Human Rights

Tennessee University Caves To Fox News’ Complaints, Pulls Funding From College Sex Ed Event

Score one point for America's self-appointed Moral Scolds.


The University of Tennessee (UT) is pulling state funding from a week-long sexual education event for its undergraduate students, caving to mounting right-wing pressure after Fox News suggested the funds were being used inappropriately to fund a “lesbian bondage expert” and hold a drag show on campus.

UT’s six-day “Sex Week” will include free STD screenings for students and panel discussions on topics ranging from sexual health, sexual identity, gender roles, and ways that UT can better address issues of sexual assault on campus. But Fox News radio host Todd Starnes recently raised the alarm about the university using student fees to “host a lesbian bondage expert” — referring to one of the presenters, erotica author Sinclair Sexsmith, who was invited to conduct a poetry workshop. Even though the students who helped plan the Sex Week event confirmed Sexsmith would simply discuss poetry related to sexuality and gender roles in society, and would not include anything related to lesbian bondage, the Fox News host became fixated on the fact that Sexsmith is “an expert in sexuality and leather.”

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As Raw Story reports, the right-wing media attention eventually made its way to state Sen. Stacey Campfield (TN-R), who threatened to reconsider the university’s budget unless it made some changes to Sex Week. “We are not talking about health and safety to do a drag show. What are these issues so important for?” Campfield told alocal news affiliate. “This is not something that the parents sent their kids to school to learn, this is not even close, we have some serious issues going on at the University of Tennessee.”

The state senator’s loud opposition to the university event perhaps comes as no surprise. Campfield has a long history of being hostile to issues of human sexuality, particularly when it comes to the LGBT community. He’s repeatedly introduced “Don’t Say Gay” bills to prevent teachers from discussing any aspects of “non-heterosexual” sexuality with public school students, and the most recent iteration includes a clauserequiring teachers to inform parents if their child is gay. He’s also compared homosexuality to injecting heroin. Unfortunately, he’s hardly the first far-right Republican to attempt to block sexual education programs on college campuses.

Sex Week will still go on as planned. “This whole thing makes it more important to do this,” Brianna Rader, the UT student who led organizing efforts for Sex Week, said of the controversy. But she’s frustrated that university officials reversed their decision on Thursday about allocating state funding for the event. “People are getting upset about college kids talking about sex education? This sounds made up. This sounds like we’re in a movie,” Rader pointed out. “It was a cowardly move, and I’m disappointed in them.”

Tara Culp-Ressler is the Health Editor for ThinkProgress. Before joining the ThinkProgress team, Tara deepened her interest in progressive politics from a faith-based perspective at several religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices.