College Sex Scribes Are Campus Stars
“Is That a Gold Medal Between Your Tits?” That’s not a rhetorical question, but the title of a sex column in McGill Daily by Denise Brundson, one of over 2,000 author Daniel Reimold consulted to write Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution (Rutgers University Press). The University of Tampa assistant professor of journalism believes that these student sex scribes have a lot to teach us about how a generation views sex, as well as offering lessons about free speech and modern media.
The first college sex column originated in 1997 at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, in the Daily Californian as a way, ironically enough, to stem controversy after 4,000 copies of the paper were stolen when they published an editorial endorsing an anti-affirmative action law. Features editor Matt Belloni (now at The Hollywood Reporter) said, “We knew those people who were storming our halls wouldn’t be up in arms about sex. Berkeley’s a weird place…There are certain issues people would be enraged about, and sex just wasn’t one of them.” Thus, Sex on Tuesdsay was launched, written by Laura Lambert, who was studying to be a sex therapist and covering everything from hand jobs to HIV testing to sex during menstruation, and is still going strong. Belloni concludes, “I honestly don’t think the column would’ve happened if we’d been a university-controlled paper.”
From there, other papers followed, culminating in the rise to fame of Natalie Krinsky, who, with a single column on oral sex, “Spit or Swallow?” for the Yale Daily News, found her writing the tenth most-Googled page online, prompting major media coverage and leading to a deal with Hyperion for the novel Chloe Does Yale. Columns sprung up at other schools, leading some to actively seek out the job in the hopes of continuing on that path after graduation. Amber Madison (Hooking Up and Talking Sex With Your Kids) and Yvonne K. Fulbright (Touch Me There! and Sex with Your Sex), have also gone on to carve out careers in sex education, but most of Reimold’s interviewees have moved on, often to other media jobs.
One of the most infamous, Julia Allison, wrote for Georgetown’s Hoya under her birth name, Julia Baugher (she also blurbed the book). But while the controversy around her column simply echoes other controversies in the books, how it improved her relationship with her mother, Robin Baugher, could be of interest to wayward students. “Here’s my buttoned-down student who…makes up her mind that she’s going to become ‘popular’ and does everything in the book to try to do that short of drugs and a lot of alcohol, and I’m ripping my hair out…when you ask whether her column helped bring us closer together, yeah. It was one of the few things we actually agreed on and that I could be openly proud of her about.”
As a former Village Voice sex columnist, I found many of the students’ stories relatable. I also dealt with many of the highs and lows Reimold’s interviewees report: strangers confessing personal sex dramas and wanting advice, getting recognized in public, being called names, but within the confines of a college campus, all the attendant buzz is magnified. One creepy organic chemistry professor asked Kate Prengaman to come to the front of the room, followed by, “Actually, I don’t have anything to say. I just wanted to be close to you because you’re the sex columnist and you’re in my class and that’s just so cool.” Instead of delighting in giving Denise Brundson multiple orgasms, her exhibitionistic paramour was more excited by the prospect of landing in her column.
We do get the obligatory ode to Candace Bushnell and Carrie Bradshaw (though the latter is responsible for much more of the allure of the “glamorous” writing life), but also a look at the dilemmas and ethical issues sex columnists face, such as whether to include their sex lives in the columns, and how to come out to their families. They also debunk the myth that sex columnists get laid more than anyone else (I can attest: it’s not so). “A common misconception...is that we all lead the lives of porn stars; lots and lots of sex with no moral hang ups or problems with any of it. In truth…most of us lead relatively normal sex lives. Just like anyone else,” Carolinian sex columnist Brook Taylor states.
Reimold includes a 27-page glossary that is mildly entertaining but not actually necessary. We don’t need to know what “fornitalent,” “McThreesomes” or “tag-team boobs” are in order to appreciate the creativity of these college writers (though I do like the simplicity of “ex” as a verb for sex with an ex, thanks to Johns Hopkins News-Letter’s Jess Beaton).
Reimold identifies bestiality, erotic asphyxiation, post-oral-sex etiquette and anal sex as the “most explosive” topics when it comes to controversy and protest, which seemed to crop up at almost every paper at some point. Attempts by university administrators to control or curtail certain sex columns. The editor of Oregon State University’s Daily Barometer canceled “Ask Dr. Sex” when a community member called, enraged, because his six-year-old child said “blow job.”
At a time when sex on college campuses is still seen as somehow a taboo topic for discussion (The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education recently freaked out over the idea of Sex Week on various campuses), Sex and the University shows not only how these authors carved out a niche for themselves on campus (and in many cases, beyond), but also how they generated important discussions amongst their peers. If Lane Taylor, former sex columnist for the Grizzly at Ursinus College can honestly state, “I only first learned that STDs could be transmitted through oral sex thanks to an ‘ER’ episode,” it’s clear that young people need not just official sex ed in schools, but quality sex talk among their peers discuss beyond whispers and dirty jokes.
Even the sex columnists coming from a health or medical background noted that their main reason for writing wasn’t so much to cram their expertise down readers’ throats but to foster dialogue. These columns offer a way for the writers themselves to explore sex in humorous, educational or simply relatable terms, and they don’t need prior experience (in the bedroom or otherwise) to do so.
As college sex columns continue to thrive, this book both documents that trajectory and serves a cautionary tale to those who see writing about sex as a ticket to fame and fortune. Meghan Bainum posed topless for Playboy based on her Daily Kansan column and met with a television production company, but wound up working at a bar and screen printing service. “Don’t expect to come out at the other end in a penthouse in Chicago with a multimillion-dollar book deal and ordering people around all day while you type on your platinum laptop words that are dropping like honey into the open mouths of the waiting populace gathered below, because that ain’t reality…I always joke around with people that I was a has-been at twenty-two.”
While the names and stories presented here are so numerous they threaten to blur together, Reimold’s extensive research shows that, even with the occasional attempt at censoring a sex column, these authors have a wide latitude to cover the most explicit of topics and develop their own voices and followings. Prospective authors should be prepared to have their name forever associated with the word sex in ways you can’t erase online. But they will also get the pleasure of knowing that their work will be one of the reasons students pick up their paper in the first place, and they will get immediate, powerful feedback—something that, for a writer, is probably just as good as sex.