Who's That "Sex Week Girl"? UT Student Brianna Rader Starts a Campus Conversation—But Sparks a National Controversy

Maybe this is the best way to sum up the motivations and determination of University of Tennessee Sex Week co-founder and co-chair Brianna Rader: With a few days to go before the second annual event commences, the Tennessee Legislature once again is responding to the public-health extravaganza with rancor—on Monday, the House passed a resolution to declare Sex Week "an atrocious event" and to offically condemn its organizers, mainly Rader and co-founder Jacob Clark. Rader admits she is losing a little sleep leading up to the first event on Sunday, March 2, because she worries—about things like rain.

"If it rains on one day of events, students may not want to walk over to the sessions, and it could cut attendance by half," she says.

Last year, 4,000 attendees made it out for a brisk dose of market-savvy, age-appropriate sex education—a first for many, and that's what's most important to Rader. Like the majority of UT's student body, Rader attended Tennessee's public schools (in her case, Halls elementary, middle, and high schools), with their abstinence-only statewide sex education policy.

"On our campus, you combine that lack of knowledge—kids graduating school with very little knowledge of sexual health—and then they're away from home for the first time and interested in exploring relationships, and alcohol is playing a big factor—that can be a dangerous equation."

This is the result in the 18-22 age bracket, UT's mainstay, says Rader: "We have some of the worst stats in the nation with regards to STIs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual assaults." Sex Week can't solve all those issues with 31 events—including a drag show and a speaker on sex within committed relationships—but it can begin a dialogue that's key to the entire healthy-sex process, says Rader.

"With the right education, students are prepared to make healthy decisions for themselves."

As for the naysayers and the rock-slingers, well, Rader says she's happy to let them roll off her "like water off a duck's back."

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It's funny that the co-founder of an event so contrary to this Bible Belt state's heritage and educational policies should herself be thoroughly steeped in the Tennessee education system—a standout, if you will. In 2009, she participated in Medical Explorations, a program for high-school students that includes UT Hospital rotations, and she counts chief of surgery Mitch Goldman, who heads the program, among her influences. She's both a College Scholar and a Haslam Scholar. In fact, Rader, with her mission of public-health improvement through the adoption of a sex-positive view, would likely not even have gone to UT had she come through the system six or seven years earlier. The lottery system that created the HOPE scholarships that make in-state tuition negligible for the top state high-school students was not in place until 2006; Rader would more likely have attended a place like Carnegie Mellon or Emory if the financial incentives to keep her in-state hadn't been available.

But these four years later, she's very happy with her choice and the opportunities it's afforded her—though she says she never would have believed she'd later be known as "that Sex Week Girl" if you had told her that her freshman year. It wasn't till sophomore year, when she was 20, that the idea clicked. Rader was sitting in an Issues Committee-sponsored talk by prominent sexologist Megan Andelloux. Her fellow students, ordinarily busy texting or chatting at such events, "were so quiet you could hear a pin drop," she says. "And afterwards, they were all talking about what she'd said, really energetic, glad to get the information. I thought, ‘Huh, maybe we should have more of this.'"

A little bit of research revealed that Sex Weeks had been started more than a decade ago at socially progressive (and academically rigorous) schools like Brown University and Yale; a similar event at UT would make it one of the first 10 public universities to host one. Rader entered the fray—but in a way very much in keeping with her academic personality and the research skills that are expected of a Haslam Scholar. "I'm very into research and data, and not into opinions much," she says.

That summer, she and Clarksville native Clark, whom she knew from the Issues Committee and had bonded with when he tutored her in physics, met every day at the Golden Roast coffeehouse, usually for three hours. "We planned our constitution, read articles, researched sexual health and different feminist theories, wrote out our lineup, and contacted speakers," she says. "We're both very methodical—we write, ‘step one, step two, step three.'"

Academic, yes, but it had its fun side: The two never forget that they're marketing to those ages 18-22. Their parents and elected officials might be horrified at sessions with the words "masturbation" and "orgasm" in the titles, but not them. So the pair fashioned attention-grabbers, like a session about oral sex titled "How Many Licks Does It Take?" and fashioned a drag show that turned out to draw the most attendees.

"A drag show relates to sexual health because it's the idea that you should be able to explore whatever definition of gender you have; a lot describe a drag show as an art form, where you can display your gender however you like," Rader says. "The funny thing about this drag show is that most people who came had never been to one before. It wasn't like 500 gay people came out to the event."

In all the research and planning, the overarching conclusion the two reached was to emphasize the idea of "sex positivity."

"The concept is that sexuality is primary to the human condition and consensual sexual activities are inherently good," says Rader. "People misinterpret that to mean you should go have sex, but that's not what it means. The reverse is sex negativity; we teach students to be wary of sex, scared of sex, a fear-based education.

"But when you know there is nothing wrong with sex, you can talk about the realities, some of the negative repercussions, and press students with knowledge they need to make their own healthy decisions.

"I wouldn't say all this if there wasn't data to back it up."

Rader says she doesn't understand why people who don't want comprehensive sex education. "It's like saying educating people about safety belts will make them more reckless drivers," she says.

Lots of the information and speaker options were completely new to the two, but Rader—typical of a pre-med student—says none of the events have ever made her squeamish, not even speakers like Tristan Taormino, whose topic is feminist porn.

"I need to be completely on board for it to be a valid Sex Week component," Rader says. "Hours and hours of research and discussion go into our planning. We research topics, address how they should be presented in Tennessee, and we vet our speakers. Yes, Tristan Taormino was my idea personally. We knew we wanted to address porn, but we wanted it to be addressed in the right way. My thoughts on feminist pornography? There is certainly such a thing as ‘ethical porn.' Porn can also be problematic to society—I'm sure even Tristan would be the first to admit that. This is why it's important to have a discussion on what ethical porn is and how to make thoughtful sexual decisions."

