The Problem with the Campus Sex Column “Movement”
A recent article in The Nation highlighted campus sex columns as progressive and under conservative attack, but sometimes sex columns get criticism from the left.
Last week, writing in The Nation, Alex Dibranco anointed a new class of political activists: college sex columnists. The campus sex column, Dibranco argued, is “a radical progressive movement in the sense of pushing against traditional silence and the status quo.”
Dibranco discussed the political significance of the opposition to student sex columns. “Challenges to the columns stem from a conservative mindset,” writes Dibranco. “Given that the Republican Party has become increasingly dominated by the religious right and the issues of the conservative culture wars, with sex smack at the forefront, these columns become politicized in a way the columnists themselves don’t necessarily intend . . . The statement that ‘sex is OK’ becomes even more politically charged when the sex in question is generally unmarried and occasionally queer.” (Full disclosure: Dibranco is the former editor of a Campus Progress-sponsored publication, the Dartmouth Free Press, and a former Campus Progress intern.)
Student sex columns first arrived in 1996, acknowledging that sex in college was indeed a radical position. Since then, sex columns printed in student newspapers have weathered boycotts, funding battles—and massive success. In the past 15 years, the number of campus sex-and-dating columns in the United States exploded from zero to more than 200. Today, sex columns can be found on campuses as liberal as Berkeley and as Catholic as Georgetown; Dartmouth, arguably the most conservative Ivy, has two. It’s not just progressive students who are willing talk about sex—it’s everybody.
The sex column boom reflects a broadening of the sexual dialog, both on campus and off. In most colleges across the country, “sex is OK” is a foregone conclusion. Even conservative students have gotten comfortable mouthing off about bedroom issues. The national conversation about sex has opened so widely that some conservatives claim to enjoy sex to bolster their arguments. This spring, University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras lobbied for censorship of the campus sex column, which included ruminations on sex toys, unprotected sex, and public hook-ups. But Juras also argued, “Let me say, I’m not opposed to sex … I’m happily married and [sex is] an important part of our relationship.”
Most campus sex columns haven’t become so conservative as to extol the virtues of conjugal bonds. But as campus sex talk filters into the mainstream, the student sex column movement has increasingly leaned toward the moderate. While some campuses still elicit knee-jerk conservative reactions over claims of published smut—the editor of the Towson University Towerlight recently resigned over a mutual masturbation primer printed in the paper—others have inspired progressive protests. Last month, Juliana Brint, in the Georgetown Voice, accused the Hoya’s sex columnist of printing “backwards, anti-feminist screeds” based on “outdated, belittling generalizations about the female psyche.”
On today’s college campuses, it’s not enough that you talk about sex—it’s what you say about it that matters. For every letter to the editor outraged at a sex column advocating premarital sex the college newspaper, there’s a student concerned about what their campus rags aren’t printing—columns that address the sexual experiences of the school’s gay, lesbian, non-gender-conforming, kinky, and feminist students.
Last month, the American University Eagle published an anonymous sex column that described a date rape scene as a “drunken romp.” The backlash to the column, while intense, was inspired by no particular political agenda but rather by those that advocate for victims of rape. Georgetown’s Brint, in the same column in which she took issue with the Hoya’s “anti-feminist screeds,” she also took a shot at sex columnist Colleen Leahey for printing earnest advice directed toward her “desperate” female classmates on a failed search for “Prince Charming.”
Leahey hardly presents a progressive view of gender roles; she once wrote, “Men and women have forever had difficulties communicating with one another. Guys seem to be puzzled by the complex and utterly confusing mind games of women; females can’t seem to cope with the simplistic, one-track male thought-process.” Leahey’s traditional slant on gender roles is a far cry from Dibranco’s radical image of the campus sex columns. Leahey’s editors bar her from dipping into vulgarities, proving that even the most conservative college papers can work a sex-and-dating column into their line-up—they just ignore the “sex” part.
The persistent notion that acknowledging sex is “enough” is partly responsible for the increasingly conservative bent of a faction of campus sex columns. The first-person confessional formula is one echoed in much college sex writing and attempts to serve an entire campus community with only the limited sexual experiences of one student. Too often, “sex is OK” falls short. Dibranco quotes Heather Strack, past sex columnist at her former paper, the Dartmouth Free Press, as saying, “A sex column is a significant statement of female rights. Not only am I a female columnist, but I am writing about a topic considered taboo and improper for a woman.”
The trouble with Strack’s statement is that other college sex columnists think their work is making a significant statement, too—even when that statement is heteronormative, anti-feminist, or decidedly unprogressive.