Sex and blogs and shock 'n' tell journalism

Taboos are tumbling as the modern student press becomes increasingly X-rated. Kaite Welsh reports

September 30, 2010

Student newspapers have long been a training ground for budding journalists, with politics, culture and sport all staples of the average university rag.

But whether it is pictures of scantily clad models or sex-obsessed bloggers, the modern student press is increasingly X-rated.

In a new book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution (2010), Dan Reimold, assistant professor of journalism at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore, celebrates such frank discussions of sexuality.

"Over the past two decades, (America's) sexuality has absolutely 'amped up' and entered the mainstream - on TV, online, in the Oval Office, and on college campuses," he argues in the book. However, he said his investigations also shone a light on the decline of print media on campus, a generation prone to "over-sharing" and doubts about the university experience.

Not just pornography

The trend for raunchy student journalism is as prevalent in the UK as in the US.

One of the University of Oxford's student newspapers, Cherwell, has "Creaming Spires", a sex column written anonymously by the "Cherwell Sex Editor", while the University of Cambridge has The Tab, its own take on The Sun, complete with an occasional Page 3 model.

One of the best-known campus sex bloggers is Lena Chen, who achieved notoriety as a student at Harvard University with her blog, Sex and the Ivy.

She said that the campus newspaper was generally a much more liberal forum than mainstream media, providing an arena for discussions considered taboo elsewhere.

"I do think the college paper would be a great starting point for serious debate about male sexuality and all the hang-ups that come with the masculinity ideal," she told Times Higher Education.

Despite the fears that faculty members and parents may have, Ms Chen and others are adamant that the trend is not just an exercise in pornography or titillation. According to student journalists, when it comes to sex, the personal is political.

At Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Dartmouth Free Press columnist Heather Strack describes her work as "a statement of female rights". But not all columnists share her view. Ms Chen's blog arose partly out of her distaste for the homophobia and sexism at Harvard, but she admitted that "I can theoretically argue a woman's right to (have sex) with anyone or thing she chooses, but in practice I'll call someone a slag as quickly as the next misogynist."

The question about whether a paper is the right place for such discussion is linked to the larger debate around the tendency of young people to put their private lives on display.

Although there has certainly been a growing awareness of the dangers of placing personal information in the public sphere, Professor Reimold said: "The general sentiment among students still seems to be: I'm free to put myself out there. Or more simply: This is me, for the world to see."

Far from damaging job prospects, sex columns can be a springboard for a media career. Julia Allison, formerly a sex columnist at Georgetown University, used her notoriety to launch herself as "Carrie Bradshaw 2.0", and is now a successful entertainment journalist, while Ms Chen presents a webcast offering sexual advice.

She said that her experience "has demonstrated that I'm no worse off job-wise than my peers without extensive social media presences. In my case, I want to make a career out of gender and sexuality advocacy, so my blog was actually quite an asset in that regard. Have I lost jobs and opportunities because of it? Perhaps, but I don't know if those employers would have been right for me anyway."

But university administrators often have other issues on their minds. After publishing a column last year that advised readers on mutual masturbation, Carrie Wood, editor of the Towson University newspaper, Torchlight, was forced to resign.

The case reflects the belief among managers that, as student papers are accessible to the general public, their effect on a university's brand can be significant. As pressure on higher education and scrutiny on public funding grows, universities may prove increasingly wary of portrayals of campus life as sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

STUDENT SEX COLUMNISTS ON THEIR TRADE

"Cherwell Sex Editor" (anonymous)

"Oxford is a sexy place, and the great thing about the incestuous closeness of the collegiate system is that we all know about it, who's doing it with who, where, when, and for how long. A kind of sexual and intellectual voyeurism emerges in which a blog and column seem the next logical step."

Lena Chen, author of Sex and the Ivy

"I think that (Sex and the Ivy) was appealing because it eschewed Sex and the City-style glamour in favour of a more authentic story about what coming of age as a young woman is really like ... I like to think that readers could relate to my status as an outsider in the Ivy League world, that they appreciated my honesty about even my worst romantic and sexual experiences."

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