A year ago, Brianna Rader, a junior at the University of Tennessee, was frustrated with her and her peers' lack of knowledge about sex and sexuality. Instead of simply complaining about it, Rader took action and invited a sexologist to speak on campus. The event was so well-received by the student body that Rader went to her friend Jacob Clark–now the other co-founder and co-chair of Sex Week–with an idea to have a week of educational opportunities to learn about issues concerning sex.
A week ago, with Sex Week less than a month away, the University of Tennessee decided to revoke all state funding for the event due to outside political pressure, leaving Rader and Clark with less than $7,000 to make the event a reality. Little did they–or the university's administration–know that the chancellor's announcement would start a media firestorm led by students enraged by the university's decision.
In only twenty-four hours, Sex Week was once again fully funded–and a conversation had begun about the importance of academic freedom and the appropriation of tax dollars.
Campus Progress caught up with Rader to talk about her motivation for starting Sex Week, her reaction to the administration's decision, and her appearance on the O'Reilly Factor.
CP: What made you want to get involved in advocating for increased awareness and education about sex health and sexuality?
Brianna: Basically, early in my sophomore year, I started to get really aggravated with the lack of knowledge that even I had and several of my peers had about issues of sexuality such as sexual assault or where to find birth control or navigating this new atmosphere of hookup culture in colleges.
The education that I received and that many of my peers received in middle school and high school, from either schools or families or churches, was not sufficient to be able to navigate the social life in college. The knowledge just was not there. And so I brought a speaker to the university in the spring of 2012 named Megan Andelloux. She’s a sexologist. The event went really well, a lot of positive feedback. So I approached Jacob about expanding the idea into a week long educational event.
CP: I’ve heard a lot from UT students that they believe Sex Week is vital in combating this “sex negative” conversation that seems to dominate the conversation in our society. In popular culture, sex is either sensationalized or it’s all about abstinence. Could you speak more about this?
Brianna: I’m so happy you heard that from students who you’ve talked with. And this conversation—and that’s what it is, a conversation—is so important. Our main goal is to foster a comprehensive and open dialogue. That’s the bottom line here. We think it’s important to talk about these topics. This conversation is important because of sexual health. It’s a public health risk, and people need basic knowledge. That’s one goal. Another reason this conversation is important is because of more of what you touched on—the philosophical idea behind sex positivity and sex negativity. If we can just change the culture around that in our community or among some people that attend our events, then I’ll feel like we’re successful.
CP: Could you talk about the inclusiveness of the programming of Sex Week?
Brianna: So when we first started in the summer, we thought it was important to write very clearly a mission statement and core values. Inclusivity is one of our core values because we did not want any event to be exclusive to one community. Every event during Sex Week is appropriate for and intended for any and all audiences. And I mean that literally—anyone. So the virginity event should be applicable to anyone—whether you’re a virgin, whether you’re not a virgin, whether you’re queer, whether you’re not, male or female—everyone. Regardless of age too. And that’s true for every single event we have.
CP: I saw your appearance with Jacob Clark on the O’Reilly Factor last night. How was that experience?
Brianna: We were excited to be getting national attention from large media sources…And the O’Reilly Factor wanted us to be on their show. And at first, Jake and I were hesitant about it because we knew Bill O’Reilly, and we had heard about some of his interviews with people before. He tends to not listen and tends to be rude. However, we thought with our opportunity to be on that show, we could get even more attention from people—and not negative attention! I think if people watch that segment or even just hear about us from that, maybe they’ll look at our website or our Facebook page or just be curious. And if we can direct people to our website or make people curious about the idea, then I’ll feel like it was a successful endeavor. Did Bill O’Reilly really listen to what Jacob and I were saying? Probably not. His show is for entertainment purposes: I would not call it a news show. It is the number one most watched “news show” in America. So I know we had a large audience, and I hope some people thought about our answers, what little we did get to say.
