As of late, UT's "Sex Week" has become a hot topic on both national and statewide stages. One side of this issue takes the stance that this event will be an effective foray into university-level sex education and a dialogue on admittedly uncomfortable topics; the other side seeks to dismiss the event as a parade of perversion on the taxpayer's dime.
Over $11,000 in promised funding have already been pulled from "Sex Week;" The Tennessean reports that the university will allow $6,700 in student fees to continue to fund the event. The Huffington Post notes that you, however, are seeking to have these funds pulled as well, as you believe "It's the same as tuition dollars because the students cannot opt out." According to UT's website, the university has a student population of "over 27,000." Some simple division quickly shows that the bill in student fees for "Sex Week" comes out to a whopping $0.25 per student, an iota of the $1,290 I paid in various fees over the 2012-2013 school year. Ten dollars of those fees (forty times the fee money used for "Sex Week") were Undergraduate Study Abroad fees — what a shame for students who do not wish to study abroad. The fact of the matter is that all students will partially pay for events and programs they will not or do not wish to utilize. Unless, of course, we should decide that the study abroad program suddenly needs new scrutiny as well.
Furthermore, very few "Sex Week" events have objectionable-sounding titles, with the number of educational events far outnumbering the lighter events (a calendar of events can be accessed at http://sexweekut.org/schedule/). Even suggestively named events have merit in terms of education and empowerment — "Bow Chicka Bow WOAH!" for example, includes the issue of communication with one's partner and "not-always-implied consent," according to the organization's website. Other events address more serious topics including "Sex, Gender, and the Law," "The Birds, the Bees, and the Bible," "How Can UTK Stop Sexual Assault?" and an open table with the Student Health Center. All of these address serious topics whose educational merits are self-evident — these events make up a majority of the programming.
Still others may object to the inclusion of events regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community — such as "Loud and Queer" and a drag show. However, "Sex Week" is about exploring sex and sexuality, and the American Psychological Association (APA) takes a firm stand that "both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality." Both have been documented in many different cultures and historical eras.
Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships are normal forms of human bonding. This also goes for transgender individuals, about whom the APA states that, "A psychological state is considered a mental disorder only if it causes significant distress or disability. Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder." An organization of psychological professionals says that LGBTQ individuals are expressing normal variations on human sexuality and gender, which academically legitimizes their inclusion in "Sex Week."
Regarding the reporting that, according to your blog, sparked your concerns: the Town Hall piece about so-called "lesbian bondage expert" (whose workshop is about sexuality in writing and poetry, according to "Sex Week's" schedule) and the Fox News story "verifying" it, as the Metro Pulse points out, are the same Todd Starnes piece, cross-posted on two different websites. Moreover, The Daily Beacon's editor-in-chief, Blair Kuykendall, called the piece "one of the most flagrantly irresponsible pieces of journalism (she has) ever laid (her) eyes on." Kuykendall goes on to say that, "Instead of accurately reflecting 'Sex Week's' goal, Mr. Starnes completely ignores its holistic approach to a topic that is specifically relevant in a college setting until the very last paragraph of the article. UT Media Relations director Karen Simsen clearly states that the week's content will have a broad scope." Given that the title of the article in question is "University of Tennessee Uses Student Fees to Host Lesbian Bondage Expert," rather than something more neutral and accurate (i.e. "University of Tennessee to Host First-Ever 'Sex Week'"), it is clear that Mr. Starnes' intent was not to inform his readers, but to inflame their emotions.
During a phone conversation I had with you previously, you expressed concerns about minors attending "Sex Week" events — you cited high school-aged students attending dual enrollment courses at UT as an example of this. Yet even your infamous SB-49, the "Don't Say Gay" bill, allows topics other than heterosexual sexuality to be taught in high school settings. Moreover, if the parents of said minors are concerned, it is their responsibility to know where their children are and what kind of events they are attending, not "Sex Week's." And, speaking as an individual who was a high school student not so long ago, I can assure you many high schoolers are well aware of the realities of sex and sexuality.
Another controversial topic is regularly taught at UT without any sort of scandal: evolution. Many disagree with the theory of evolution and may not support their tax money going to an institution that accepts and teaches evolution. Yet I've taken two paleontology-focused geology classes (Geology 102: Earth, Life and Time, and Geology 207: The Age of Dinosaurs, Honors Section), both of which discuss the development of life on Earth over time, and both of which have explained evolution and based their instruction on its principles. Are the university's science classes going to undergo scrutiny next? Will you fire my professor because he teaches something that offends some Tennesseans? Perhaps we could "teach the controversy" at the collegiate level and let our future scientists decide for themselves, in order to appease our taxpayers.
All in all, I understand why people are passionate about this topic. Sex is difficult to talk about. It touches nerves that span into a number of areas — health, family, religion, morals, love. But this does not change the fact that sex and sexuality are issues nearly everyone faces at some point in his or her personal life. Poorly informed decisions can literally cost lives — diseases like HIV, hepatitis B and syphilis are serious public health threats that often show no symptoms. This is why "Sex Week" is important: if problems surrounding sexuality and sex are to be resolved, they must be discussed. UT's mission states that it seeks, "to move forward the frontiers of human knowledge and enrich and elevate the citizens of the state of Tennessee, the nation, and the world." We cannot move forward until we talk about these issues in the light of day — discomfort aside.
As a public official, you owe it to your constituents and to the state as a whole to look into issues such as this before making legislative decisions, and to inform them of what you've found. By scandalizing "Sex Week's" more provocatively titled workshops and ignoring the very legitimate academic and public health merits of the event, you are doing a disservice to the university, its students and the State of Tennessee. If you cannot research the event and present it more clearly — or simply choose not to — you are wasting our time and our tax dollars while you spread misinformation.
Moving forward, I entreat you to tell the whole truth about "Sex Week," do some research, and talk to the university's student body, and then allow those factors to inform your decisions as a legislator. If you find yourself unable to do this, the solution is simple: resign your seat and make way for someone who will.
— Caleb Cook is a freshman in theatre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.