At my dear old University of Tennessee we students have an unfriendly term for our administration: The Big Orange Screw.

This delightful euphemism certainly explains, with graphic detail, the front and tail end of how UT Administration handled the first UT Sex Week.

Sex Week originates from a program out of the Ivy League, (in)famous for its progressive students, professors and administration. The topic, sex, doesn’t do justice to the reality of the week’s scope. At times, it’s all about the student body … metaphorically speaking. Other times, it’s more about doing the dirty. Yet, the events often encompass less about sex itself and more about sexuality and gender. And still, at other times the event has been promoting the porn industry with visits from famous pornstars speaking about their topic of expertise with funding from the booming skin-industry.

Yale pulled the plug four months prior to the event in 2011 when its president, Richard Levin, found offense at financial backing for the program by the porn industry. There were accusations of kickbacks, which I personally believe to be unlikely, yet with such close ties with and appearances from members of the industry it’s certainly not hard to see why there might be concern. Real or imagined, the appearance of impropriety was sufficient. Sex Week had lost its way, returning only after serious  restructuring.

So let’s start there. Sex Education is important. Maybe it needs to happen at home, or maybe at school. I don’t intend to answer that question here, nor answer what choices people should make. Yet, I think it behooves us to wonder why we consider sex education in post-secondary education.

If a student can enter the University of Tennessee, he or she should certainly have enough education to know the risks inherent to sexual behavior, different kinds of contraception, and plenty of other useful things. If a freshman doesn’t know where to find a condom and can’t figure out how to use it, we’ve got some bigger issues to talk about. It’s safe to assume that’s not at issue. College kids just aren’t the demographic to approach for sex education, and many could probably teach a thing or two from experience.

This explains why very little of UT’s Sex Week is about sex education at all, really. It’s essentially about two things: pleasure and sexuality. I shudder to think of a person who finds either one of those in and of themselves to be bad. Some people may disagree with another person’s form of pleasure or sexuality, but that’s a personal choice, just as it’s a personal choice to disapprove with one form or the other. “To each their own” swings both ways.

This is where the trouble starts. The University accepted the program after review by one of its regulatory bodies. It’s an institution of higher education funded from hundreds of sources. Donors, taxpayers, and students alike all feed the big orange beast. University money doesn’t all come from one big pot. Much like governments, there are money pools and earmarks all over the complex university system. Sex Week dipped its beak into two: some sort of university discretionary budget and student activities. Student activities money paid for only one third, roughly, and as its name implies this comes straight from the student tuition – and a specific part of that, the “student activity fee”.

So let’s frame this clearly. Donors, the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee, and who knows who else paid more than $12,000 for a week about sexual pleasure and sexuality differences for the benefit of its students. It’s not that all the individual events of this program are bad, strictly speaking. It’s important to some students, clearly. UT has  a receptive audience for anyone who wants to posit their ideas and beliefs. It’s one of the beautiful things about UT. Yet it’s outrageous that the University’s system for financing student activities decided that such a significant amount of money would be spent on pleasure and sexuality.

Keep in mind, UT and universities everywhere struggle for money. The opportunity cost of Sex Week meant that some other program would go unfunded, beat out  during the competitive program pitching process. If our students can’t find better uses for the limited resources than blowjob talks, dildo ringtosses and drag shows (see: we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.

There’s another problem with the structure of financing. UT is a nonprofit university. Approaching this from a legal perspective raises a serious problem. To have nonprofit status as an education nonprofit, there are fairly strict guidelines to fall within. Granted, Sex Week is a small part of UT itself, so this is mostly for the sake of argument, but there’s an interesting case in point of whether or not this kind of activity can be considered an “educational” program.

Big Mama Rag was a journal with a progressive, feminist, pro-lesbian publication seeking to hold nonprofit status as an education journal, like the New England Journal of Medicine. The court disagreed. There’s no bright-line rule to determine whether such an entity qualifies as an education nonprofit, but one requirement is that some sort of balanced approach must be made and the nonprofit not merely be an advocate of a single position. Big Mama Rag provided education from only one perspective, insufficient to meet the courts requirements for tax exemption.

Sex Week held itself up to be a balanced approach to sex issues. They even had a speaker or two coming to talk about religion, monogamy and abstinence. Yet, let’s give honest appraisal. These speakers were coming locally and for one reason only: the veneer of balance to justify progressive views of sex and gender from every other program, the presenting speakers of which come from around the country at a hefty price tag (approximated at about half of the entire program’s total cost). Maybe I’m wrong. Someone who can go to the events and give a fair judgment, feel free to correct me.

That being said, I struggle to understand why these speakers about religious practice are coming at all. Religion should be studied at universities academically, not in the furtherance of actual practice to promote personal beliefs. Is that also true of the other events? What education value stems from drag shows and dildo ring tosses? It’s confounding. It bears repeating: the week isn’t about sex education, it’s about sexuality education. There’s a stark difference between the two.

Now, Sex Week at UT has some positive benefits and good ideas. I’m compelled to give it a fair shake. One topic of importance is promoting open communication between sexual partners, from one-night-standers to committed monogamists. This could serve as a great forum for conversation. After learning about Sex Week, I had one of the best conversations on sexuality and gender I’ve ever had with a female friend, and specifically about the debate over what “rape culture” may or may not be. We come from different places with very different opinions, but I was able to understand where she was coming from with her concerns. We wanted solutions to stop violence and with that intent, could start to chip away at the causes and solutions. We still don’t agree, but we’re wiser nonetheless. Sex Week may lead to dozens of these conversations.

