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Revisiting Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee

This year we reached out to three former interdisciplinary honor students and campus leaders with close connections to the Department of Sociology and the UT Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

Through the campus student organization Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, Julie Edwards, Colleen Ryan, and Patrick Sonnenberg worked to foster a comprehensive and intellectual discussion on sex, sexuality, and relationships for the university and community. Their focus: Many Tennessee students receive abstinence-only education while in middle and high school, empirically proven to raise teen pregnancy and birth rates. They sought with faculty and students to support a more successful comprehensive sex education, which includes medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate information on a variety of sexual and reproductive health topics (e.g., contraception, consent, sexual and gender diversity, risk avoidance). Their work was always a fight, with a key annual event, Sex Week, a focus of statewide and often national political and media coverage.

Edwards, Ryan, and Sonnenberg remembered that time and how it impacts their current lives and career trajectories. All commented on how hard it was to go back and revisit those days when threats of sexual violence (and now death threats for Edwards's job) were and are routine parts of their daily lives.

"I think about the work we did every day," said Edwards, senior advocacy and organizing manager for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. "I don't think we realized the guts it took to do that work before we knew what it was we were doing…to be undergraduates under attack for trying to have accurate information."

Ryan, a JD graduate of Belmont University College of Law, working in civil legal services and member of the LGBTQ alumni board at UT, commented that while pursuing other kinds of equity work, the effects of trauma persist in a lot of her life decisions.

"When we describe what we've been through, it sounds wild," added Sonnenberg, a graduate student in computational linguistics at Brandeis University, focusing on harm reduction in AI and Natural Language Processing.

Part of how they have processed those efforts and the trauma of their work is by connecting theory to praxis in their writing, organizational efforts, and daily lives. They still use course syllabi in training interns, doing legal work, and conducting research.


ryan"Sociology gave me language and connections between understanding oppression and lived experience and faculty to support us," Ryan said.





sonnenbergCommenting on the difficulties of continuing to do this work in their respective pathways, Sonnenberg said, "the struggle is what I am in and, realistically, my only hope is when I am with other organizers in community and solidarity, love and support, and trying to reproduce that on a larger scale."





edwards"We underestimate the importance of community organizing as an academic enterprise," Edwards said. "We learned so much in our efforts. Good organizers are hope dealers. People need help, and they need strong people to advocate for them. We are building a better world."




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