CP: I know you touched on this a little bit last night on the show, but you were cut short so I wanted to ask you to expand on your answer from last night regarding appropriate uses of state funding. What’s your response for the criticism that state funding should not be used for sex week—that it’s okay to have sex week as long as it’s not funded by tax dollars?
Brianna: Well—I’m going to have a long answer to this, I hope you don’t mind.
CP: [Laughs] No, that’s fine.
Brianna: So there is student programming done at my university every single day of the entire academic year. And almost every single event has some state funding in it. There are a few programs that are exclusively funded by student fees. However, there are many that are funded with a combination of many sources. A good example is Darwin Day. Every year we have Darwin Day and that’s a celebration of Darwin and evolution. Because, I don’t know if you know this, but the whole evolution thing, the Scopes trial, happened in Tennessee, and we aren’t really known for teaching evolution in our schools. So the university celebrates Darwin day to promote evolution education. That is supported by state funds. And I know the same representatives that were against sex week are against evolution education. So maybe they should defund Darwin Day or all the programs at the university. I think that this has set a terrible precedent.
I feel like programming at my university is in danger of censorship or just pure cancellation. We got very lucky that we were still able to put this event on, two weeks in advance. And as soon as sex week is over and successful, we will pursue this conversation with our university. We can’t pursue it right now, because we want sex week to be a successful event and we’re really busy just trying to get that accomplished. We do want to follow up on the decisions that were made. State funding being used for this—that’s an ambiguous term, first of all. I have a problem with someone saying state funds—like what does that really mean? I would prefer some more info—like a breakdown of funds. I got frustrated in a meeting with university officials just using ambiguous terms like that and not having clear-cut information for us. So this is a public health issue and definitely state funds should be used for sex education. It’s a fundamental experience for the human condition. I don’t know why anyone thinks that we should not be informed about sex education. Every single person on this planet came from sex. I don’t know why this is a difficult topic in 2013.
CP: What does the administration’s decision say—especially considering the way the administration went about it, changing its decision only weeks before the event—about how UT values academic freedom and students’ opinions?
Brianna: I’m extremely disappointed in the university’s administration and leadership in the decision they made. I understand it was a difficult situation. We are a public university and we have some state representatives that are fanatics, and they threatened to take some of the budget away from us. However, at a certain point, a university is a university, and you have to stick to your core values. And those core values are promoting education, conversation, exploration of ideas—if that can’t take place at a research one level public university, the state’s “flagship university,” then I am extremely worried about the future of education in my state.
The officials should support education, especially at the undergraduate level, that’s when it’s most important to learn about. So I hope that we can further pursue this conversation with them after sex week and really get down to the bottom line. Because next year, we’re going to have to have some state funding. I can’t fund-raise online with private donors every single year. That’s just ridiculous to have a sustainable program. So hopefully we can talk to them and maybe re-evaluate this decision they’ve made.
CP: So I’ve heard that Sex Week has been fully funded for this year?
Brianna: Yes. So we got cut a little over $11,000—that was two-thirds of our budget—and we were able to make that all back up in about twenty-four hours, which we were really amazed about. We got that funding back through private donations, and we got some more money from student fees. So the $6,700 that was never taken from us, we got about $4,000 more from that pot of money. And additionally, we got about $7,000 dollars from private donations. I think it’s important to note about that $7000 in private donations—every bit of that were small donations. Like a student giving $5 here, or a community member giving $25 there. It’s not like a corporation came in and gave us $7,000. So that shows you how many people felt strongly enough about this to donate money.
It took a lot of people, a lot of small amounts of money to get to $7,000. The only large donation we got was from Planned Parenthood, and they gave us $1,000 from their emergency relief fund.
CP: Yeah, I saw the petition on Change.org and all the reactions on social media. It has attracted a lot of attention from a lot of different people. But I’m sure you know that better than anyone!
Brianna: [Laughs] Right. So almost half of our entire budget now is privately funded.