Student Sex Columns Provide Service, Raise Eyebrows

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By: Sonya Moore

First there was news of a new erotica magazine at Harvard University. Then the Columbia Spectator instituted a sex column for the first time in its long history. Most recently, a column at Northern Arizona University about oral sex once again dragged the more risque content of college publications into the spotlight. Even the Tribune Co.’s off-campus youth paper, RedEye, boasts a sex column.

Rob Breeding, the faculty adviser for Northern Arizona University’s The Lumberjack, said sex is one of the categories extremely relevant to college-age adults, making a well-written sex column a kind of “service” piece. He compared it to the school paper tackling other student life issues such as the economics of tuition. It’s just that sex “elicits more controversy,” he said.

“It would be unfortunate if we ever get to the point where we say sex isn’t a big deal,” Breeding said. While a sex column shouldn’t exist solely for titillative purposes, there’s no reason for entertainment and information to be mutually exclusive. “If it is relevant to our target audience, good journalism will pull readers,” he added.

The idea of a sex column in a college newspaper isn’t exactly new. But in the era of Carrie Bradshaw and “Sex and the City,” some longstanding columnists have been raised to celebrity status. Even mainstream outlets such as The New York Times have written about the phenomenon, although the Gray Lady doesn’t yet have a sex columnist of her own.

The Spectator at Columbia University in New York started a sex column in its pages after holding a contest for its author in February. “We wanted to appeal to a new type of reader,” Nick Summers, editor in chief, explained. Both the contest and articles submitted helped boost reader response. Summers told E&P that while the Spectator prides itself for the political discussion featured on its opinion pages, there still was merit in writing about sex. “We’re not a family newspaper … college kids getting laid is not something new,” Summers said. As far as being indecent or shocking, “It might be to some of our older alumni … but they should keep in mind they are reading a student newspaper.”

Will the new breed of youth spinoffs now coming from mainstream dailies require a sex column to grab readers? “I think there’s an appetite for it,” said Jane Hirt, co-editor of RedEye, about their ongoing sex column “Go Ask Alice!” The column deals more with health questions than about relationships or banter about sex acts. Hirt says the column’s most redeeming aspect is that it deals with sex in a nonjudgmental way: “It’s a pretty frank talk on different sexual issues.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that nearly half of the new sexually transmitted diseases diagnosed in 2000 happened in the 15-24 age group, according to Hirt. “That says this age group is underserved,” she said. Outside of “Alice,” RedEye has also covered sexual issues for young people in their news and feature pages, but Hirt said she’d love to have something like the “Sex and the City” knock-off in the Yale Daily News: “Sex and the (Elm) City.”

If well written, a sex column is not only palatable but also interesting to read, according to Eric Sehewe, the president and editor in chief of The Daily Californian, an independent student-run newspaper that serves the University of California Berkeley campus and surrounding areas. Sehewe calls the paper’s column, “Sex on Tuesday,” an “institution” and one of the first sex columns featured in a college paper. Sehewe admits that the paper rarely holds back from providing details for its provocative subject matter. While this draws both negative and positive reaction from readers, Sehewe said, “The worse response comes when we’ve given bad advice … in terms of unhealthy things to do.”

Certainly Claire Fuller’s Valentine’s Day column last month in the Northern Arizona University (NAU) Lumberjack — a short how-to on oral sex — generated a lot of attention. In a Feb. 25 article published in the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, NAU Provost Liz Grobsmith said, “It wasn’t considered that a lot of people who read the paper are young and minors, and this is very inappropriate content.” In a letter circulated campus-wide, President John D. Haeger wrote that while he would champion the freedom of student writers from prior restraint, he also wanted those involved with the paper to “recognize the values of the larger community they serve, the age of many of those community members and the standards our university attempts to teach those who are here to learn a noble profession.”

But to faculty adviser Breeding, that’s exactly the point: “This is a college newspaper written by college students for college students. Our focus is on the student body.” Some complaints did come in from students, but Breeding said the most negative responses primarily came from the administration.

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