Under GOP pressure, University of Tennessee yanks funding for LGBT-friendly Sex Week

Tennessee is not known for being a sex-positive state. Many school systems choose, in fact, to outsource their high school “sex ed” to vaguely religious abstinence-only programs like Just Wait. We were revealed as one of the most hostile states to LGBT students when state senator Stacey Campfield of Knoxville expressed his support of the infamous “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” a measure so outrageous that it was featured on The Colbert Report.

Campfield is a mainstay of local politics, making headlines for his belief that heterosexual sex doesn’t transmit AIDS and sponsoring a bill to cut welfare funding for families with kids who don’t perform well in school. Seriously. Little Denise doesn’t make the grade? You don’t eat this week. Campfield’s stance on guns combined with the conservative constituents he finds in East Tennessee have ensured his re-election, despite such antics as getting kicked out of a UT football game for refusing to remove a mexican wrestling match. Again, seriously.

Another player in the saga is Bill Dunn, a state representative also speaking for the City of Knoxville. All you really need to know about him is that he’s been in the house since 1994, he recently voted for a measure requiring abstinence-only sex education in Tennessee schools, another requiring that evolution be reserved a place in Tennessee classrooms, and another opposing the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The one that says, hey, states should act in the best interests of children. All kids should have, you know, a name. The UNCRC also provides standards for a child to be raised by her parents, not the state. A Republican voted not to adopt it. What’s that refrain? Oh, right. Seriously.

Students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville saw the need for an open and positive discussion on sexuality in the midst of this environment, so in December of 2012, juniors Jacob Clark and Brianna Rader came together to create Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), the student group in charge of programming what would be known as “Sex Week”. Sex Week was conceived to be a week-long series of sex-positive, body-positive educational and recreational events inclusive of the LGBTQ, asexual, and kink communities. SEAT obtained permission and funding from UTK through the proper channels and commenced planning for an event slated for spring 2013. Everything was running smoothly: Sex Week was popular on Facebook, SEAT had run out of t-shirts promoting the event, and everything appeared to be fine.

Until the state legislature got wind of Sex Week.

Campfield and Dunn brought statements criticizing Sex Week before the Tennessee General Assembly that were based, by their own admission, on a Fox News article. That article was based on a blog post on the website Campus Reform, which is run by the Leadership Institute, a  nonprofit that prides itself on broadcasting conservative news and training conservative grassroots leaders…. totally a bastion of objective reporting. Town Hall’s Todd Starnes picked it up, and it found its way to Fox.

Not letting the facts get in the way of a good hissy fit, both the Campus Reform and the Fox News articles neglected to include prospective programming on the meaning of virginity in modern society, strategies for UT to prevent sexual assault, and “How to Talk To Your Parents About Sex.” The “Lesbian Bondage Expert” so salaciously referenced in the Fox headline is Sinclair Sexsmith, whose prospective programming focuses less on how to reach your partner’s snatch after you tie her up with leather and more (read: exclusively) on writing erotic fiction and exploring the role of gender in society.

Nobody at UT protested Sex Week. Rather, nobody who attends UT as a student, an ostensible beneficiary of a liberal arts education at a school that purports to be on the way to the Top 25, protested sex week. Who got in a snit about it? The guys, literally, the old white guys, who hold the purse strings. In the face of being called before the legislature to testify about the propriety of Sex Week, UT buckled, going back on its promise to a student group and leaving contracts unfulfilled two weeks before the events were to take place.

Our state legislators used intimidation tactics  to attempt to stop a program that students created, needed, and wanted because it didn’t align with their hyperconservative political posturing. Our Chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, and our system president, Joe DiPietro, made a move not to support the work of UT students, but to pull the portion of funding that came from state tax or tuition dollars, effectively kowtowing to the Tennessee political machine.

The announcement that Sex Week’s funding was getting yanked came after the university issued a statement defending Sex Week against the critical Fox News article. All too conveniently, the statement also came less than a week before UT students were to leave for spring break, a ploy to please politicians while keeping backlash minimal. This, while obviously cowardly and questionably constitutional, left Sex Week with a week of pre-booked, pre-approved programming that was suddenly no longer endorsed by UT budget that’s suddenly $11,200 short.

Students had already been following the back-and-forth about Campfield via Knoxville’s local papers, the News-Sentinel and the Metro Pulse, posting articles on Facebook and Twitter. After the news broke that the university was pulling funding, members of SEAT and supporters of Sex Week came together on Facebook to launch a donation-based campaign to keep Sex Week alive in the face of a massive budget cut. Students began raising awareness through both social and conventional media, and the hashtag #IWantSexWeek on Twitter became a repository for testimony about why UT needs a Sex Week. Students shared their fears and struggles about sexuality and their hopes that an education-focused environment might make UT, Tennessee, and indeed the world, a healthier place to live.

The thoughts students contributed to #IWantSexWeek show the power of sensitivity, critical thinking, and passion for education. A few of the top tweets:

#IWantSexWeek because my middle school Sunday school class teacher told me and twenty guys that there is no such thing as “gay rights”

#iwantsexweek because Knoxville was the home of feminists and suffragists long before it was the home of bigots

#iwantsexweek because we lament the loss of rapists’ bright futures but not the physical and mental trauma of a victim

The nature of IndieGoGo, the fundraising platform that Sex Week is using in an attempt to re-fund its budget, is fundamentally a direct connection with supporters. Purveyors of compostable picnicware and aluminum water bottles throw around the phrase “vote with your dollars,” but Sex Week’s campaign requires that on a true person-to-person scale. To provide sex education to a community that both wants and needs it, we must necessarily overcome the obstacle of an institution that doesn’t want it, and we must do it together. Replenishing Sex Week’s budget depends on one thing: people caring. So far, UT students and supporters have cared enough to chip in what they can. The green meter is steadily rising, as is the cacophany of voices demanding a higher standard of discourse around gender and sexuality in one of the most stifled states in the country.

We want to make Sex Week happen regardless of the beliefs of out-of-touch state legislators and a university administration that won’t stand up for the work of students. Everyone deserves adequate education.

If you wish to donate, our IndieGogo is here.

by Meredith Whitfield and Robin Lovett

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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam L-L

    Happy to see that they’ve managed to raise independent funding; sad to see it was necessary.