Sexual Freedom and Higher Education: Why Sex Weeks are A Good Idea

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National Sexual Freedom Day logoNational Sexual Freedom Day is Thursday. Woodhull Freedom Foundation will host panels on the topic of sexual freedom as a fundamental human right and will also release the first Sexual Freedom Annual Report documenting the state of sexual freedoms in the United States today. This is an exciting moment in the movement toward greater sexual freedom for all. And yet it is also a moment characterized by conflict about what kinds of sexualities ought to be free, and what kinds of institutions ought to regulate those freedoms.

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an opinion piece by Margaret Brooks, of Bridgewater State University, railing against the well-established Sex Week programming series that exists, in different forms, on many college campuses. Sex Weeks have been around for at least a decade. They aren’t new. They aren’t even especially controversial. Until now. Brooks is scandalized by the way that commercial interests (sex toy companies) and academic interests (sexuality education) are blended without much to distinguish the one from the other. She is indignant that Sex Week workshops and programs are not taught primarily by full time faculty members. And she is outraged that these programs don’t provide abstinence or monogamy only education.

I sympathize with Dr. Brooks on a majority of those points, a fact which may be hard for many readers to believe.

I’d love to see many more full time faculty members hired who are trained in sexuality education. There is a place in higher education for workshops and one-time events, but to reduce sexuality education to such catch-as-catch can opportunities is to deny the importance of sexuality in individual lives, in social structure, and in culture. And I’d love to see commercial interests less present in every aspect of higher education. The relationship between for-profit corporations and nonprofit educational institutions presents serious challenges for all areas of study and sexuality is no different.

But that’s about as far as my agreement goes. When Brooks criticizes sex week programming because of a focus on sexual subcultures, safer sex, and sexual pleasure rather than on monogamy and abstinence her complaint rings hollow. Sex week programming tends to be driven by student interest. Critical perspectives on abstinence-only education have been part of sex week programs, and relationships are often a focus. Discussion of monogamy, along with discussion of other relationship forms, takes place during sex weeks also. In the United States students get hammered by abstinence-only sexuality education for much of their K-12 years and it doesn’t surprise me if many, when offered the opportunity to explore sexuality in ways that put sexual decision making in a context of relationships, pleasure, and exploration, find that their interests range widely.

Brooks’s article essentially calls for a return to the doctrine of in loco parentis, for a limitation on students’ freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and and on their freedom to direct their educational paths. College students are generally legal adults and do not need an institution to take the role of the parent. Free speech, academic freedom, and freedom to direct one’s educational path are all essential components of higher education. Brooks’s arguments intend to undermine all these principles and the Chronicle of Higher Education gives credence to her arguments by publishing them without counterargument. I am afraid that the Chronicle, a publication I generally respect, has fallen into the mainstream media trap of taking education seriously while making a joke of sexuality. Sexuality education is important across the lifecourse, beginning in childhood and continuing through the aging process, and can be accomplished in a range of settings. Workshops led by trained sexuality educators, academic courses led by scholars and discussion sessions facilitated by students all have a place in higher education.

Sexual freedom means little without sexuality education that covers the range of experience to which that freedom might be applied. It means little without sufficient safer sex education, without education about sexual pleasure, about sexual orientations and gender identities, and without information about adapting one’s sexuality to one’s physical, mental, and emotional capacities. To suggest that college students should be denied the opportunity to learn about sexuality, in all its diversity, is to deny them their adulthood and their dignity.