brooks, this is the beginning of the problem: University administrators need to take charge of Sex Week events if they are to happen at all, she insists. Other problems include the fact that the programs were open to the community, invited sex-industry representatives to campus and were sponsored by such nonprofits as the Kinsey Institute and Planned Parenthood.

Furthermore, Brooks writes:

The emphasis of most Sex Week programming seems to be more on providing entertainment and promoting pleasure, rather than on teaching students about sexual health and safety.

She did, however, acknowledge, “some sessions covered topics like women’s health and sex trafficking.”

Brooks focused on the more lurid offerings to make her points: pornographic film screenings, lingerie shows using student models, porn stars demonstrating BDSM. The fact that all this takes place on campuses drives her to distraction. Granted, when you read that porn stars are demonstrating bondage techniques, you may wonder just how educationally valuable that particular lesson might be. However, to condemn Sex Week because one particular session makes you uncomfortable is hardly the best way to teach tolerance of others’ choices or to help students better understand themselves. College should be a time to learn about diversity and the variety of choices available, in sexuality as well as everything else.

Brooks offers several bullet points outlining her suggestions for “fixing” the problems she has with Sex Week. Her first two points are to put the university in charge, with the administration deciding on content and the faculty conducting the presentations. This, of course, is a non-starter. If Sex Week were up to most university administrations to schedule, it would never happen. And besides, Sex Week isn’t part of the curriculum; it’s more like a resource fair or cultural event. These types of events are typically run by various campus groups and student organizations that invite both on- and off-campus speakers and offer less-than-educational events and come-ons in order to get students to attend.

Other suggestions include holding same-sex-only discussion sections (so the students are more comfortable), forbidding non-student attendees, not allowing any outside sponsors or vendors, and basically making sure the university keeps a tight rein on all activities.

I find Brooks’ article unsettling for two reasons. First, it appears she is jumping on the conservative bandwagon that wants to restore in loco parentis–that civil liberties-quelling stance most colleges and universities gave up decades ago. Her suggestions all rest on the belief that college students are children who need to be guided in right-minded thinking and discussions about sex. But college students are legally adults, subject to the laws and responsibilities of adulthood. Shouldn’t they be treated as such?

Secondly, Brooks wants to stifle free speech and the free exchange of ideas–those very foundations of higher education. While a few presentations during Sex Week may not be to everyone’s liking (and might not, I would venture, please some feminists, either), banning them isn’t going to stop students from perusing porn or exploring BDSM. All it will do is make some students feel isolated, possibly ashamed, and leave them with no one to talk to about their interests. It’s better to have an open, honest and accurate discussion about these issues than to pretend students aren’t curious about them at all.

We need to be more, not less, open in our discussions about sex with students. Age-appropriate Sex Weeks might be a good idea for all ages, starting at the elementary level. What Brooks fails to understand is that once students are in college, they are out here with the rest of us grownups. They have a right to explore all that the world has to offer, no matter how uncomfortable that might make her or other conservatives.

Above: A photo from University of Wisconsin Madison’s event Sexual Health Fest from Flickr user Mark Sadowski under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. I think the administration should tell students "you can organize sex week on the condition that this list of activities and topics are given prominence" [insert list: public health info, date rape prevention, safe sex, contraception ,for example.] I would forbid porn screenings, stripping/exotic dancing, and live sex demonstrations on the grounds that there may be those under 18 present and the fact that there is no educational value, only entertainment value. Porn and sexuality may of course be the topics of a workshop or presentation, but not a live performance. I think student groups could find ways to keep it interesting within those rules.

  2. "Granted, when you read that porn stars are demonstrating bondage techniques, you may wonder just how educationally valuable that particular lesson might be."

    As opposed to someone who's inexperienced teaching bondage techniques?

    Nina Hartley tells this joke: Why did Jesus die on the cross? Because he forgot the safe word!

