CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — They pose naked for student glossies and pen "how to" and "to avoid" advice on amorous engagement. Across the country, college students' choice of extracurricular activity is revealing a growing clinical frankness on matters that would have made their grandparents - and parents - blush.
Harvard University was sent reeling this month when two students announced their newest inspiration: H Bomb, a publication that would be replete with poetry, fiction - and photos of naked coeds. In the past several years, similar magazines, sex columns, even campus-wide events have become the latest trend.
The week before Valentine's Day, Yale students put on Sex Week, which featured panels with a pornographic movie star, among others. Columbia University's student newspaper just launched a weekly sex and dating column. Class lists nationwide increasingly feature the study of pornography and "sex-positive theory," and back at Vassar College, students are preparing the sixth edition of Squirm, the campus magazine of erotica.
To some students, not to mention parents, all this is inappropriate, even offensive, in the halls of American academe. But to those involved in the movement, mostly women, it's a valid form of campus entertainment. It's also about soul-searching and challenging perceptions of sex in an increasingly sex-saturated society.
Of course, interest in sex is not new on campus. The sexual revolution of the '60s was more radical. Colleges today, many say, only reflect society's tolerance of using sex to sell everything from music to shampoo.
And many students are feeling it's their right to express their sexuality however they see fit.
"It's a push back against the political correctness of the 1990s," says Robin Sawyer, a human sexuality professor at the University of Maryland."There is a lot of envelope pushing going on on college campuses."
Harvard students Katharina Baldegg and Camilla Hrdy (pronounced "Hurdy") wrote in their H Bomb mission statement: "What we are proposing is an outlet for literary and artistic expression that is both desired and needed...." The university initially accepted the idea, with reservations. But after the media likened the endeavor to pornography, Harvard's Committee on College Life backpedaled, reflecting the ambivalence universities feel about crossing the line between free speech and becoming platforms for sex.
But students seem undaunted. Indeed, while "Sex and the City" ended its six-year run Sunday, character Carrie Bradshaw seems to have inspired a cadre of young sex columnists.
This winter, Columbia University junior Jessica DiCamillo entered a contest to become the student newspaper's new sex columnist. "Sex is always a conversation starter, an icebreaker." Ms. DiCamillo says.
Yet some worry there is already enough sex in society. "There is a strong addictive quality associated with sex," says Bruce Cook, the founder and CEO of Choosing the Best, an abstinence-only program for teens. "Heavy uses of pornography fuel casual sex.... College students don't understand the risk." He says his group is considering creating an abstinence program for college orientations.
For Ms. DiCamillo, an urban studies major, the column is not harmful, but a fun activity built into her busy schedule. Her mom, she says, was less enthusiastic about the idea. She worried about her daughter's reputation, DiCamillo says, especially when launching her job search.
Experts say that, in large part, women are behind the trend at college campuses. Long the objects of pornography, they have had little stake in it until recently.
Campus men also see an important role for sexual dialogue. Per Henningsgaard, a senior at Vassar College and layout editor of Squirm, comes from Bemidji, Minn., where he says talking about sex, at least in high school corridors, was taboo. That's why he joined the staff as a blushing freshman.
One of the main goals of Squirm, says Mr. Henningsgaard, is to run images of different body types, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. "That's what sets us aside from any pornography out there," he says. Also, he says the nude pictures are not as graphic as hard-core porn.
While there's never been more discussion of sex in America - from TV to the classroom - some experts say the interest on college campuses may stem from a dearth of needed information. Monica Rodriguez of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, says high school education often focuses on abstinence alone, while misinformation spreads by word of mouth.
Eric Rubenstein, a senior majoring in psychology, founded Yale's Sex Week as a sophomore. He says the goal is for students to explore issues of love, intimacy, and spirituality. Mr. Rubenstein says he faced some criticism, particularly because the event didn't focus on safe sex or abstinence. "But that was a calculated decision," he says, since the peer health educators on campus provide that information year round.
Not all students have embraced the idea - and at some schools alumni have expressed outrage. Prompted by angry calls from readers, administrators at Northern Arizona University will meet next week with the student newspaper board to discuss a recent sex column. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, junior Caley Meals was surprised by some of the negative reaction to her sex column, "Between the Sheets," the university's first such column published last year. "The reception was not quite what I expected," says Ms. Meals.
Hilda Hutcherson, a gynecologist at Columbia University Medical School, says risqué student publications can be dangerous if not countered by information on safe sex or sexually transmitted diseases. "Some [publications] are not presenting all sides of an issue. It's just one more bit of peer pressure that students have to deal with."