By Tina Shaygan, January 31 2018 —
At the University of Calgary, Sex Week is hard to miss — people dressed as vulvas and penises literally walk around MacHall. With its sixth iteration taking place from Feb. 5–9, Sex Week has become an integral part of the campus community. We set out to find the event’s history and what purpose it intends to serve on campus.
Started in 2012, the idea of Sex Week was first brought forward by the Students’ Union Wellness Centre. As a partnership between the SU, the Women’s Resource Centre and the Q Centre, Sex Week hosted workshops and events to provide education and information on everything related to sex and gender identity. Since then, its scope has grown but its mandate has stayed the same.
“The goal is to create a campus that is sex-positive and inclusive for all students,” SU vice-president student life Hilary Jahelka said. “There’s a main idea around it just being a really fun week for people to engage with topics that you don’t normally get to engage with.”
Carla Bertsch, the U of C Sexual Violence Support Advocate, said it’s essential for topics of sex and gender identity to be publicly discussed.
“When we keep these topics in the dark or label them as forbidden, we also keep acts of domestic and sexual violence private, allowing abuse to thrive and victims to suffer in silence,” Bertsch said.
Critical media studies professor Jessalynn Keller echoes this sentiment. She said that openly talking about sex is important, as many people may have not had these discussions while growing up.
“Young people have often not been given a chance to explore their own gender and sexual identities in safe environments,” Keller said. “Sex Week provides an opportunity for students to do so and to ask questions and have conversations that they maybe never before have had.”
Tonya Callaghan is a Werklund School of Education professor whose research focuses around anti-oppression and anti-homophobia education. To her, Sex Week can offer an alternative sexual education that students are missing in the current school curricula across Canada, particularly for LGBTQA+ people.
“Most western parts of the world have been putting sex education in the curriculum in public education since the mid-20th century. But has that been good sex education? Most people would say no,” Callaghan said. “Most [current sex-ed curriculum] is focused on trying not to get STIs. It’s not talking about pleasure or framing sex in a positive way.”
“It is also extremely important to take a comprehensive approach to sexual education, which includes the LGBTQA+ community,” Bertsch added. “All people deserve education that enables them to make healthy, informed decisions about their bodies and relationships. In addition, sexual education that does not include LGBTQA+ information assumes all people are heterosexual and cisgender. This removes many people, giving them the message that there is something ‘wrong’ with them and contributes to a climate of exclusion and violence.”
Sex positivity and gender identity have been cornerstones of Sex Week since its inception. Events such as the Trans 101 Workshop, the drag show and Queer Sex-Ed are some of the week’s most-attended events.
For Q Centre co-coordinators Tabatha Wallace and Melanie Trudeau, Sex Week provides an education many people missed out on earlier in life.
“We’re really excited about that because we’re hoping to give people the queer sex-ed that they probably should have gotten in high school,” Wallace said.
“Sex Week can be affirmative to students who may have been marginalized within high school sex-ed classes, as it takes an inclusive approach to sexuality and gender identities,” Keller added.
Another central theme of Sex Week is its emphasis on consent education. According to Callaghan, consent education faces criticism from those who reject it as permissive of sexuality.
“There have been many movements to include consent as a main tenant of sex-ed. But of course, you get a lot of pushback from the religion right,” Callaghan said. “People of religious persuasion, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or others — they have a problem about that if we start talking about it we have young people acting on it.”
That idea that talking about sex leads to young people engaging in it, however, has been debunked by several academic studies, according to Callaghan.
“For young people, acting on sex has nothing to do with what adults are saying in schools,” she said.
Trudeau and Wallace hope to counteract that narrative, adding that every event and workshop during Sex Week talks about consent. With involvement from Bertsch, as well as Consent Awareness and Sexual Education (CASE) club, consent is a prominent focus of Sex Week.
Callaghan also emphasized the importance of openly talking about consent.
“In order for sex to be a positive experience for all parties involved, people need to have an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ How hard is that to understand?” Callaghan said.
Callaghan added that an essential aspect missing from current sexual education curriculum is talking about consent in relationships specifically for LGBTQA+ communities.
“When people talk about consent, they’re thinking heterosexual situations,” Callaghan said. “If [LGBTQA+ communities] are not getting that kind of information in schools — which I can tell you they’re not, no one’s talking about sexuality or sexual expression and identity in schools, they’re still mainly focused on sex negative concepts — those people are very much in need of that information.”
With the prominence of movements such as #MeToo and Times Up, which aim to combat sexual misconduct and inequality through starting conversations about personal experiences, Sex Week seems more important than ever.
“I hope that the conversations that have been generated through media spark an interest in people to go, ‘Hey, maybe this is something that I want to get involved in, or learn a little bit more about,’ ” Trudeau said.
Callaghan thinks a new perspective of Sex Week will be explored by students from discussions surrounding sexual education and awareness in the media.
“Whenever you see things discussed in popular culture or in the media, it’s on the forefront of people’s brains. The #MeToo movement has legs. People are talking about it, and of course, it’s connected to sex-ed and Sex Week we have on campus,” she said. “It’s all connected. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, healthy sexual relationships, consent, all of that.”
“People who identify as male are starting to think, ‘What do I need to learn in order to be a healthy sexual partner? Maybe I should go to a session or take part in Sex Week,’ ” Callaghan added.
Callaghan also teaches a course called EDUC 450: Diversity in Learning. She said she encourages her students, who are going to be a part of the education system in the future, to take part in events like Sex Week.
“If people come from a conservative background where talking about sex is taboo, maybe they should take part in Sex Week and learn about what are some of things they are going to encounter,” Callaghan said.
“Recent events like #MeToo have put conversations about sexual violence, consent and sexism in the mainstream media. This is really important as often these issues — which effect many diverse people — do not get the attention they deserve,” Keller added. “Sex Week events are participating in this important conversation by opening up space on campus to talk about these things, especially as they affect marginalized communities such as LGBTQA+ folks.”
Sex Week takes place Feb. 5–9. Events include a session hosted by Bertsch, a session hosted by feminist activist Karen B. Chan, a BDSM workshop, the Queer Sex-Ed workshop, Trans 101 Workshop and many more. The event and workshops are free for all students and staff to attend.