  3. I am curious why it was mentioned that the President redirected funds away from abstinence-only programs, but not that the health insurance reform bill restored them. See Abstinence Program Funding Restored in Health Reform Law. "The money in the health care law is ticketed for states that sponsor pregnancy-prevention and STD programs focused exclusively on encouraging children and adolescents to avoid sexual activity." That is not a strictly partisan issue. The party in power is part of the problem.

  4. Margaret Brooks has been in long-standing contact with Brown University administrators since well before February, 2010—more than 7 months—when she began raising her concerns. The Brown University administrators, with whom I’ve spoken directly, were and are extremely aware of campus programming, and dismissed Ms. Brooks’ concerns as unfounded after duly performing their own research of exactly the kind she suggests; they thoroughly reviewed the prior works of invited speakers such as myself. I’m told they replied directly to Ms. Brooks’ concerns in writing, but she continued peppering them with emails, and they were eventually forced to rightfully ignore her.

    Also, although Margaret Brooks seems to fancy herself some kind of Paul Revere for sounding the alarm about sex-toy companies…actively seeking access to students through campus resources as if this is some new and dangerous threat, as if companies in other profit-driven industries behave any differently, the Sex Week phenomenon is, in fact, a decade old. Brooks’ willfully ignorant slam is just the latest manifestation of a years-long campaign against similar events from the likes of Gail Dines, John Foubert (see also ACLU press release), and even the misinformed Maryland State Legislature.

    Another glaring hypocrisy Margaret Brooks neglects to make clear in her article is her colleagues’ consistent use of exactly the same sort of images she vehemently objects to. Her collaborators like Donna M. Hughes and their associates like Gail Dines routinely use uncensored pornography in campus lectures, conference speeches, press conferences, and other settings. Funny how her concerns are directed entirely at educators with whom she politically disagrees.

    I wrote plenty more about Brooks' hypocrisy here:

  5. Laura Gottesdiener says:

    As a Ms. intern who just graduated from a Sex Week-hosting university, I thought the week was actually quite valuable. I think Donna makes a very good point about what type of information should be included in the week — and, to speak from my own experience, those topics were included. I think that one of the most productive aspects was a student-run push to promote STD testing. After an aggressive advertising push and a lot of coordination with the campus health center, the student group succeeded in convincing hundreds of students to get tested. Another productive aspect was a student-produced magazine called Sex Week at Yale magazine, which covered topics including global trafficking, abstinence on campus, and contraceptive options.

    However, I do want to challenge Donna's assertion that some explicit activities have "no educational value, only entertainment value." Even at what is considered to be a very liberal university, I was often surprised by the conservativeness and closed-mindedness that dominated the discourse on sex. My experience has been that our campus still maintains a very narrow definition of sex even though it has become fairly accepting of different sexual identities. In my experience (both personal and as an editor for the upcoming Sex@Yale publication, which brings together a multitude of personal essays on students' sexual experiences on campus), traditional, heterosexual intercourse is still very much considered the norm, and sexual activities or arrangements that deviate from the norm are still questioned and treated with skepticism. In my opinion, this narrow definition of what "counts" as sex is sexist and homophobic. While I won't go as far as Catharine MacKinnon in this argument, I do contend that a definition of "normal sex" as signifying only penile-vaginal intercourse does not promote pleasure (especially for women) and fully ignores the gay and lesbian community.

    As part of bell hooks week, I have been thinking about what it means to refuse to be seduced by violence. (Also see Natalie Wilson's blog post.) Because male dominance and control permeates the traditional understand of intercourse, I argue that the act of embracing a diverse understanding sexual acts is part of this refusal that bell called for. Therefore, I would argue that porn screenings and live demonstrations, provided they promote multiple visions about what sex can be, are educational. These explicit shows counteract the narrow-mindedness of a generation that still, amazingly, does not fully accept oral sex, homosexual sex and other forms of so-called "deviant" sexual activity as "real sex." Until we embrace a multitude of sexual actions and desires, I argue that Sex Week, however distracting, offensive or simply ridiculous some may consider it, does serve an important — and feminist — purpose.

