Getting Off … On Campus
By Rebecca Gottlieb
While sex education has long been a topic of debate in American high schools, students on campuses across the nation are taking the subject to a new level. At schools such as Harvard and Boston University, young men and women are turning up the volume on sexually charged issues, producing media ranging from student magazines featuring nudity and sex-related articles to showing explicit films on campus. While some face denouncement by school administrators, faculty, parents, and a number of their peers, others receive praise and even subsidies from their universities.
The need to further a dialogue about sex clearly exists, and students are loudly voicing their opinions. Critics argue that this new form of alternative media is indicative of a decline in American values, dismissing students’ efforts as rebellious nonsense. However, supporters see it as an issue of free speech, a particularly salient topic, considering the conservative tone of the nation in recent years, aptly reflected in traditional university media. Students on staff at university papers, and those participating in college television and radio, face censure at the hands of faculty advisors and school administrators who are under increasing pressure from funders and regulators. Rather than fighting the system for more control in university-sanctioned media organizations, students are protesting conservative constraints by producing their own innovative publications and projects.
In collaboration with a local photographer, Boston University (BU) journalism student, Alecia Oleyourryk, created Boink, a self-described “pornographic” magazine. According to Oleyourryk, Boink imbues pornography with a social conscience. Heralding the magazine as “the student’s guide to carnal knowledge,” she points out articles designed to educate fellow students about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and sexual identity. In the premier issue of Boink, Oleyourryk also featuresexplicit photographs of herself on the cover and throughout the magazine, much to the dismay of some at BU.
Conservative BU president John Silber denounced the efforts of the Boink staff, prohibiting campus stores from selling the magazine. Despite protests from BU higher-ups, though Boink is already launching their second issue, sold through their website and at several commercial venues.
At another famous New England university, students embarking on a similar project received approval and even assistance from their school. Although thematically similar to Boink, the Harvard H-Bomb resists the “porn” label.
H-Bomb, which predates Boink, features glossy layouts of erotically themed pictures and articles that address issues of sexuality outside of the mainstream. Although Harvard’s official school paper, The Crimson, denounced it as purely pornographic, in an interview with The Washington Post, H-Bomb editor in chief and co-founder Katharina Cieplak-von Baldegg defended the magazine, commenting, “There is something to be said for a positive appreciation of sexuality.” So far, Harvard school administrators are showing more appreciation for this type of expression than those at BU.
While reviews of H-Bomb remain mixed among the Harvard elite, staffers managed to garner ample support for their efforts in the form of a $2,000 grant. Dean Judith H. Kid told the Associated Press that the university’s decision to award the grant is an “issue of free speech.” Even members of the faculty got on board, as Harvard psychology professor, Marc D. Houser, acted in an advisory capacity to Cieplak-von Baldegg and staff. Harvard has since chosen to recognize the H-Bomb crew as an official student organization. They continue to manufacture and distribute their “omnisexual” approach to publishing through their website, at the student co-op, and at select stores.
Despite certainly causing a stir, Boink and H-Bomb seem tame compared to the on-camera expressions of one student at the University of California San Diego. Steven York, a 21-year-old student, appeared smug during an interview on MSNBC’s Connected. York enthusiastically defended his amateur porn film, a 10-minute broadcast featuring explicit sexual acts performed with an unidentified woman. According to York, students provided the funds for the steamy film, viewable only on campus. School officials threatened to investigate York’s activities to determine whether the student had violated a campus charter, defining what constitutes an appropriate “artistic medium.” York maintains that Koala TV, as an exclusively university-run media outlet, is not subject to FCC regulations.
Regardless of whether York will face disciplinary action, a poll taken at the school’s official newspaper, the UC San Diego Guardian, illustrates a sharp divide in opinion concerning the broadcast. More than half of those polled (51.3 percent) thought the broadcast was “harmless, fun, stimulating campus life.” The opposition voiced concerns about minors on campus viewing the film, and lobbied for strict monitoring of future Koala TV broadcasts. York’s first student film may very well be his last.
While the UC San Diego debates York’s actions, at one East Coast school, students and school officials organized a festival with sex as the guest of honor. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the Pro-Choice Patriots student group encouraged the campus community to explore the offerings of its annual aptly named Sextravaganza. The group received ample school funding for the festival aimed at raising awareness about date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual health. Promising numbers of students and faculty members turned out in a welcome endorsement of the innovative event.
While Sextravaganza achieved an encouraging level of success, some Virginians displayed far less enthusiasm. Virginia Senator Ken Cucinelli lambasted Sextravaganza as promoting “every kind of sexual promiscuity you can imagine,” and went on to claim that such events are responsible for what he describes as the level of “moral depravity” rampant throughout the country. Responding to critics in an interview with WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., student organizer Amanda Agan argued that the group was “really just trying to educate students and arm them with all the tools so they can make an informed decision about sex.”
The need to educate college students about sex-related issues is clearly a topic of concern both on and off campus. A 2002 CollegeClub.com poll disturbingly revealed that half of all American students have unprotected sex. In an age of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, silence about sexuality remains an irresponsible answer. However, efforts at truly addressing the issues have begun to evolve into the form of sexually-themed courses, an increase in sexual health programs, and student organized events that openly celebrate sexuality.
At the University of Iowa, graduate student Jay Clarkson’s one-time fall course in pornography,offered through the university’s communications program, intends to “get people to think about how porn has moved from the adult bookstore to everyday advertising.” Despite protests by Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants, who refers to the course as “tax dollars wasted,” Clarkson is going forward with plans to lead students through a critical review of the genre, ironically pointing toward an examination of its political and moral aspects.
Aside from studying sexual genres in and out of the mainstream, a dire need remains for basic contraception and sexual health education. At Columbia University and the University of Colorado (UC), a pro-active approach offers help for students seeking answers to these common sexual concerns.
At UC Boulder, peer educators spend their Saturday evenings passing out “sex kits” complete with condoms and contraception information. Students at the school praise the volunteers for picking up where campus health facilities leave off. In the Internet age, Columbia University remains a pioneer in sex education, with their 1993 creation of the popular website Go Ask Alice.Initially a campus-based health education program, the site has since expanded its access worldwide, receiving thousands of questions weekly. A team of university health educators, along with assorted health care professionals and providers, supply the answers to questions about sexual health for college students and members of the general population. With so much positive student feedback aimed at these progressive initiatives, we can hope more universities will join in the effort.
Is this new sexual revolution a response to staunch conservatism, or perhaps a necessary lesson for the youth of America? Critics will label these sexually charged endeavors as immoral, encouraging promiscuity, and promoting pornography. As they once did with [Alfred] Kinsey, critics will argue that encouraging a sexual dialogue furthers the decline of American morals. While detractors scramble to enforce a code of silence, freedom of speech prevails, as this is one revolution not likely to dissipate anytime soon.
Rebecca Gottlieb is a thirty-one year old freelance writer, living in the Philadelphia area, and plans to attend graduate school next year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org