Plus, sex education still isn’t bad. It’s mostly irrelevant to this demographic, perhaps, as mentioned earlier. And there’s very little being taught in regards to safe practice, except perhaps as the opener or closer to the lecture on improving oral sex for him and her.

Yet, Sex Week should never have happened without clear standards and requirements for educational value and more than a whitewashing of balanced perspectives.  Remember how Yale pulled its program? The traditionalists up in arms about Sex Week, even for reasons other than the cost, aren’t crazy. But the real issue is the terrible use of limited resources. UT Administration should have never allowed Sex Week to get so far with the expectation of funding.

But it did. That’s when it one-upped its outrage. It then pulled the funding ten class days prior to the event.

For all its problems, Sex Week is an effort led by students and for the benefit of the students. Getting anything done within UT’s bureaucracy is tough. I know because I’ve been there – I led several student organizations and created a group that practiced, drafted and lobbied for legislation in a mock Tennessee General Assembly with teams all across the state. Getting funding for the program was one of the greatest challenges during my time as an undergrad, and I took second fiddle to my co-founder in that part of the process. That cost us somewhere around $2000. Having an amount like $12,000 removed is unimaginable.

It’s too easy to blame the students and not the administration. Yet, let’s take a minute to think about power and roles. Isn’t it the students’ job to be creative and come up with these ideas, even if they’re bad ideas? That’s the topic to discuss between students, after all. How much should we invest in care or cash toward sex, pleasure, sexuality or the thousands of different topics from chess to zoology? That’s where we ought to be as students, asking questions.

So these students had an idea, good or bad aside. UT told them they’d fund it. The students then acted confidently with UT behind them, including a budget of $20,000. Then, that support was immediately cut off from the very source in a disastrous failure of oversight. UT screwed up and then  punished the students.

It reminds me of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. BP failed to self-regulate. The U.S. also failed to regulate responsibly. Yet, the world blamed the institution responsible for safe dispersal of resources because it was the entity with more influence over the problem. BP may not be as powerful as the United States generally, but in the context of this problem, it’s entirely inappropriate for BP to blame the U.S. for the oil spill.

Putting that parallel into the UT student power complex, the student organization would at all times be the inferior in power and influence. It had to beg for its “power,” the money it received. It’s inconceivable to place the blame on the students. UT failed, and they should bear the responsibility. Yet, they didn’t. They penalized their own students.

Don’t misunderstand the point here. Public universities are absolutely beholden to the citizens and the politicians that represent their interests, whose notice prompted UT’s Chancellor Cheek and President DePietro to cut the funding from the very top. It’s the right of our elected representatives and taxpayers themselves to question how their money gets spent, just as it’s the students’ right to ask how their own gets spent. It’s not an easy position for UT to serve so many competing interests. However, UT should have never given money to Sex Week except from the student activities money, if even then. It was right to look to public opinion, too. The issue is who bears the responsibility for error.

For the record, one of the early leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly against Sex Week was none other than Sen. Stacey Campfield. Every other article out there mentions him by name, but few others mention Rep. Bill Dunn, whose name doesn’t invoke passionate media fury. Nor has anyone else taken a moment to consider that if Sen. Campfield were so worthy of national disdain that he should be ignored, why did the UT Administration bother with his concerns at all? He’s the popular punching bag, after all, and only one vote in our thirty-three member state senate. The Sex Week issue cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but is part of a greater state-to-university conflict around university spending policies. I digress.

UT Administration should protect its students. Most importantly, it should protect the products of student work. There was enough student interest, and at one point university interest, to make Sex Week happen. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did because UT actively made it possible. But UT punishes the students for its failure instead of proactively resolving the issue.

What should have happened following the public outcry is pretty simple. UT administrators should have sat down with the students and helped them to find alternative funding. The UT system has a great deal of influence. They should have filled in the gaps in funding from other sources on a one-time basis for their mistake. They did neither.

One thing makes me angrier than anything. They didn’t even apologize to the students. They value their students’ efforts so little that it didn’t even seem to cross their minds. All the potential breaches of contract, the discord of deals, reacquiring funding and arrangements that will need to be adjusted on top of the significant work of putting things together in the first place were wrecked by an unexpected decision from on high.

The outrage of funding the program could only be overwhelmed by such an atrocious mistreatment of students.

Epilogue: After six years and counting at UT, seven and a half by the time I’m done with law school, I’ll admit that UT’s actions don’t surprise me in the slightest. The Big Orange Screw remains as steadfast as ever, even through the significant leadership changes over the past few years. And as critical as I am of Sex Week, and let me restate it – there are some terrible ideas on the schedule – I am astonished and impressed at the achievements of the group.

Hats off to you all. Despite our differences of opinion, you’ve survived and thrived where the powers that be tried to squash you out. Respect.

For those that want to follow up on Sex Week, the major events started Sunday, April 7, 2013.


Brandon Whiteley is a student at the University of Tennessee College of Law