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Facing loss of student funding, UT-Knoxville Sex Week organizers say learning about ‘Butt Stuff’ is crucial

Struggling to rein in a bawdy annual “Sex Week” event without getting sued, the interim president of the University of Tennessee promised to cut off direct funding to all registered student organizations.

Randy Boyd, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, proposed the funding cutoff among other changes in response a lengthy report by the state comptroller last month.

The comptroller offered the university and lawmakers various options to curtail the Sex Week event, citing many lawmakers and university officials who have called a “national embarrassment,” “disgusting” and “outrageous.”

Funded primarily by mandatory student fees, the event is organized by the student group Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, which has said the mission of Sex Week is “to foster a comprehensive and intellectual discussion on sex, sexuality, and relationships through entertaining, captivating, and academically informed programming.”

In response to the report SEAT said the characterization of the organization and its leadership as “obstinate and intentionally salacious” is “misleading,” and they object to being “slandered” by lawmakers.

Since 2013, Sex Week has taken place on the UTK campus during the spring semester. It includes “speakers, roundtable discussions, performances, film screenings, and workshops” dealing with sexual issues.

In the previous six years, UTK has seen events called “Masturbation Nation,” (2018) “Pop, Pussies, and Politics,” (2017), “Bow Chicka Bow WHOA!” (2013) “Road Head: The Role of the Automobile in American Sexuality,” (2015) “Erotic Mormon Image,” (2017) and “Your Hair Down There: Pubic Hair Removal and Genital Self-Image” (2015).

In 2016, SEAT hosted a forum simply titled “Butt Stuff.” In their statement responding to the comptroller’s report, SEAT said the event, which focuses on anal sex, is among the “most necessary” programming they provide.

The comptroller’s report notes the First Amendment challenges the university would face in barring a single student organization from speaking on campus. SEAT typically receives around $15,000 per year in student fees to hold the event.

Beginning in 2015, the university began allowing students to opt out of paying fees so they were not forced to subsidize organizations and event with which they disagreed. According to data UTK provided to The College Fix, about 20 percent of students have opted out of paying fees each year they have been able to do so.

Thus, the comptroller’s report suggests the university end the practice of providing student fees to campus organizations altogether, sweeping up hundreds of unrelated clubs. This would address concerns that SEAT was being singled out for exclusion from the student fee allocation process, however.

While SEAT does not receive state funding, the comptroller’s report estimated the group receives $4,500 per year in indirect funds through use of the school’s facilities. The report provides the option of requiring the group to pay for the use of the facilities using their own funds.

In their letter responding to the 269-page report, President Boyd and interim Chancellor Wayne Davis said the administration would be implementing changes “immediately” to tone down Sex Week, which “has caused frustration and embarrassment for legislators, alumni, many Tennessee citizens, and for us as administrators at UT.”

Davis and Boyd argue that “too many events have been more about sensationalism than education.” They express frustration that SEAT has not previously accepted their recommendation to alter event titles and descriptions to be “more educational.”

“We will work with the Board to make the policy change necessary to cease future allocations of funds directly to registered student organizations and eliminate the Student Programming Allocation Committee (SPAC),” their letter reads.

In an email to The Fix, Boyd’s office noted he had attended a meeting with members of SEAT to discuss the issue.

“We remain committed to free speech, student programming, the importance of sex education and an environment where students have the opportunity to lead and express themselves,” according to Boyd’s statement.

During a state senate hearing following release of the report, Boyd reiterated his desire to change the student fee allocation process to ensure more focus on educational content, according to The Tennessean.

Boyd urged SEAT, which has already received its funding allocation for 2019, to center its events more on “human sexuality as a legitimate academic field of inquiry.”

“We believe it has damaged the reputation and overshadowed the many achievements of our university,” said Boyd.

Yet the report notes whatever actions the school takes to curtail Sex Week could run afoul of SEAT’s free speech rights.

“Top university administrators indicated that if the legislature wants to ban the event then lawmakers should pass a law explicitly stating that Sex Week shall no longer occur at UTK, but officials also warn that a First Amendment lawsuit will surely follow,” the report explains.

For instance, the report suggests the Tennessee General Assembly could bar Sex Week from occurring on the UTK campus or deem the university the sole authority permitted to provide sex education on campus. Both of these options would likely draw legal action, the report warns.

In 2016, a number of Tennessee lawmakers moved to ban Sex Week altogether, but were advised that such action would be unconstitutional, so action was taken to bar state funding for the event.

In 2017, the General Assembly passed the Campus Free Speech Protection Act, which reaffirmed First Amendment protections for free speech at public colleges and universities in the state. The law provides explicit free speech protections to individuals at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities regardless of belief or ideology.

UTK even cited state law in explaining why it didn’t attempt to interfere with Sex Week last year.

In a number of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that student fees must be allocated on a “viewpoint neutral” basis. A recent slate of lawsuits has seen a number of campus Christian groups object to university rules that they believe discriminate against their religious beliefs.

Similar campus sex-based events are common at universities around the nation.

Indiana University has hosted “Sexploration” events several times per year since 2008. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has hosted the “Sex Out Loud” group – whose motto is “Screwin’ around since 1998” – for more than two decades. The comptroller’s report also cites sex-related events at the University of Kentucky and University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

The Tennessee comptroller’s report also suggests the legislature could just ignore the event, as it has in several previous years.

MORE: After Harvard Sex Week boasts period sex and BDSM lessons, some students call for sexual restraint

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About the Author
Senior Reporter
Christian Schneider is a senior reporter for The College Fix with a focus on investigative, enterprise and analysis reporting. He is the author of "1916: The Blog" and has spent time as a political columnist at USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and National Review Online. His op-eds have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, City Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has also been a frequent guest on political television and radio shows. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Marquette University and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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