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.”
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.
Though Dartmouth College is a private college, its liberal speech policies and commitment to free expression have allowed sex columns to flourish uncensored in both the mainstream daily and progressive alternative newspaper, presenting an opportunity to look at columns published on the same campus in one politically neutral and one explicitly liberal venue. Furthermore, Dartmouth (known as the “conservative Ivy” and also known for the far-right newspaper the Dartmouth Review) demonstrates the storm fellow students can cause.
The sex column entered the pages of the Dartmouth Free Press in 2004, when senior Sheila Hicks, sexual leftist and host of the campus radio sex talk-show, “In Your Pants,” encouraged readers to send “the questions you probably wouldn’t ask your parents or your clergy members” to Dartmouth’s liberal, progressive and alternative biweekly. Clint Hendler, Free Press editor in chief during the latter half of Hicks’s tenure, saw the column as “a way to put a thumb in the eye of campus elements who found a ready outlet in the Dartmouth Review for rather churlish and reactionary takes on steps taken by the administration and others to support safe sex and LGBTQ culture.” Unsurprisingly, given the aesthetic of the paper, sex columnists for the Free Press tend to be more clear about having explicit political and activist motivations than those on campuses in general.
Heather Strack asserts in the Free Press, “A sex column is a significant statement of female rights. Not only am I a female columnist, but I am writing about a topic considered taboo and improper for a woman.” Women are the main target of abstinence/purity movements; thus, even if most columnists do not state this as unambiguously as Strack, the campus sex column is not only about students seizing control but about hearing underrepresented voices. Though men are readers in equal numbers, the sex columnist is a (straight and queer) female-dominated profession, with a small minority of queer men.
Sex columns vary widely and don’t always include feminist motivations; some focus on love and relationships, while others have more casual concerns. They can promote exploration of gender and sexuality, or reinforce a heteronormative mentality. However, by and large, student sex columnists have higher standards for inclusive, woman-positive sex journalism–and better access to a venue willing to publish this material–than their off-campus counterparts. Isabel Murray, feminist columnist for the Free Press, takes Cosmopolitan to task for its heteronormative, male-pleasure-oriented approach, while pointing out that it and similar women’s magazines are nonetheless the only noncampus media addressing female sexuality (explaining why until recently it was the most read magazine among college women).
People are downright uncomfortable with the concept of female sexuality: even at Dartmouth’s SexFest, where Murray managed a table, she was struck by how “hesitant and disturbed” people seemed by her dental dams and a two-dimensional model of a vagina–far more so than by the condoms and three-dimensional plastic penis. The most controversial Dartmouth sex column took heat for dealing too explicitly with female sexuality.
The Dartmouth, the campus daily, jumped onboard in 2007 with a sex column in its student life pullout, the Mirror. Reaching a wider, more varied audience, the launch of Abi Medvin’s “The Friday Quickie,” followed by an installment of Zachary Gottlieb’s regular column in the Dartmouth on “Sex-ploring the Sex Fest,” quickly sparked a guest student column condemning the “unwholesome discussion of sex” as attacking his and other students’ values. The author further denounced progressivism’s practice of bringing “into the limelight everything once deemed taboo.” (Ironically, unlike the Free Press columnists, neither Medvin nor Gottlieb identify as progressive.)
Despite this early hostility, Mirror sex columns mostly avoided attacks by steering clear of touchy subjects–little queer content and certainly none of the discussion of fetishes found in the pages of the Free Press. In retrospect, “Sandra Himen,” the last Mirror sex columnist, regrets steering away from serious issues due to concerns that she might “ruffle feathers.” But Himen can be forgiven since she followed on the heels of a columnist who showed how severely Dartmouth feathers can be ruffled when you don’t shy away from the graphic–Aurora Wells quite literally drew a diagram of a vagina for her fall 2007 how-to column on oral sex, “Aurora’s Guide to Eating Out.” One letter to the editor from an alum expressed “extreme digust [sic], displeasure and disappointment at your choice to print the obscene and borderline-pornographic article.”