  6. Just as there is no way to judge porn except by viewing it and proclaiming it to be disgusting and perverse WHILE YOU SHOW IT TO OTHERS, there is no way to object to this issue without bringing it to the attention of people who would not have even known about it were you not screaming so loudly. Most college students are over 18, in fact many seniors in high school are also. As each of my 4 reached that age, I counseled them that I no longer had the power to "pull their asses out of the fire'…in other words, you are responsible for your own actions, not mommy and daddy anymore. Teaching young adults how to be responsible about their sex life should be a no-brainer. Why do some people still insist that it be kept in the closet? We are not so ridiculous about any other appetite or part of being human. Sex is a God-given part of our humanity. We keep young people in ignorance at our own (and their) peril.

  7. I'm confused why it is this professor of economics voicing her opinion. What merit as a professor of economics does she have to comment professionally in the Chronicle of Higher Education? The only relation she has to this topic is Obama's movement of funding that allowed this. It sounds to me like she does not realize that often faculty/staff advisers oversee student organizations that then organize sex week and that she is inserting her personal opinions on a topic she already disagrees with. What place is is for ADMINISTRATORS to teach students about sex and sexual health? IT'S NOT THEIR PLACE. It should be in the hands of a University or College's HEALTH CENTER STAFF and any legitimate and educated student groups/representatives.

  8. LoveTheLifeYouLive says:

    I feel like the mere fact that we are all (presumably) adults debating whether or not a discussion about sex on college campuses, one week out of the year, holds any significant purpose or educational value demonstrates that there is clearly a need for this type of discussion on college campuses.
    Brooks argues that “student groups–not administrators–were the organizers” of Sex Week on college campuses and that in trusting student groups to organize events like these, the events are intrinsically less informative or valuable than those presented by administrators. But somehow, I can’t wrap my head around that type of thinking. I mean, honestly, by the time students reach college-age, we can presumably trust them to live on their own, feed themselves, work, attend classes, pay bills, choose a career, vote during elections, risk their lives in various branches of the military, but not know a thing or two about sex and sexual health?!?!? How does that logic make any sense? Brooks’ ideas that administrators should lead discussions and events about sex for college students not only inhibits creative thought and independent decision making that is fundamental for young adults, but also assumes that somehow administrators are more qualified to understand and explain the intricate workings of sexual relationships during college than those who are living those relationships on a daily basis.
    The fact that Brooks furthers her argument by stating, “The emphasis of most Sex Week programming seems to be more on providing entertainment and promoting pleasure, rather than on teaching students about sexual health and safety” leads me to question Brooks’ biases when it comes to the topic of sex in general. I don’t know about the majority of you, but on most college campuses I have visited students are having sex for pleasure rather than procreation. Wouldn’t that lend one to believe that a vital part of any “sex education” based discussion should at least recognize that pleasure is a valid reason for having sex? Unfortunately, as Laura mentions above, on many campuses “traditional” heterosexual intercourse is the norm and a very narrow definition of what is and is not pleasurable is recognized both by students AND administrators. If we still define sex as vaginal penetration by the penis, then in addition to a narrow-minded view of what is pleasurable, students also learn a very narrow definition of what “counts” as sex, how to protect themselves from STIs, and what is important to communicate about with their partner(s). All of these seem pretty important to me, and rather than counting on administrators and others who have “been there” in the past to define what is and is not important for college students to know about sex, I feel we should go directly to the source, learn about students’ beliefs and values, and give student organizations striving to generate discussions about sex and healthy sexualities the credit they deserve.

  9. As far as hosting a sex week event, how about having the professors who teach human sexuality (or the students) be part of setting up the content? Usually most people who have had that class already are familiar with some of the topics mentioned.

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