Sex and the Univer-sity

Menstruation, Newspapers, Sex

The trend of sex columns in student newspapers is no longer new (although the student newspaper at the school where I teach lacks one): the first sex column in a student newspaper was published in 1997, at (where else?) University of California-Berkeley. The phenomenon and the controversy surrounding the new trend in college journalism were covered in the fall 2002 with splashy stories in both USA Today and The New York Times.

More recently, The Nation published an essay about the politics or lack thereof in college newspaper sex writing. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the writers and editors at most college newspapers do not consider writing openly and honestly about sex/sexuality a political act.

newspaper-blogsReimold told me that for 90 percent of sex columnists, the only “political” point they are trying to make is that sex is OK and something we should talk about. Bess Davis of “Bess Sex” agrees that “sex really has nothing to do with politics…that’s just an impression built up by the media,” and views her column as serving a purpose in opening up discussion in an underreported subject.

[. . . .]

Politics are part of the equation, yet it’s not an issue of a simple left-right political divide–liberal media beyond the campus level have done comparatively little quality sex journalism, while even the comprehensive sex education courses the right wing loves to hate are rarely particularly progressive, sex-positive or comprehensive. Reimold conceptualizes the resistance to student sex columns as an authoritarian and protective parental mindset that reacts against “the student generation taking back control of the sexual messages targeted at them.” This rings partially true; after all, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the ’60s was also about student activism versus the control of the administration and older generation. But–again, as in the ’60s–antagonism stems from fellow students as well.

At its core, the sex column phenomenon is a radical progressive movement in the sense of pushing against traditional silence and the status quo, which is a source of concern for many administrators, parents and even students.

In other words, it really is political. Certainly it’s political in the Foucauldian sense of power relations: “What is peculiar to modern societies is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.” In other words, we like to pretend sex is a big secret that we shouldn’t talk about, but in reality, we can’t stop talking about. We use bodies and sexual relationships to sell any number of products but at the same time we delay as long as possible teaching our children about sexuality and sexual relationships. We deny that there are power relations embedded in our sexualities and sexual relationships. I always publish this quote from History of Sexuality v.1 on the front page of the syllabus of my ‘Sex, Sexuality, and Communication’ course:

Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said? What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them? What knowledge was formed as a result of this linkage?

When college students write newspaper columns about sex and sexuality, they frequently are challenging power structures about sexuality. Often these challenges are material as well as discursive, as student editors face censorship challenges from within and without the university. They are, at least implicitly, investigating what has been said about sexuality and in bringing it out of the bedroom, showing some of the linkages of power, pleasure, discourse, and their effects.

All of which is long-winded background for expressing my own pleasure in discovering  yesterday’s sex column by Jeanetta Bradley in The Orion at Chico State. It was all about sex during menstruation: Bradley explains that it’s not harmful or unsanitary, and in fact can be beneficial and pleasurable.

None of that is news to us at re: Cycling, but how surprising to see it in a college newspaper, written by someone who appears to be half my age. Bradley is breaking taboos in talking about menstruation, about sex, and about menstrual sex.

And that is a political act.

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