I had no initial interest in Sex Week.
When I first heard of the event in 2013, I assumed it was nothing more than a stereotypical sex ed program. The most impressive feature I could identify about Sex Week was its use of clever gimmicks to rope young college students into a room where they would probably be forced to look at pictures of STIs, reproductive organs and penis/vagina diagrams. To my cynical ears, which had primarily encountered abstinence only or fear based education, the informational panels were suspicious and the quirky events too vulgar for my Southern lady sensibilities.
Then I heard of the mounting controversy brought about by forces from Nashville seeking to protect my Christian morals from such heinous influences. Growing up in a culture which is fundamentally opposed to outsider intervention, my instinctive response was outrage and a mouth-frothing determination to do everything in my power to resist government overreach. How dare they insinuate that I was somehow too incompetent a Christian to determine for myself what was appropriate? How dare they lecture us on what the University of Tennessee Knoxville stands for when most have never studied under the banner of Rocky Top? How dare they presume to be better qualified to represent student interests than the student government which we elected? How dare they threaten to destroy my beloved university with their indiscriminate scorched earth strategy against student funded events? How dare they tyrannically try to cram their antisexual agenda down my throat? How dare they!
While I had little taste for any form of sexual education, no concept of sex positivity, and even less interest in exploring various forms of sexuality, I had a firm belief that meddling outsiders are to be resisted in the most excessive, self-defeating ways possible. Thus, I became an avid supporter of Sex Week UT for all the wrong reasons.
I spitefully ventured to a few panels and learned something phenomenal about the world: sex is not merely about sex. It is not simply reproduction, vulgarity, funsies, romance and STIs. Sex is about power, pleasure, gender roles, culture, religion, social structure, history, politics and so much more than I ever considered before. Going to Sex Week gave me the words I needed to identify the multiple, frequently contradictory pressures I experience as a woman.
Something about recognizing the role sex played in how I was defined by society was infinitely more empowering than all the girl-power, pro-feminism messages I have tolerated throughout my life. I am encouraged to flaunt my femininity for the sake of adding to the diversity of STEM degrees, and yet I feel a need to repress my gender in the male dominated field of chemistry in order to be taken seriously. As a Christian, I find the prospect of being able to tell my husband he is the only one I have shared myself with to be romantic, but as an educated girl on campus I should put out or else I am a prude who can’t think beyond my Bible. Is it truly free thinking if I abandon my religious notions of romance due to peer pressure? As a modern woman, I am supposed to confidently manage all of these expectations without giving in to the patriarchy. Sex Week gave me the tools I needed to admit I do feel these pressures whether I want to acknowledge them or not, and my sexuality and gender do affect me. Learning about sex as more than an act of reproduction gave me a context I never had before to truly examine what it meant to be a woman, and all the expectations which came with my gender. What a remarkable tool Sex Week gave me!
In 2014, I obtained a Sex Week t-shirt and proudly waltzed through rural East Tennessee in my skinny jeans, cowgirl boots, crucifix earrings and displayed the event’s logo for all the world to see. The outsiders have returned with a vengeance, once again antagonizing my instinct to fend them off with all the self-righteous fury and borderline hateful “us vs. them” mentality that my heritage has endowed upon me. Yet this time I am motivated by a profound sense of affection for Sex Week and what it stands for rather than my raw need to give a metaphorical middle finger to the insurgents from Nashville. This time I am pleased to actively participate in the events. I have even dared to venture into panels I suspected of vulgarity. Oddly, I have found myself both pleasantly surprised and secretly disappointed when they turned out to be educational and far from perverse. Perhaps a part of me was hoping to be shocked out of my comfort zone. Thus, when a young woman from rural Tennessee timidly approached me to inquire about my shirt, I did not flinch when she asked if I was a sexual deviant of some sort. I felt somewhat silly to admit I was not so worldly when it came to sex, and was truthfully a virgin. She was astonished that someone promoting Sex Week so openly and unapologetically was a virgin considering her assumptions likely reflected my own initial prejudices. When she asked me why a virgin like me was so thrilled to participate in an event like Sex Week, I told her that sex is about so much more than sex.
Everyone should learn how to talk about it.