Few things get the right-wing media riled up more than the idea that young people are having sex. Which is why conservative outlets have been ablaze in recent days over what should be an utter non-controversy at the University of New Mexico: The fact that sex was being talked about during Sex Week.
Anti-choice activists have been at the forefront of this ire—even though abortions didn’t get a single mention in the program schedule.
Starting September 29, UNM’s Women’s Resource Center hosted the college’s first Sex Week, which featured lectures, workshops, and other events aimed at helping people have healthier, happier sex lives. After kicking off with sex educator Reid Mihalko’s talk about “How To Be a Gentleman and Get Laid,” lecturers offered seminars at a sex toy store off campus on how to improve your oral sex skills and how to safely negotiate a threesome, two topics that might make you blush but are inarguably of interest to large numbers of college students.
The rationale behind having events with racy titles and content is simple enough: It’s a way to draw attention to material that actually offers serious lessons about safety and consent. The Women’s Resource Center made no secret of this: In its press released, it explained, “Based on input from students, the WRC decided to expand the program and shift part of the focus to help prevent sexual assaults on campus.”
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It’s easy to see how this works. For instance, the title of Mihalko’s talk is cheeky, but it’s clear from his description of the content that he’s interested in showing men that being respectful to women doesn’t need to get in the way of a good time. Given that we as a culture so often hear—particularly in the aftermath of the California legislature passing an affirmative consent law—that consent isn’t sexy, it’s triply important for progressives to make it clear how incorrect this misconception is. And men who might not otherwise be interested in a talk about consent could be drawn in by that more engaging title. It was a smart idea.
Same thing with the “threesomes” seminar. You can learn a lot about negotiating everyday sexual encounters from the tips about communication you’ll pick up in a workshop discussing more varsity-level activities.
Still, the idea of people having fun and thinking about sexy stuff sent conservatives around the bend. Representatives from UNM’s anti-choice group Students for Life, which spearheaded the assault, wrote disapproving screeds in the campus newspaper and set up a table at Mihalko’s talk. Students for Life Vice President Sade Patterson, who seems to be the point person for all of this, told the conservative website College Fix about the seminar: “The biggest act of being [a] gentleman is accepting fatherhood.” (Sad to say for Patterson, but most college men—and women—are probably not going to be compelled by the idea that the time to start their family is in their Animal House years.)
Students for Life were champs at getting tons of coverage of Sex Week and of the opposition to it, both from right-wing and mainstream media. But anti-choicers’ anger appears to have justifiably confused some people. After all, no embryos, much less fetuses, were killed in the threesome workshop or the “be nice to women you’re sleeping with” seminar. Indeed, the topic of abortion wasn’t mentioned in the schedule at all. If you sincerely believed anti-choicers were motivated by “life” and not by sex panic, this had to be baffling.
In the wake of such puzzlement, Patterson went to Facebook and tried to clear things up. And boy, did she ever, making it crystal clear that the organization shouldn’t be called “Students for Life” so much as “Students Against Sex.”
“I know sex happens. I am not naive to our culture, society, and generation’s views on sex,” she wrote. However, “[o]ur university’s priorities should not be invested financially in promoting wild, care-free, and objectified sex.” Instead, she said, they should offer “a workshop on ‘how to say no’ or how to handle a date-rape situation.”
This is sex-ed, conservative style: Telling people to just say no and suggesting that the responsibility for ending rape lies with potential victims. God forbid you do what the school’s Women’s Resource Center did, which was to talk about how men can prevent rape by spreading respectful attitudes towards women.
All the fuss the anti-sex shock troops were able to drum up did cause the university to respond, blandly apologizing with, “The initiative did not have clear oversight or close enough supervision to prevent the inclusion of topics that are sensational and controversial.” This itself was bloodless enough; Students for Life’s victory dance was even more perfunctory.
However, UNM still erred seriously in giving the sex-phobes even that. By calling the Women’s Resource Center “well-intended,” it implied that the people running the program were incompetent. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s smart and effective to frame discussions of safe sex and consent in the language people use on a daily basis. A clinical approach that refuses to even acknowledge pleasure just wouldn’t work as well.
Plus, as Shaya Rogers of the Feminist Majority group on campus wrote in the Daily Lot, “To have people that are against sex, except for purposes of reproduction, say what should and should not be happening on campus shows the amount of shame that surrounds issues of sex. If you’re not into it, don’t go.”
It’s a good point: The event was not mandatory, and many people got a lot out of it. So what’s the justification of trying to take it away from those who liked it and whose enjoyment has no actual impact on you? Well, as a Students for Life supporter asked on the group’s Facebook page, “Is there any way we could get a Celebrate Life, Abstinence, or … something not gross?”
And that’s the anti-choice movement in a nutshell: The belief that sex is “gross,” and that should be reason enough for you to screw up other people’s lives in a futile effort to make them stop doing it.