Journal Helps Whip Up ‘Celebrate Sex’ Controversy at UNM

October 11th, 2014 · 1 Comment · Education, journalism

By Denise Tessier

The recent brouhaha over four days of “Celebration of Sex” seminars at the University of New Mexico reminded this reader of the CNM administration’s discomfort when a student newspaper dedicated an issue to sex education at that community college last year. Only this time, it could be argued that the Albuquerque Journal helped create the UNM controversy by simply overplaying the story and making it into a big deal.

In doing so, the state’s largest paper basically took sides with a conservative student group, arguably at the expense and over the wishes of students interested in the information those meetings provided.

‘Celebrate Sex’ week stirs controversy at UNM” was the story headline the Journal splashed across the front page on Sept. 30. Not surprisingly, considering the Journal had declared the whole thing a “controversy” in such attention-grabbing fashion, the university started getting emails and phone calls and three days later the Journal had another front-page story: “UNM issues ‘Celebrate Sex Week’ apology.”

The source of the controversy basically came down to one paragraph in the first story the Journal ran:

An anti-abortion group, Students for Life UNM, posted the “Celebrate Sex Week at UNM” flier on Facebook and commented: “We cannot believe that UNM is hosting an event like this! We have already sent a letter to the Dean and the President expressing our concern, and we encourage you to do the same.”

To be clear, there was nothing wrong with the original 15-paragraph story itself. Reporter Mike Bush fairly covered the intent of the seminar’s sponsors – the UNM’s Women’s Resource Center, the UNM Graduate and Professional Students Association and a private organization, the Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center – quoting extensively their rationale for hosting the events. What is questionable is the Journal’s decision to run it front and center rather than inside on the Metro page.

To paraphrase what Summer Little, director of the Women’s Resource Center, said in the story, people offended simply by the workshop titles likely would be uncomfortable at the meetings and needn’t attend. Attendance was strictly voluntary. She said:

The topic areas can be controversial, but they are also promoting respect, safety and safer sex practices. . . Whether (students) use it tonight or five years from now after they get married, the information is still useful. It’s another angle, a positive way, for us to come at the problem of sexual violence on campus.

Like a good reporter, Bush used Little’s comments to mention the national problem with campus sexual assaults, and quoted Little as saying if the nationally accepted statistic of one in every five women being raped during her lifetime is accurate, that could mean as many as 4,200 victims or potential victims on UNM campuses.

Just a couple of days later, on Oct. 1, Bush had a short story in the Journal reporting that UNM’s annual Security and Fire Safety Report showed an increase in sexual assaults on campus, from four in 2012 to 11 in 2013.

In his original story, he also solicited comment from Texanna Martin, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, whose group issued a statement saying:

We understand that the titles of these sessions may be out of the norm for some, but we want to assure the public that they are well intentioned … (and) designed to prompt awareness and, more importantly, spark interest.

As an institution of higher learning, UNM is a place where young adults discover who they are. . .

That’s exactly the point. Attending a college or university for many students is their first time away from home and on their own, and they have a need for sex education – both do’s and don’ts and dangers. Legally, they’re adults. And while the language on the “Celebrate Sex” week flier was pretty graphic, it’s language students understand and obviously was geared to pique their interest.

Last year, when the CNM student newspaper The Chronicle published an issue devoted specifically to helping students navigate this new opportunity, administrators responded by pulling the issue from the stands. After pressure from media groups because of student censorship, the CNM administration allowed the issue back in circulation.

As the editor of the paper said at the time, the purpose of the sex issue was education. And, as noted on ABQJournalWatch at the time, when the national site, Gawker, picked up the censorship controversy, one commenter illustrated perfectly what the education alternatives to workshops or student articles might be. He wrote, albeit sarcastically, that:

The place for college-aged people to learn about sexuality is in internet pornography, jokey ill-informed discussions with friends and drunken, awkward late-night sexual encounters.

The idea of a college newspaper discussing such a topic in a balanced and informed way should worry us all. . . .

That comment equally could be applied sarcastically to the idea of UNM workshops geared to students, as was offered during the “Celebrate Sex” week at UNM , as something that “should worry us all.”

But, after the Journal’s front-page splash about the “controversy,” and the ensuing emails and phone calls, Student Affairs Vice President Eliseo “Cheo” Torres publicly apologized, saying that while the workshop sponsors had good intentions, “the initiative did not have clear oversight or close enough supervision to prevent the inclusion of topics that are sensational and controversial.”

This apology was then reported by Bush. And again the editors put the story at the top of the front page (Oct. 2), keeping the “controversy” front and center.

A day later, The Huffington Post carried a story nationally about the UNM “controversy” noting that the conservative student group objecting to the seminars was “aided by conservative websites like The College Fix, CNSNews.com and Breitbart, (which) criticized the university for the events and their salacious titles.”

Add to that list of aid-givers the Albuquerque Journal.

The Huffington Post also noted:

Like other sex week events that are held at various public and private universities, the student-funded events discussed how to have healthy sexual relationships. Provocative titles for talks included “How to be a Gentleman AND Get Laid,” “Negotiating Successful Threesomes” and “BJs and Beyond.”

(The controversial flier can be seen in its entirety at the Huffington Post link.)

But as HuffPo pointed out, the UNM response was unlike that of other universities holding sex weeks. “The University of Tennessee defended the free speech rights of its students when conservative lawmakers attacked the Knoxville school for holding its own Sex Week,” its story said. “As a public university, UT officials argued, it had no right to censor students from talking about sex using their own funding to pay for the events.”

In addition to its Facebook posting, UNM Students for Life also objected to sex week via a letter in the UNM Lobo, headlined “University is no place to talk about sexual behavior.”

Again, it can be argued that the university actually is an important place to talk about sexual behavior.

However, in a statement posted on Facebook, UNM Students for Life Vice President Sade Patterson said she and her group actually had “no issue with sexual education being a part of our school system” and what they’d like to see is “An informative workshop on diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and sexual abuse . . .”

She added, “I am not naive to our culture, society, and generation’s views on sex. What I don’t appreciate is that my tax dollars, as well as others’, are going toward an event that DOES objectify women and sex, whether you think so or not.”

As Huffington Post reported, repeating information gleaned from Bush’s story about Torres’ apology:

Tax dollars did not fund the UNM Sex Week events. Instead, the funding came entirely from student fees – money that comes from students, not taxpayers.

On Oct. 4, the Journal ran one more story about the controversy, this time reporting on a pushback from UNM sex week organizers, who posted a message on social media – and started a petition – urging students to contact the UNM administration and to object to Torres’ apology.

In the story, Bush quoted Reid Mihalko, one of the presenters for Celebrate Sex Week, as saying in the message:

The societal attitudes that say talking openly and educating college students about sex are wrong or dirty are the same attitudes that have inadvertently caused an epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence on campuses. . . .

We want to stop this epidemic. We want for our entire community, including UNM students, to have access to accurate and relevant information about relationships and sexuality without fear or shame.

The controversy that has arisen around Sex Week is itself strong evidence that we must engage in conversations about hard topics.

One of the organizers was quoted as saying it was disappointing “to see UNM administration apologize for offering clear and empowering sex education to students.”

And where did the Journal run this story? Inside the Metro section, on C2.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • F. Chris Garcia

    Leave it to the Journal to take every opportunity to sensationalize any story in their tabloid journalism style. Objective reporting or the truth never gets in the way of their “style.”

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