Sexual content causes controversy

“Feel free to experiment during all positions when having sex. If on top, sit up and reach back to grope and fondle. It’s sure to add stimulation and perhaps take him by surprise – in a good way.”

The Orion, the student newspaper at California State University at Chico, published this titillating piece of advice as part of a sex column in April. It is something that likely would not have been seen in college newspapers only a short time ago.

Whether in the interest of education, risqué humor or shock value, student newspapers have transcended the health reporting boundaries and ventured into writing Sex and the City-type revelations and sexual exploits. As student writers bump up against some readers’ notions of taste and propriety, these columns and special editions have created their share of controversy.

“You pretty much cannot cover a sexual topic it seems without angering some part of your readership,” said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.

Hiestand said that he receives calls from student journalists who want to practice safe sex-writing but are unaware of the limits. A few have asked if they are allowed to discuss sex on the page at all.

According to Hiestand, while there are a few publications that aim for shock value, most of the calls he fields are from students who genuinely want to educate their readers, not anger them.

“You have to decide early on what your focus is, what your goal is,” said Hiestand. 

Hiestand said editors must choose whether they want to provide healthy and accurate information or whether they are “just trying to be another skin magazine.”

Take for example, the C-Spot, the erotic review magazine published by students at Columbia University in New York City. The magazine, which had its inaugural issue in October 2008, features photos of students in sometimes-artistic poses sans clothing, accompanying articles reviewing pornographic Web sites and describing sexual experiences.

According to the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Jessica Tang, the C-Spot is “absolutely” pushing the boundaries of sexual literacy in college.

“Gender and sexuality are not tradition[al] subject departments at universities; they have been relatively recently introduced as legitimate topics in the world of academia,” Tang said in an e-mail. “As for the pictorial aspect, the idea of students photographing other students in the buff is also novel. Students at most universities do not get to see their classmates, floor mates, team mates, etc. posing nude/semi-nude.”

For those sticking to the pages of traditional newspapers, experts say students must still be aware of what it means to go too far. Hiestand said while it is true that obscenity can land student journalists in legal trouble, in his 20 years of advising students of their legal rights, he has never seen student publications that “really even come close to crossing the legal boundaries.”

In the 1973 case Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court established guidelines for identifying obscenity. These tests included assessing “whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest” and determining whether the work in question lacks “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Simply put, a judge can apply the Miller test to determine if the average person would find a piece of work offensive and if the work exists only to fulfill the lustful nature of the consumer instead of providing value.

Hiestand adds that editors have an ethical responsibility to be sensitive of their readership when publishing anything sex-related, even if it is not obscene.

In 2008, the staff of the University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas in Lawrence got an earful after their annual “Sex on the Hill” issue hit newsstands. The sex-themed special edition featured a cover shot of students in a sexually suggestive pose on top of a World War II memorial on campus.

Readers were more upset over the location of the shot rather than the scantily clad models in it.

Editor Matt Erickson published an apology stating the staff did not intend to offend anyone by the location of the cover shot and the editors were unaware it was a memorial. The Kansan also removed the issue from its online archives.

There are those who raise their voices in opposition to college newspapers facilitating sexual discussion and then there are the proponents, who believe there is educational and cultural value to be gained by allowing students to openly discuss the issues facing them every day.

Drew Singer, editor-in-chief of the Pitt News, the student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, said publishing sexual content is a matter of duty.

“If we don’t, who will?” asked Singer, who helped produce the paper’s February 2009 sex issue. The special issue was on hiatus for nearly four years before being reinstated, according to Singer. 

The Pitt News published stories discussing things across the sexual spectrum from condom, strip club and pornography reviews to features on student thrill-seekers who enjoy having sex in public around campus.

According to Singer, the readership responded well to the steamy edition and the staff received no more criticism than a normal day’s issue. Singer said despite its potential for popularity and more reads, the reason for putting out the edition was more humble. He said he encourages editors to publish sex-related stories and find a way to do it that works for their audience.

“Not doing anything about it would be doing a disservice to our community,” he said. “It would be ignoring a giant issue.”

For a professor at the University of Montana, the disservice is content that, in her opinion, has no educational value.

Law professor Kristen Juras objected to a sex column in the university’s student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, and asked the administration to get involved.

In February, the Kaimin ran a letter to the editor from Juras, in which she complained that the column written by student Bess Davis was “embarrassingly unprofessional” and had a negative effect on her as a faculty member.

Juras told the SPLC in March she was not opposed to the idea of a sex column but rather Davis’ specific content. Davis’ topics included oral sex as seen by different generations and suggestions on sexual Valentine’s Day gifts.

Juras said the newspaper should serve an educational purpose and that if the Kaimin is going to have such a column, an expert should write it. 

Juras approached the editorial board as well as the student government, insisting that the Kaimin adopt hiring and publishing guidelines to allow only more experienced writers to pen columns.

However, then-Editor-in-Chief Bill Oram stood his ground. He said the column was valuable because it provided perspective, and it sparked discussion.

“We were not naive enough to think that she could just spout off on whatever she wanted each week,” said Oram in an e-mail to the SPLC.  “It was a substantive column that added to the campus discourse and had a loyal readership — even among the people who hated (it).”

According to Oram, students are not only qualified to talk about sex, but they can relate to each other, giving them an advantage over older writers.

According to Ann Whidden, communications director for the National Sexuality Resource Center, having sexual health experts publish columns in college newspapers is not feasible, and she believes students are capable of printing accurate sex-themed articles.

“If they’re hoping and waiting for someone to have that experience, administrators will be waiting for a very long time,” said Whidden. “It’s not that they can’t fact check their articles like anything else they were doing.”

Incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Kaimin Allison Maier said she plans on running a sex column when the newspaper resumes operation in September. While Davis has since graduated, Maier said students have already shown interest in taking over her column inches, and she plans to have a male and female alternate each week.

Both Maier and Oram said they are interested to see what, if any, reaction there will be from the campus and primarily Juras. According to Maier, Juras threatened to bring the issue to state legislators, but she is unaware whether it got that far.

“I don’t think she will be happy,” said Maier. “I’m kind of bracing myself. I’m sure there will be some sort of reaction.”

For those college journalists who want to start writing about sex, Singer said they should not be afraid but careful.

“As long as you approach the publication professionally and seriously, it can be a big hit on campus and can really contribute to your community,” said Singer.

Hiestand agrees. He said that students are finding more opportunity to write about issues related to sex, and if they feel comfortable doing it, they should bring the stories to their readers.

Whidden said she believes college is the perfect place to facilitate discussion about sex, and student newspapers provide the platform.

“Part of being a young adult is exploring who you are,” said Whidden. “There should be space to do that.”