A Thrust into the Future

Sex Week UT’s new identity apart from the past controversy

Jasmine Manning and Seth Shepherd

To view the full version of this interactive timeline of Sex Week UT’s history, click here.

The University of Tennessee’s 2015 Sex Week, the third installment of the annual event, was held from April 6–11. With controversy intertwined with Sex Week’s history, this year was unique in the noticeably lesser amount of media attention. Leading into this year, two key events took place:

  1. The school responded to criticisms of the event’s funding by introducing the student choice to “opt in” to fund it.
  2. A few months later, Stacey Campfield lost his seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, which effectively quieted the event’s most vocal critic.

While the event’s past media attention was usually a negative spotlight, it was a spotlight nonetheless. Now that many of the reasons for this attention are resolved, Sex Week is able to control their image, and is trying to find ways to rebrand itself.

Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT) is the organization that hosts Sex Week, with their goal to promote sexual health in an inclusive, sex positive and open-minded manner, according to their website. The organization is known for bringing “controversial” speakers to help discuss different topics related to this mission.

At the head of the SEAT executive board is co-chair and senior Nickie Hackenbrack. We spoke with Hackenbrack about the history of Sex Week, the lack of negative attention around this year’s Sex Week, and the organization’s plans for the future.

“The controversy in the media and from the state legislature affected people’s perceptions of our programming. We had to expend extra effort to try to clear up misconceptions about our programming. However, now that the controversy had quieted down, we’ve been able to focus on our programming.” She went on to say, “This Sex Week was immensely successful! We were able to incorporate new topics, such as disability and sex, and the ethics of sex.”

Attendees wait in line for the annual drag show. Photo courtesy of Sex Week UT.
“However, now that the controversy had quieted down, we’ve been able to focus on our programming.” — Nickie Hackenbrack

“I feel like things went smoother from an organizational aspect; it wasn’t as stressful,” said SEAT member and senior Jordan Achs. “I think we’re finding our groove.”

SEAT members weren’t the only ones who thought this year was a success. Freshman and non-SEAT member Rylie Rainey said, “I think Sex Week is a great event. We need things like it to bring awareness to different issues.” Riley attended the “Your Hair Down There” workshop led by Dr. Andrea DeMaria. “I’m glad I came; it was very informative and interesting.”

So in one regard it seems Sex Week is having its best year yet. They are accomplishing their mission of creating open dialogues regarding many diverse issues, with this year’s Sex Week having the largest variety of topics yet.

However, when it comes to reaching the student body and community, this year’s Sex Week fell short. Chris Simmons, a sophomore member of SEAT explained, “Our events did not reach as many people from different backgrounds as we hoped to. We always have the LGBT community backing us up, but we would like to have the support of other students.”

“We always have the LGBT community backing us up, but we would like to have the support of other students.” — Chris Simmons

Part of this came from the current lack of media attention. As stated earlier, Sex Week’s history is tied to the controversy surrounding its funding and subject matter. With the introduction of “opting in” solving the funding issue (at least temporarily) and the critics of the event having less to criticize, Sex Week lost some of its media coverage and public attention.

Sex Week student organizers advertising the programs on Pedestrain Walkway. Photo courtesy of Annie Carr.

“I think [the lesser amount of media attention] made people less aware of it happening, and those that are actively against the administration don’t have as much of a reason to go to the events,” said SEAT exec board member Jordan Achs.“That activism-drive helped us in years past, I think. Being in the news got the word out better than any table on [Pedestrian Walk] can.

“That activism-drive helped us in years past, I think. Being in the news got the word out better than any table on [Pedestrian Walk] can.” — Jordan Achs

While this affected some students, others knew of Sex Week. All students we spoke with were aware of it and knew its purpose to some capacity. In fact, most students were supportive of Sex Week’s mission. “I think it’s really good,” said student Brianna Andrew. “Anything like that in a college environment, I think, is good because we’re supposed to be learning and they’re teaching.” Sophomore Isaiah Harrison and freshman Derrick Galeon shared this support for the event, with Galeon further explaining the reason for his support, “I mean, if it helps people, and I think it probably does.”

Despite this support for Sex Week and its unique campus events, it is only passive support. Neither Andrew, Harrison nor Galeon attended a program from this year’s Sex Week.

This wasn’t the case for all students: freshman Rylie Rainey (mentioned earlier) actively supported the event by attended and enjoyed one of the programs, while junior Rose Adams actively opposed the event. “I think it’s dumb,” said Adams. “We were taught about sex in high school, it’s kind of common sense.”

Apart from these outliers, the majority of students seem to fall in the middle ground of passivity, approving of Sex Week in concept but not showing this approval through attendance.

The absence of controversial attention “made it feel more like a normal part of campus,” said SEAT member Achs. It seems that the event’s newfound normality comes with the loss of its “activism-drive,” which Achs noted was helpful to the event in the past.

As SEAT begins to move forward into its fourth year on the UT campus, the members are looking for ways to grow into this new role of being a “normal part” of the UT campus. “We are always evolving,” said SEAT co-chair Hackenbrack. With over 35 annual events, the organization is actively looking for ways to discuss new topics and reach new audiences.

During this period of less media publicity, SEAT is now in the position of controlling the Sex Week public image, which was controlled by media outlets and legislators for much of the event’s existence. While SEAT is still settling into this role and finding the best way to use it, they are glad to do so. SEAT member Achs said, “We can focus now on being just a regular part of campus, which is a good thing.”

SEAT will be having a Sex Week preview event in the fall, with Sex Week 2016 planned for the spring semester.

For more information about Sex Week UT or to get in contact with SEAT, visit http://sexweekut.org/.