It was a compromise of sorts. Last June, the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees approved a policy requiring students to “opt-in” to authorize about $20 of fees to go towards student-organized programming—in lieu of having the General Assembly act on threats to reduce UT’s funding after legislators objected strenuously to the second annual Sex Week, an event co-founded by students Brianna Rader and Jacob Clark in 2013.
The policy’s language says students can opt out of paying for “programming that may be considered by some to be controversial or personally objectionable.”
The fee allocation did reduce student programming money by about $49,000, according to outgoing Student Government Association president Kelsey Keny, whose election automatically made her the chair of the Student Program Allocation Committee when it was created last year.
Sex Week 2015 received funding for just eight of its 35 proposed events. The Legislature would seem to have gotten what it wanted. But not, perhaps, the desired end result.
That’s because Sex Week lives on this week (running through April 11), just as envisioned by its organizers, with all 35 events being offered, from the wildly popular drag show and three presentations by nationally famed sex educator Megan Andelloux to sessions on “Queering Medicine: LGBTQ + Health” and “An Owner’s Guide to Your Package: Vagina Edition.” The sex-ed symposium is treading new ground with 30 new topics among the sessions, such as first-time coverage of disability and sex, the ethics of sex work, and biphobia.
Along with advancing content, current Sex Week organizers say they have clung to the spirit and values established by co-founders Rader and Clark, who were officially condemned by the Tennessee Legislature before last year’s event. A big part of that tradition is providing sex education to students from Tennessee who came up through the state system’s mandated abstinence-only sex-education policies.
“We are changing perceptions of sex, consent, and power-based violence at a cultural level by giving students the appropriate tools to engage in constructive conversations,” says co-chair Nickie Hackenbrack. “The most positive outcome of this type of environment is sexual assault prevention.”
Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), Sex Week’s founding body, emphasizes a mission of “sex positivity, the positive reception of others’ sexual expression regardless of personal views and embracement of sexuality as fundamental to the human experience.”
Trained by Rader and Clark last spring, Hackenbrack and her co-chair, Summer Awad, appear to be academic powerhouses just like their mentors. Hackenbrack is a senior in the Chancellor’s Honors Program, studying biology, German, and anthropology, and she aspires to medical school. Awad is a sophomore Haslam Scholar in sociology and interns at the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict.
Aided and abetted by board member Alexandra Chiasson, a senior in English, the higher-ups in Sex Week have also preserved the organization’s edge and tradition of pushing the limits of acceptable communication. In early April, SEAT released a promotional slide show parodying the animal cruelty public service announcements that play to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” Instead of sad animals, they featured sad faces of UT students with captions describing their bad sex education experiences. The first slide reads “They told me I couldn’t do it in the butt, that it was ungodly;” the second, “If you give head, you’ll get cavities.” Chiasson also wrote an April Fool’s Day Austin Powers-themed parody for the student paper, the Daily Beacon, titled “Sex Week’s Groovy Origins—EXPOSED.”
But perhaps the most notable similarity between this year’s co-chairs and their predecessors is their hustle. They, too, have spent countless hours organizing speakers and evaluating surveys.
They also overcame the funding shortfall—and their failure in the appeals process—with private donations and academic departments’ sponsorship, similar to how Clark and Rader funded the first Sex Week in 36 hours after state legislators defunded it in a surprise move while students were on Spring Break.
This does not mean the book is closed on the debate over how funding went down, however. The organizers say they still feel like it included some bias and discrimination.
“We have a panel called ‘Loosening Up the Bible Belt,’ and they funded that, but the religious roundtable with many representatives from other denominations—they decided not to fund that,” Hackenbrack says.
They did receive funding for sessions called “Science of Orgasm” and “Your Hair Down There,” so it wasn’t so much that the allocations committee steered away from provocative topics—more that they chose only to fund exclusively heterosexual topics, Hackenbrack says.
One of SEAT’s faculty supporters, professor Joan Heminway, says that while the committee naturally needed to identify funding criteria, “some of the criteria the committee used resulted in at least the appearance that certain types of events—notably religious and LGBT events—were discriminated against or marginalized.”
Keny and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Life Mark Alexander, who sits as a staff representative on the programming allocation committee, refute the claims of bias. “All the events proposed were considered,” Alexander says. “There was just a limit on available funds. … In fact, the committee funded a number of LGBT topic events this year. They just did not happen to be the ones proposed by SEAT.”
Keny, who Hackenbrack describes as a “big Sex Week supporter,” notes that SEAT events did receive 15.4 percent of all available funding.
“At their meeting alone—we have a few meetings each semester—we had around 25 organizations applying for funds,” Keny says. “And Sex Week gave us priority order of their funding, and we went down the list as provided in determining what we could and could not fund.”
Next year’s funding process will be even more challenging for the organizers of Sex Week. The committee, Alexander says, has set a $200 minimum cost for events to be considered at all next year. SEAT already must submit separate applications for each of its events, dividing its considerable marketing expenses by 35. Many of its events will not meet the minimum, some of them costing as little as $30-$40. Part of the problem, Heminway says, is that the committee must look at each event individually, even if that event is part of a larger program.
“This type of funding system makes it harder for student organizations to create balanced, coordinated, multi-event programs,” Heminway says. “That’s what SEAT strives for in its Sex Week program every year.”
Next year will have SEAT once again finagling and pleading, writing and defending, and undoubtedly eyeing sources of funding beyond student event fees. And therein lies another irony: The whole Sex Week participation process is offering a very valuable educational process of its own.
“Before this year, I thought I knew how to public speak and write an essay,” says Hackenbrack. “Thinking on my feet has changed everything, and really enhanced my critical thinking skills. And writing 35 grant applications helps my job and educational future in oh so many ways.”
And the week-long event may even be drawing academic achievers to the very school that is neglecting to fund its activities. One such is Geoffrey Hervey, a SEAT executive board member and freshman in the Haslam Scholars Program.
“Sex Week’s existence told me there would be a safe space for me and my peers on UT’s campus,” Hervey says. “That helped me make the decision to spend my undergraduate years here.”
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