Let’s talk about sex

Before skipping to some of the results from the sex survey, you should read this article. We think the survey is interesting, but we think the response to the survey itself was also incredibly important.

The goal of the Oredigger this year was to continue to raise its relevance to the student body and the sex survey was just one part of this initiative. Long before sending out this survey, we changed the publication frequency, introduced a series of new articles, redesigned our website, and recently reorganized the entire structure of our staff. At the beginning of the year our facebook page had 66 Likes. Now it has roughly 560. Our most reliable information indicates that after two weeks, roughly 80 percent of our papers are being picked up by people on campus.

In terms of content, we have started publishing more and more relevant pieces. At the beginning of the year, we introduced a new, monthly feature called “Department in Review” in which we survey senior students of one department on campus. In November, we printed a four page in-depth analysis of President Scoggins and the ongoing presidential search. In December, we explored the issue of how Mines celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. day. We included a campus survey. In January, we covered Digger Den’s new hours and once again, published a survey reflecting student views on the issue.

In trying to boost the relevance of the paper we have sent out quite a few campus wide emails. Up until sending out what has ubiquitously been termed “the sex survey,” we had yet to receive a single complaint about any of these. In the wake of last Wednesday’s email, however, the paper and myself have come under heightened criticism for what has been compared to surveys found in gossip magazines.

In the wake of these criticisms, I have thought a lot about the content that “belongs” in a college newspaper and all of our efforts at making the paper relevant this year. Every time I land in the same place: If the survey is not something this paper should cover, then what exactly is?

A few months ago I packed up our entire office and in the process had to go through old papers all the way back to the 1940s. The papers were hilarious. They were often sexist and generally conservative. Cigarette companies advertised in almost every issue. Every single paper was a cultural artifact of the campus at a particular moment in time.

While I agree that the paper should serve all members of the Mines community, looking through old papers made it clear how reflective the paper is of the culture on campus. Perhaps this was why people were so upset about the survey. It characterized the culture of our campus in a way that did not necessarily align with the image these individuals had or maybe wanted for Mines. It is for this reason, however, that I think publishing the survey has become fairly important.

The paper should serve as a resource to help connect all members of the Mines community, but its main audience is not alumni or professors or administrative staff. It is primarily a newspaper written and designed by students for students and I want to look back at the paper in fifty years and feel like it accurately represents what the campus is today.

These surveys have been a valuable part of our strategy to both engage students and represent them. This is a school filled with engineers and it should not surprise anyone that publishing data about other students on campus both generates interest in the paper and captures unique aspects of campus life. So to those of you who were offended by the survey and thought it did not belong in the paper or think it is a misrepresentation of campus culture, I point you to the following statistics:

After less than twenty four hours, nearly 1500 students had responded to our survey. It dominated the top posts of Yik-Yak that night and it generated more engagement on our facebook page than any other article post this academic year.

If part of the purpose of the paper is to reflect the values and culture of our campus, this survey seems to have been the most effective means of engaging the campus community this entire year.

Still, I understand that interest in an article is not and should not be the only barometer an editor uses to decide what to publish, which brings us to the final issue with the survey: the salacious nature of its subject matter.

The most frequent concern I have heard in this regard is that the survey is reminiscent of something you might find in a magazine like Cosmopolitan. These types of comparisons rely on a singular point of similarity: Cosmo and the Oredigger both dared to talk about sex, but making this comparison is akin to comparing the Oredigger’s weekly news section to the New York Times. Sure, they sometimes focus on similar issues but I think we can all agree they are different beasts entirely.

To this end, I am not really sure what the problem with resembling a section in Cosmopolitan is. It would be problematic if the paper turned into a weekly sex column, but luckily we do not have to pick one or the other. The beauty of newspapers is that they can have multiple sections. We can write about world news, cooking, new movies and sexual tendencies on campus all in the same issue. To confine the paper to one particular category or to outlaw another is to limit the capacity of the press in entirely unnecessary ways.

It is here that I feel the survey is providing a unique service that I had not anticipated when we initially created it. In the last few years, college campuses have come under increasing scrutiny for their treatment of sexual assault. National headlines have been dominated by stories of both horrible sexual assaults and horrible administrative responses. Colleges have ignored victims and wrongly convicted innocent individuals all in the same week.

College newspapers have often taken up the role of advocates, attempting to challenge their administrations to handle issues in different ways. Many of these responses, however, are after the fact. In these cases, reporters get invested only after an assault has occurred and as a result, discussions of sex on campus are responsive and not preemptive. Establishing a healthy and honest dialogue about sex is critical in preventing sexual assault, but these discussions should not have to wait until after tragedy strikes to become relevant.

Before creating this survey, I looked up similar surveys sent out on other college campuses. I found countless examples, but oddly enough, most of them were singular pieces, conducted in only one year. At the time, I hardly even registered this as a trend, but after my experience I think I have a good guess as to why these surveys, though popular, are isolated instances instead of annual occurrences.

Despite mainstream media’s portrayal of sex, it is still seen as a forbidden topic. To talk about sexual attitudes on campus is to put yourself in the pool with a writer from Cosmopolitan. No college administration wants the top news story about campus to focus on the sexual habits of its students. The resulting criticism cast on newspaper staffs serves as a deterrent to future editorial boards who might consider publishing similar stories, no matter how effective articles like this can be in breaking down sexual barriers. I experienced this first hand last week, as I listened to criticisms of the effectiveness of our efforts this year center on this single survey. rather than all of our other initiatives.

The results of this survey do not indicate that Mines has any abnormal level of sexual activity, but based on the response and shame we have felt this week for deciding to send out this survey, you would think that only a minority of campus was sexually active.

Despite the overwhelming response from students, every single administrative individual I approached declined my offer for an interview or an editorial. Granted, I approached many of these individuals towards the end of the week and I will concede that I was often abrupt given my short time frame for publication. Thus, this is not a criticism as much as it is an invitation to enter the conversation.

The results of this survey and larger surveys done across college campuses are clear: the majority of students in college are sexually active in some capacity. This is no longer an issue of salacious content, but rather one of establishing clear lines of communication. If we keep casting sex as a taboo subject that must be approached with extreme caution, how can we ever hope to establish clear boundaries for acceptable behavior?

Avoiding conversations about sex at an institutional level ensures this school will fail in its primary mission of educating students about the world around them. The survey we sent out was never intended to become a focus piece about our attitudes towards sex and I am sure many individuals will point to its flaws, but to do so is to miss the greater point: This survey should not have been a big deal and the amount and magnitude of responses indicates that there is a significant gap in productive conversations about sex on campus.

Luckily for us, we ended up asking some pretty significant questions and as we began to analyze the data this week, we realized what a big task we had created for ourselves, and we do not want to rush it. This is just the start of our analysis and we look forward to continuing this conversation in weeks to come. We will be inviting more administrative individuals to showcase their thoughts in our paper and we hope that the rest of the campus will engage in this discussion with us.


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