The Politics of Sex Week UT

Why is a University of Tennessee sex education seminar for young adults causing legislators to go apoplectic?

The Friday headline in the Daily Beacon was a doozy: "Tennessee Capitol may condemn UT students." The University of Tennessee's student newspaper reported that the condemnation, which comes via House Joint Resolution 661, was approved by unanimous voice vote in the state House Education Committee last week. (It was approved by the House on Monday.) The measure, which has no force of law and can't actually send anybody to hell or the gallows, originally condemned the UT administration for allowing the second annual Sex Week UT (scheduled for March 2-7) to happen, but was later amended to damn only the student organizers, who are led by a couple of senior honor students, Brianna Rader and Jacob Clark.

Resolution sponsor Richard Floyd, of Chattanooga, the legislator formerly best known for offering to "stomp a mud hole" in any transgender person who tries to enter a women's restroom where his wife or daughters are relieving themselves, said his constituents are sick of "perversion," and suggested the students find a field full of sheep and have at them.

(Actual Sex Week topics include sexuality, relationships, religion, health, violence prevention, and building sex-positive attitudes by way of creative—and sometimes titillating—events designed to entice students to come get educated. Sample seminar titles: My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard, Aphrodisiac Cooking Class, and Afternoon Delight: A Discussion About Politics and Policy in Tennessee.)

The bombast is nothing new, and although UT President Joe DiPietro's recent statement of support could have been served up with a side of milquetoast—"I believe free and open exchange at higher education institutions of views on controversial issues is appropriate, healthy, and routinely occurs on our campuses and others across the nation"—it's better than last year, when he and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek gave in to legislative bullying and withdrew two-thirds of Sex Week funding just two and a half weeks before opening day.

Clark, Rader, and their allies demonstrated acumen beyond their years by raising the lost money from private sources in just 36 hours. Then they staged a successful event that drew 4,000 participants, further enraging their antagonists.

"Almost all of our funding this year for all of our budget came from student fees," Clark says. "Last year we came into the game too late to make a full budget proposal, but this year, the only chunk of money that's ‘pullable' can't be pulled, and as a result, the Legislature has taken a much more aggressive stance—angrier. I think it has to do with this being an election year."

This year, they again played Roadrunner to the General Assembly's Wile E. Coyote by securing $20,000 from student activities fees and an additional $5,000 from a UT Ready for the World grant for Sex Week funding, over which the grumpy old men in Nashville have no control. But they will no doubt continue to try to land that anvil on the college kids' heads.

So what's the big deal? Every week is sex week on a college campus (and in the Legislative Plaza, too, one might argue), but there have only been two Sex Weeks at UT, and both have been really big news, thanks to the outsized reaction from the Tennessee General Assembly's Republican supermajority. Contrast their outrage with the silence that met Spring Out!, a gay pride event at Middle Tennessee State University—just a stone's throw from the state capitol—featuring a marriage-equality rally, a drag show, and an appearance by Chaz Bono. It came and went without causing so much as the flick of a legislator's eyelid.

So what's the difference between the reactions provoked by MTSU and UT, other than one event having a less provocative name?

State Sen. Stacey Campfield.

Campfield doesn't represent Rutherford County, home of MTSU. He's never been kicked out of a Blue Raiders football game for wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask. He doesn't own rental property in Murfreesboro, never sued (or been sued by) disgruntled tenants in MTSU's student ghettos, and there's no evidence that he cares about the political leanings of MTSU's guest speakers. But he's deeply interested in what happens on the UT campus, which lies within the boundaries of his 7th senatorial district. This means that, on paper at least, Stacey Campfield represents the state's flagship university. And at the moment, he is on a mission to screw with Sex Week.

This year he has two bills, the first of which, SB1608, would tie funding for outside speakers at student events to the membership size of the sponsoring organization. (Let's call it the size-matters bill.) The second bill, SB2493, says students can't use "institutional revenues from any source, including student activity fees," to pay for guest speakers. (Let's call it the abstinence-only bill.) Abstinence-only was apparently conceived after he discovered that size-matters would end up fully funding big-ticket events like Sex Week while denying funds to smaller groups like the Society of Hispanic Engineers. Abstinence-only simply whacks off all funding for student speakers.

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Rader and Clark are co-founders and co-chairs of the executive board of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), a 60-member group that plans, raises money for, and executes Sex Week. The group's core values, as listed on its website, include open-mindedness, inclusivity, interdisciplinarity, sex-positivity, growth and development, and transparency.

Both Clark and Rader have done research on public health, which spurred their interest in organizing Sex Week. Clark, whose undergraduate majors are health policy and mathematics, with a minor in physics, also holds down two part-time jobs. He says he and Rader learned a lot last year, and made some changes as a result.