Throughout, Clark and Rader feel like they've been as sensitive as possible to the climate in Tennessee, and still laugh when they remember a Skype conversation early on with organizers at Brown. They started describing a "Sex Power God" party to Clark and Rader, how anyone is welcome, as well as any expression of one's self—a person can arrive fully clothed or close to naked, and dance or talk or engage in sexual activities while monitors give out condoms and make certain all the activity is consensual, Rader says.

"The first 10 minutes of conversation were all ideas that could never happen in Tennessee," Clark says. "They would tell us one—a clever, creative event idea—and we would both just lean out of the view of the webcam, and look at each other with that we-both-agree-that-we-can-never-do-that-right expression."

Of course, there are many, many students on campus who are far more conservative than 98 percent of the Sex Week events. "But they've never caused us a problem—no student has," Rader says. "There's been sort of a live-and-let live policy, and we do co-sponsor two events with Cru, the conservative Christian group on campus. If someone had a problem with any event, they just would not attend. And it would be crazy if every event targeted just one sort of person."

One tough idea to convey, but which neither organizer has swayed from, is that the personal views and experiences of organizers, presenters, and attendees are not the point of the exercise, and focusing on them is an unwelcome distraction from the mission of educating the university community about healthy attitudes toward sex. This is about opening a conversation, not prescribing any set of sexual activities or attitudes—and not about leading by example, Rader says.

"With the right education, students are prepared to make healthy decisions for themselves," she says. "One of my main goals with Sex Week is to get across the point that sex and sexuality don't have to be so prescriptive; human sexuality is complex and sex education should reveal the realities of human intimacy. The main outcome of Sex Week is to create a dialogue, and that serves an amazing benefit to the campus and larger Knoxville and Tennessee communities."

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Rader likens Sex Week to planning a wedding, which can be plenty frustrating. "Only—and I think this sometimes goes under-appreciated—it's like Jacob and I are planning 30 weddings at the same time."

It's an amazing feat, says law professor Joan Hemingway, who first met Rader and Clark in 2012, when they were talking with a colleague of hers in the Department of History, Lynn Sacco, at the Golden Roast.

"Brianna and Jacob, at Lynn's instigation, beckoned me to come over to listen to an idea they had for a student organization called SEAT—Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee—and for the signature program that would be sponsored by that organization on an annual basis: Sex Week," Hemingway says. "Well, you can imagine my reaction, as a business lawyer and mother of two children in their 20s, one still in college. Skepticism doesn't begin to describe it. However, by the time I left that coffee shop, Brianna and Jacob had convinced me to serve as an advisor to their organization and to support Sex Week as part of a national movement of Sex Week programs on U.S. college campuses, and used academic research to support their approach."

Now, Hemingway says, she is "absolutely wowed by what Brianna has accomplished, is accomplishing, and is about to accomplish. There are few adults, no less students, who could handle what Brianna—alone and together with Jacob and others (including the rising leadership of SEAT)—does."

Which raises the question: There are other top scholars at the school who are interested in public health—so why is Rader the one who stepped up to plan Sex Week?

She doesn't have a good answer for that. Part of it may be skills she almost seems born with, like those research abilities. While she also played lots of sports as a child—soccer, tennis, basketball, softball, even gymnastics and ice skating—she remembers a big leisure-time activity was watching "Discovery Channel, Shark Week, those kinds of things. And I still have a shoe box of the notes I took on those shows."

Maybe it's her family; her parents and her sister, Chloe, 19, still live in Knoxville, and have backed her up on this choice to do Sex Week, even when she and Clark started receiving the hate mail and "ridiculously hostile" e-mails after last year's publicity. "I grew up in an extremely supportive household with parents that encouraged open minds, education, thoughtful discussions, and confidence. My parents didn't necessarily promote open discussions about sex specifically, but they provided a healthy framework for me to discuss any topic—even if we disagreed."

Maybe it's her balance: She's also a volunteer at the UT Medical Center trauma bay, took two film classes and made a 12-minute documentary as part of a semester-long study abroad in Pune, India, and is a "bit of a film fanatic," she says. "I go to the movie theater, I'd probably calculate on average one time a week, and I keep up with the Oscars and foreign films."

She hangs out with friends, sometimes going out to eat, other times attending house parties. "We usually call them Sex Week parties, but that's more of a joke. It's just 30 people, plus or minus—the Sex Week planning crowd, with music and dance." Or a group might get together to play board games: Cards Against Humanity is a favorite.

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Whatever the reason, Rader is unshakably committed to the success of Sex Week. "I don't mean to sound like I'm really aggressive, but if I really decide I want to do something, it will take a lot for someone to talk me out of it," she says.

Last year, that meant she stayed firm when "a lot of people" kept telling her the 30-event Sex Week as planned was too much for Tennessee, that she and Clark maybe needed to tone it down the first year. "I was unwilling to compromise, because doing that meant losing the quality of the event and the purpose," she says.

This year, and probably forever after, the same sense and sensibilities that made her stick to her guns about the first Sex Week and raise her hand when the teacher said something she disagreed with in middle school or elementary school will keep her pursuing public- and global-health causes.

"The way I look at these sorts of things, if you decide to take the path of least resistance, you're helping maintain power structures that cause inequalities and affect hundreds and thousands," she says. "It's our responsibility to strive to make things better, more equal, for everybody. That's why I do some of the things I do even though they are not very easy."