Sex Week: Losing the Fight for Sexual Health at the University of Tennessee

To improve public health, The University of Tennessee should spend more, not less, money on sexual health education.

    University of Tennessee chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek withdrew $11,145 in tuition dollars and state taxes from the funding of the university's 'Sex Week', a week long venture of educational seminars covering HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and birth control [AP]
    University of Tennessee chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek withdrew $11,145 in tuition dollars and state taxes from the funding of the university's 'Sex Week', a week long venture of educational seminars covering HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and birth control [AP]

    With the University of Tennessee “Sex Week” activities currently slated to take place April 7 - 12, 2013, co-founders Brianna Rader and Jacob Clark from student-run Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT) organised the event with the University administration’s knowledge and financial backing. Nevertheless, chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek withdrew $11,145 in tuition dollars and state taxes from its funding. The current clash between the university’s students and those whose purported job is to represent their interests — Tennessee legislators and University central administration — is a classic tale of David versus Goliath.

    Sex education is the lifelong acquisition of knowledge related to sexual and reproductive health of individuals and communities. Increasingly popular on campuses in various regions of the US, “Sex Week” activities typically include panels, workshops, and educational seminars covering HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, birth control, and sexual pleasure. Yale held the inaugural “Sex Week” with Brown, the University of Chicago, and other campuses following suit.

    University of Tennessee’s “Sex Week” schedule includes open hours with the student health centre during which students ask healthcare providers questions in private, in-depth discussion about abstinence and virginity, free HIV tests, an interfaith panel on religion and sexuality, and event-relevant film screenings and trivia. Yet, much of the opposition to the event centres on its content, fuelled by a Fox News complaint about lesbian bondage.

    National polls show 84 percent of Americans support “sex or sexuality courses being taught” in junior high and 93 percent support such education in high school. Arguably, this training is even more necessary on college campuses, where many young adults are living on their own for the first time, drinking is legal for those 21 and over, and local news headlines overflow with stories about sexual assaults on youth.

    The University of Tennessee has funds to continue supporting “Sex Week.” Let’s do the math. As recently as 2007, the University’s endowment, the size of its investments, topped $1 bn. Additionally, in the current academic year, each student pays the university $9,092 for in-state and $27,582 for out-of-state tuition. Since approximately 21,126 undergraduate and 6,253 graduate students are enrolled, tuition income could range $248,929,868 to $755,167,578 this year.

    A bad economy with fewer jobs can be good for universities because more students enrol, and they’re now paying more to do so. Although American wages are decreasing, the average published tuition and fees, in particular for out-of-state students, has increased 4.2 percent according to reports from the College Board. In Tennessee, the five-year percent change in the enrolment-weighted average published in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students at public four-year institutions represented a 45 percent increase.

    Sexual health education is a good investment. STDs cost the US healthcare system $17 bn annually. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reports, for every 100,000 Tennessee youth ages 15 - 24, there are 22,950 cases of Chlamydia and 5,149 cases of Gonorrhea. According to the National Campaign, ranking states from 1 to 50 with 1 best and 50 the worst, Tennessee’s teen pregnancy rate ranks 40, and this childbearing cost Tennessee taxpayers at least $272 million. In 2009, 49 percent of Tennessee births were funded by Medicaid.

    Research shows long-term impacts of successful sex education include lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs/STDs) and lower pregnancy rates. Additionally, students who receive sex education are more likely to delay initiation of sex and reduce the number of sex partners; they are also less likely to have unprotected sex. 

    Although required by Tennessee laws, education emphasising abstinence has been shown to be ineffective. In fact, the percentage of Tennessee high school students stating they did not use a condom the last they had sex, 41 percent, is higher than the national average.

    Despite these public health facts and the University of Tennessee’s mission to “move forward the frontiers of human knowledge and enrich and elevate the citizens of the state of Tennessee,” the administration continues to withhold full financial support for “Sex Week.”

    As an educator with 15 years experience, including 8 specialising in sexual and reproductive health, I believe the University of Tennessee’s “Sex Week” should not only proceed, it should also be expanded to include even more comprehensive, medically-accurate seminars and additional speakers of colour to reflect Tennessee’s diverse population which is 63.4 percent White (non hispanic), 16.7 percent Latino/a, 13.1 percent Black, 5 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent American Indian / Alaska Native.

    In Tennessee, there are 14,751 people living with HIV/AIDS, and there have been 406 HIV/AIDS-related deaths. African American Tennesseans comprise 54.4 percent of the estimated numbers of persons living with an AIDS diagnosis in the state. Nevertheless, the day after reneging funding for “Sex Week,” the University also withdrew support for the four-day “Saving Ourselves” health education conference focusing on the African-American LGBTQ community, health service providers, and clinicians in the tri-state area covering Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Event organisers revealed they have been asked to remove the University of Tennessee logo from all promotional materials.

    Stories about successful underdogs are as old as time, with Goliath appearing in the Bible, Qur'an, and Babylonian Talmud. For the sake of University of Tennessee students and the Knoxville community’s public health, let’s hope “Sex Week” student organisers are youthful Davids who will eventually defeat opposition from chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek, university president Joe DiPietro and others in Tennessee.

    Twanna A. Hines, M.S., is an award­-winning educator and commentator focused on the sociology of sexuality and its relationship to culture and Internet technology. Founder of FUNKY BROWN CHICK®, she has contributed to CNN, NPR, Sirius, Time Out New York, Lifetime, Mashable, New York Press, Fast Company magazine, and the Huffington Post as well as CBC (Canadian National Radio) and Paris Première (French Television). She currently lives in New York and Chicago.

    You can follow Twanna on Twitter @funkybrownchick



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