Clark says another difference between this year and last is that Sex Week 2013 didn't get any national attention until the funding was pulled. He also says it's not particularly controversial on campus.

"Overall, people at our school don't have that much of an issue with Sex Week and I think the administration sees the need for what we do," he says.

And his opinion of Campfield?

"The most dumbfounding person I've ever encountered," Clark says. "His reasoning isn't reasonable, and I've stopped being surprised at anything he says or does. His M.O. is the shock factor and stirring up trouble."

Earlier this month, the leadership of UT's College Democrats decided it would be a good idea to invite Sen. Campfield to come talk about his student-funding bills. Their president, Josh Stovall, made the call, and Campfield was receptive. Both sides agreed to work up a list of pre-submitted questions, and the College Republicans, led by their president, Brandon Chrisman, accepted an offer to participate. The bipartisan group booked the University Center auditorium and dubbed the event An Evening with Stacey Campfield, to be held Friday, Feb. 21. They put the campus police on alert in case anybody got rowdy.

Negotiations ensued, and it was all good, until the students submitted their list of questions. By Monday, Feb. 17, things were headed south. On Wednesday, Campfield cold-called Democrat Cheri Siler, a Knox County Schools math teacher and numeracy coach who is running for the 7th District senatorial seat and is unopposed in her primary. Siler says Campfield asked her to participate in a "debate" at the University Center Friday evening. Perplexed by the bizarre invitation (Campfield seemed to have forgotten that he has a primary opponent, Richard Briggs), Siler told him she'd check her schedule. She got a "never mind" phone call Thursday, informing her that Campfield had backed out. Campfield, via his blog, blamed the Democrats, even though the event was being jointly sponsored with the College Republicans. Finger-pointing ensued.
 Here's how Stovall says it went down:

"We had told him we were going to take student questions, pre-approved to make sure nothing crazy gets through, and send those off to his office a week in advance. We thought we were okay, but last Monday or Tuesday, he said he wouldn't answer certain questions that we'd asked him, like ‘How do you define student membership?' or ‘What would you need to hear from your constituents to change your mind on the current legislation?'

"Out of 18 questions, he rejected almost half of them. Finally, we told him, ‘You're going to have to take five student questions at the event that you haven't seen before.' Those would've been screened at the event and approved by a College Republican and a College Democrat. His staff insisted that he had to have the final say, and we saw that anything that wasn't a lob question would probably get refused. We told his staffer he could have a say, but not the final say. He said he would take student questions as long as there was a debate. That's when he said he wanted to debate Cheri Siler. That changed what the event was supposed to be—an informative interactive event with his constituents. Also, he's not the Republican nominee yet. Having him debate Cheri would not be ethical because it would imply we were endorsing him as a candidate."

Stovall says they told him that his proposed changes would make it a campaign event—but that he responded by saying he wouldn't come unless he had someone to debate. (You can read all Stovall's messages about it here.) That's pretty much where it ended.

Campfield's take, via his blog, Camp4U, describes a very different scenario. On Thursday, Feb. 20, under an 8:48 a.m. entry called "The problem with Democrats," he said he'd been invited speak to UT students by "the Young Democrat club" about his activity-fees bills. He agreed, but said they started changing the rules and wanted to make it "a forum with Q&A. I again agreed with some minimal security and decorum standards including question approval."

He says the students sent in their questions, most of which he approved. "Then they tried to change off of that and shift to non approved questions where they could rebut my statements and do blind follow up questions," he wrote on his blog. "I agreed to more changes as long as it became a bipartisan event and any local Democrat running for contested office would do the same." He broke the cancellation news in a later entry headlined, "Dems chicken out debate update."

Briggs says he knew nothing about Campfield's broken date with the students, and couldn't care less.

"I'll let Stacey do what Stacey does and have no further comment," Briggs says.

College Republican President Brandon Chrisman says he is disappointed that the event didn't happen.

"I'm upset it didn't go through, but I'm not going to let that get in the way of trying to make it happen in the future," Chrisman says. "Students are unhappy with his legislation, and I have a lot of College Republicans who are unhappy with his legislation. I have a lot of people who signed the petition and are not for his legislation. I don't have as big a gripe about it, personally, but I understand what they're saying. Why take the student fees out of the students' hands? I don't think that party issues come into it at all. And honestly, I'm not totally against Sex Week, either, even if some events seem a bit far-fetched and foolish to me. The point is educating, and that's not a bad thing. It's needed."

And the resolution condemning Sex Week organizers?

"I am not a fan," he says. "To me, that's not what the Republican Party is about. The Republican Party is about personal liberty and protecting rights, and this is just the opposite."

Rader and Clark say they are doing everything they can to ensure that the tradition will go on when they graduate; they have designated SEAT executive board members Summer Awad and Nicky Hackenbrack as their successors to take over Sex Week 2015.