The Student Sex Column Movement | The Nation


The Student Sex Column Movement

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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.

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Alex DiBranco
Alex DiBranco is a former Nation intern, freelance writer, and poet based in New York City. Her major interests include...

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."

Despite the constitutional right to freedom of the press, occasionally state universities and even state legislators have attempted to put a stop to sexual content they've found inappropriate. Reacting to cover art depicting a woman's breast and a column on oral sex in publications on two state-funded campuses, in 2005, Republican Arizona state legislator Russell Pearce, added a provision to the state budget that would deny funding to student newspapers. Mark Goodman of the SPLC told a local paper that, in twenty years of work on student press issues, this case about sex in the student press was the first time he had ever seen a state legislature attempt to bar student newspaper funding.

In the most recent incident, this spring University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras attempted to get the Montana Kaimin"Bess Sex" column censored, even contacting state legislators in her efforts to get the paper's funding pulled.

Reimold told me that for 90 percent of sex columnists, the only "political" point they are trying to make is that sex is OK and something we should talk about. Bess Davis of "Bess Sex" agrees that "sex really has nothing to do with politics...that's just an impression built up by the media," and views her column as serving a purpose in opening up discussion in an underreported subject. Yet her column attracted the ire of Juras, who "has a history of advocacy for extremist Christian and right-wing causes," writes Bill Oram, former editor in chief of the Kaimin, such as her position as adviser for the student Christian Legal Society, which sued in 2007 when the Student Bar Association denied it funding due to the group's exclusion of gay students from leadership positions and voting. And in Arizona, it was Pearce (described as "ultraconservative" by a Democratic representative) and his Republican colleagues attempting to censor student papers, with vocal dissent from Democrats.

Politics are part of the equation, yet it's not an issue of a simple left-right political divide--liberal media beyond the campus level have done comparatively little quality sex journalism, while even the comprehensive sex education courses the right wing loves to hate are rarely particularly progressive, sex-positive or comprehensive. Reimold conceptualizes the resistance to student sex columns as an authoritarian and protective parental mindset that reacts against "the student generation taking back control of the sexual messages targeted at them." This rings partially true; after all, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the '60s was also about student activism versus the control of the administration and older generation. But--again, as in the '60s--antagonism stems from fellow students as well.

At its core, the sex column phenomenon is a radical progressive movement in the sense of pushing against traditional silence and the status quo, which is a source of concern for many administrators, parents and even students. Challenges to the columns stem from a conservative mindset--whether that be political, religious or cultural. Given that the Republican Party has become increasingly dominated by the religious right and the issues of the conservative culture wars, with sex smack at the forefront, these columns become politicized in a way the columnists themselves don't necessarily intend. With abortion, abstinence programs and same-sex marriage making up three of the right's key issues, the statement that "sex is OK" becomes even more politically charged when the sex in question is generally unmarried and occasionally queer.

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