Sex Columnists Finally Become a Subject of Study
“You’ve got 600 to 800 words to grab people by the throat, stick your thumb in their windpipe, and literally scream at them to pay attention,” says Daniel Reimold, talking about the difficulty of being a newspaper columnist. But for some columnists, getting people to pay attention is a little easier because they’re writing about a subject that always turns heads: sex.
Campus sex columns are widely read but have gone largely unstudied until Reimold, a journalism professor at the University of Tampa, began working on his first book, Sex and the University, which was released last month. The absence of previous research meant Reimold was left to do a great deal of legwork to gather information, but this turned out to be a blessing for the readers of his book. Because Reimold doesn’t have to spend time recapping previous research, he can dive directly into the subject and present his findings.
Reimold channels this research into a comprehensive but approachable overview of the content, impact, and legacy of sex columns over the past two decades. His work has both captivating detail and the larger context necessary to immerse the reader in lives of campus sex columnists. Describing the confrontations columnists have with school administrators and the celebrity status they achieve on campus, Reimold effectively draws the reader into controversies, triumphs, and struggles that these students have faced.
More than 120 former columnists were interviewed for the book, and their experiences provide the narrative for each chapter. They range from current public figures to those who have quietly moved on with their lives.
The title of Reimold’s book is both a play on Sex and the City and marker of the importance of the HBO series that ran from 1998 to 2004 and spawned two films. Reimold counts the show’s fictional sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw as an important influence in the rise of sex columnists, and while she didn’t shape the personae of all, her character opened the door for such columns.
But not everyone believes Bradshaw had a positive influence on sex columns. Amanda Hess, who reports on sex and gender for TBD.com, believes that Bradshaw’s confessionals—a style that uses personal experiences to elicit broader themes and arguments within the column—were “a clever narrative for a television show,” but she isn’t convinced that “most undergraduate men and women are really prepared to write intelligent, interesting, honest, and funny columns about their own sexual experiences.”
But now that most college freshman were born just a few years before the series began, the influence of SATC has begun to fade, Reimold says. “What you are seeing now is that the sex column revolution has become a main part of most papers’ editorial sheets.”
That’s about the broadest claim Reimold makes. In his book, he carefully qualifies phrases so as not to oversell his findings. You won’t hear or read him making overarching statements about the nature of sex columns or their authors. Even the thesis of his book is rather simple: These columns reflect the realities of college students’ sex lives and relationships, and they provide researchers and the public with a window into a part of students’ lives that should not be overlooked.
Yet Reimold falls into the trap that many academics do: he's almost too neutral. At times, the reader is left waiting for Reimold to weigh in more strongly on his findings, to criticize an influence on writers, or to caution readers about developing trends within columns. His neutrality makes the book a good starting point for research into the impact of campus sex columns, but it won’t necessarily light a fire under readers to stand up to censoring administrators or puritanical critics of an oversexed culture.
Of course, Reimold relies on the content of campus sex columns to tell part of the story, but there is more to that story than what students write. He talks to those who became campus celebrities; while some enjoyed only a little increased attention from classmates, others rose to nearly iconic status.
Perhaps no one columnist knows how high one can rise than Meghan Bainum of Kansas University, whose story Reimold chronicles in his book. Her sex column debuted in September 2001, and by summer 2002, the Kansas AP Bureau ran a story on her and the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a piece on her work. By fall, the media frenzy set in, and additional features followed in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Inside edition. The whole saga capped off when she received an all-expenses-paid to Chicago to pose for Playboy in October 2002.
Celebrity or no, almost all of them faced some difficulty defending their columns’ existences.
He chronicles their ongoing battles with family, friends, college donors, administrators, and just about anyone else you can imagine who might take issue with the content of sex columns. The most ardent of the critics of the columnists, he writes, were people who had no experience in journalism, sexual health education, or relationship counseling (of course, this is a criticism that could be directed at the columnists, as well). He added that efforts to control content “would be comical for their misguided earnestness if the censorious undertones were not so serious.”
In one notable incident, administrators at New York City’s Wagner college confiscated copies of the Wangerian that contained a column titled, “The Big Bang,” which addressed students faking orgasms. The piece included a sidebar featuring students’ names and headshots in which they answered whether or not they “fake it.” Administrators, fearing backlash from parents, collected all of the copies, required editors to submit the next issue for review, and threatened to fire the publication’s adviser. These actions prompted involvement of the Student Press law Center, a key ally for student publications who find themselves at odds with their administration.
Most of the students facing these battles are women, who comprise 80 to 90 percent of columnists, says Reimold.
Hess says she’s also observed the predominance of women writing campus sex columns and attributes it to the nature of the columns, saying they often aren’t even all that sexy.
“A lot of sex columns on college campuses are hardly ‘sex’ columns,” says Hess. “Plenty of them are about campus relationships and dating or advice-style columns or even more academic-style pieces.”
Hess explains that covering those topics means being “tuned into social relationships” and “listening to how people feel about romantic relationships and sex.” Those arenas, she says, have traditionally been associated with women, while more explicit discussions of sex led to shaming.
This isn’t to suggest that men aren’t part of the conversation, though. Hess says she has seen “a rise of men writing more explicit columns about sex in a sportier way.” She adds that there are “more and more Tucker Max devotees,” referring the New York Times best selling author and creator of TuckerMax.com who popularized the “Fratire” genre with his work chronicling his drunken and sexual encounters.
The columns may have found a happy place on the editorial pages, but some former columnists are not yet sure what effect their time spent as sex columnists will have after graduation. Reimold writes of “a growing contingent of former columnists who discover upon graduation that their sex columnist personae are not easily escapable, for better or worse.”
He explains that it isn’t so much that columnists are running away from their former careers and hoping that their work never shows up on a Google search. Rather, they have trouble “convincing superiors and co-workers that [their sex column] does not wholly define them in the present.” That task isn’t an easy one, though. Sex columns are likely to be the first returns when an employer searches for an employee’s name, and no matter how many accomplishments with which one fills his or her résumé, the column with “blowjob” in the title will always speak more loudly.
Although some students are moving away from their past work, others are trying to make it into a career. One former columnist, Amber Madison, wrote Hooking Up: A Girl’s Guide to Sex and Sexuality. Another columnist, Yvonne Fulbright, went on to write sex guides in her effort “to become the next Dr. Ruth,” writes Reimold. She now contributes to FoxNews.com, Women’s Health, and Cosmopolitan.
Reimold has taken the experiences of former columnists to heart, and it has changed the way he interacts with the sex columnists he advises at the University of Tampa. He now asks his own students “to at least consider writing under a pseudonym or writing some other way anonymously.”
Although he’s teaching students, not living the college life, Reimold doesn’t sound aged or distant. The author finished his B.A. in 2003, and during our interview, he referred to “our generation,” counting himself in among the same age group the columnists.
Perhaps reading all of those columns has introduced Reimold to the language one needs to discuss college students’ sex lives. And in case you don’t have the same skills, he includes a glossary of sex terms that columnists used in their columns. Don’t know what an “OOO” is? It’s okay; the glossary tells the reader that that would be an “overly-organized orgasmer,” the term for those who multi-task during sexual activity by, among other things, making mental to-do lists.
The language may be beyond some readers, but if Reimold is correct, they will have time to catch up. “Just over ten years ago, these columns didn’t exist,” he says. “Now they are not only regular but expected features.”
For now, Reimold remains the only person to seriously assess their value, but his work may do exactly what sex columnists do on their campus: Start a conversation, and see where it goes from there.
Andrew Bluebond is a staff writer for Campus Progress. He attends Claremont McKenna College.