The 1996 launch of “Sex on Tuesday” at the University of California, Berkeley–birthplace of the 1960s national student activist movement–triggered the campus newspaper sex column phenomenon.
Within a few years, the sex column had spread to campuses across the country, becoming the “most publicized, electrifying, and divisive phenomena in student journalism,” in the words of Dan Reimold, leading expert on the student newspaper sex column.
Reimold estimates that “during any given semester more than 200 sex and dating columns are being published in U.S. student newspapers, magazines, and online outlets…. What’s most important here is perspective. In the mid-nineties, the number of student sex columns: zero.” In addition to increasing student readership, the proliferation of student sex columns has drawn national attention, like a 2002 New York Times profile of student journalism’s most famous sex columnist, Yale’s Natalie Krinsky, whose most popular “Sex and the (Elm) City” articles drew hundreds of thousands of hits.
“We’re not Generation X–we’re Generation Sex,” one student columnist quipped to Reimold during the course of research for his upcoming book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution.
The attraction of a sex column is simple: most college students– honestly, most people past puberty, period–are either a) having sex; b) talking about having sex; or c) all of the above. Entertainment is usually a key reason behind the publication of sex columns, but the writing is not all about fun. These controversial pieces have proved battlegrounds for the rights of the student press and “appropriate” subjects for publication (ironically, only increasing their popularity and fueling the movement).
Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center points out that “sex is one of those red-flag subjects,” especially on conservative or religious campuses, whether in the form of sex columns, explicit pictures or other writing about sex. At private institutions where students lack First Amendment protections, this can lead to direct censorship–hundreds of copies of a Wagner College newspaper running a sex column in 2003 were yanked from the stands, as was a 2004 publication at La Roche College, a Catholic institution, that advocated teaching safe-sex practices.
Other times, the controversy at a private or public institution is confined to angry letters to the editor or university administration, such as a letter from a parent (self-described as “no shrinking violet and certainly not a prude”) expressing his shock at “the whole total lack of any self respect, self worth or religious morality” he felt was exhibited by a University of West Florida sex columnist, whom he also believed to be “emotionally disturbed and quite possibly mentally challenged.”