The opposition to Wells’s column is oddly reminiscent of a similar flurry over decency that occurred at Dartmouth… fifteen years prior. In 1994 Spare Rib, a now-defunct feminist magazine, published a special “Sex Issue” that included–oh déjà vu–diagrams of female genitalia. Matthew Berry of the also-defunct student Conservative Union at Dartmouth, which attempted to get Rib‘s advertisers to withdraw their support, called the issue “soft-core porn” and posited that “Spare Rib‘s staffers “will eventually mature and look back with embarrassment.” Sorry to disappoint: former editor in chief Claire Unis (now Benjamine) has no regrets, and she still considers as ludicrous the outcry over diagrams you could find in Grey’s Anatomy (the medical book, not the TV show). More disappointing is the fact that the same debate is being replayed after the turn of the millennium.
Besides finding Wells’s column unappetizing, Zachary Gottlieb and Lee Cooper, another student columnist, complained about the double standard that they allege would never allow a man to publish instructions on giving blowjobs–even if the Mirror published it, Cooper claims, the author would be accused of misogyny and sexual harassment. As mentioned, college sex writing is female-dominated, and Reimold and the female columnists interviewed agreed that one reason for the dearth of male sex writers might be that women are permitted to get away with more.
On the other hand, Cooper and Gottlieb did little to dispel prejudices about male writers’ misogyny, if one exists. Gottlieb titled his idea for a potential article (perhaps in a poor attempt at humor), “How to Blow Me Like a Well-Trained High-Class Prostitute, Young ’11 Girls,” leading to a letter to the editor from a Dartmouth medical student disturbed by “two male opinions screaming bloody horror with undercurrents of misogyny.” Moreover, Gottlieb’s and Cooper’s assertions are not substantiated by any Mirror policy decision or campus experiment; they simply assume this hypothetical column (which no male was seriously attempting to write) would have encountered such a reaction.
Furthermore, the rhetoric about double standards ignores the importance of sex writing for women to assert themselves against mainstream patriarchal sexual messaging. This commentary and the reaction to Wells’s article (which included comments on the popular IvyGate blog that used “lesbian” as an insult) demonstrate precisely why an article discussing female and queer sexuality serves a greater need than one on girls’ giving blowjobs. People complained about being flat-out grossed-out by what in reality is a fairly vanilla sexual practice.
Censorship attempts notwithstanding, student sex journalists have a better platform from which to write what they choose for a general audience than traditional, restricted “real world” media. They can decide to thoughtfully address taboo topics like BDSM, fetishism and orgies, as Virginia Dalloway did in her Free Press column, without a conventional bias that automatically demonizes them as outside “normal” sexuality. (Dalloway points out that 11 percent of men and 17 percent of women have tried bondage.) Shinen Wong, a Free Press queer sex and sexuality columnist, says he received the most positive feedback from straight men for his articles rejecting the macho masculinity of the “tyranny of the dominant cultural script” as “bullshit.” These Free Press columns demonstrate the potential power of a sex column for furthering a progressive agenda. While sex columns can be whitewashed and heteronormative, they can also live up to their subversive potential in having significant political and social ramifications.
In addition, Reimold found that sex columns influence the rest of the newspaper by “getting sex out of the closet.” National and campus sex and sexuality issues, such as LGBT rights, gender identity, abortion, birth control, STIs and sexual assault, gain recognition as significant, acceptable topics. After the sex column’s introduction, the frequency of these types of articles increased in the Free Press and the Dartmouth; examples include Mary Novak’s “The Battle Over Birth Control: Screwing Over Students”; Andrew Lohse’s “Sexism, Heteronormativity, and the Review,” where the former Review-er criticizes the right-wing campus paper’s anti-sex “Sex Issue”; and “The Sexually Passive Dartmouth Girl”: “Sometimes you just wanna be pounded. That’s what it comes down to.”
The right-wing culture war, with its interest in controlling sex and sexuality, continues undiminished since Obama’s election, meaning that columns informed by a feminist or queer ethic still have plenty to push back against. Reimold predicts that in the next years we will see increasingly risque pieces becoming the norm. Already the popularity of the sex column has spurred the development of entire college sex magazines that provide a more in-depth, varied level of sexual expression, expanding into poetry, art and extended nonfiction.
This summer Dartmouth saw the launch of a journal of gender and sexuality, Sir & Madam (ahem… S&M), with articles and creative writing covering YouPorn, being a drag queen, a preteen girl’s awakening of sexual desire, and the rainbow of gender and sexuality. Regardless of accusations of unwholesomeness, sex doesn’t seem headed back into the campus closet anytime soon.