Libresco: Shirts hide our best selves

The Freshman Class Council has finally resolved its T-shirt troubles, substituting a generic anti-Harvard logo for a problematic F. Scott Fitzgerald line calling Harvard men sissies. The quote and the T-shirt drew fire from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative, since the word sissy has been used as a slur against gay men or men who are judged to be insufficiently manly. I’m glad the FCC managed to handle this issue before any of their shirts went to the printer, but, as I walk through Commons, I still see shirts for sale that should be profoundly offensive to Yale and Harvard students alike.

One of the anti-Harvard shirts in question shows a cartoon bulldog leaning back as it is fellated by a cartoon version of Harvard’s Cantab mascot. Above the picture is the slogan: Putting that Brain to Use Since 1636. After this shirt debuted, Rumpus sent out an e-mail hawking what the tabloild called “The original Harvard giving Yale head shirt.” On this shirt, the basic setup is the same, but, instead of cartoons, Rumpus shows two students engaging in simulated oral sex, wearing shirts to denote school affiliation.

These shirts are not offensive because they depict a sex act, whether involving real people or mascots. These shirts are offensive because of the attitudes they convey about sex, attitudes that are extremely demeaning and, unfortunately, prevalent at Yale and in the national culture. The premise of these shirts is that the act of performing oral sex is intrinsically demeaning. The shirts imply that a form of consensual sexual contact, shared between two adults, is somehow wrong and destructive to one of the participants.

This attitude might be a little easier to take if it were situated wholly in a heterosexual context. Because of historical, misguided opinions about women’s sexuality, oral sex was seen as intended exclusively for men. It took the sexual revolution and the Kinsey and Hite reports to make women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure an acceptable topic in polite society. If I believed that the blowjob shirts were intended as commentary on the differing and demeaning sexual expectations for men and women in a society that still venerates studs while condemning sluts, I might welcome the message, even if not the particularly crude way it was expressed.

However, at least one of the shirts ­— the Rumpus version — clearly shows two men engaged in oral sex. When direct reciprocation is possible, as is the case in any relationship between gay men, it is difficult to make the case that the partner performing fellatio at any particular point is necessarily subordinate or inferior to the receiving partner. Clearly it is the sex act itself that is being treated as demeaning by these shirts, rather than the historical or gender context that surrounds it.

These shirts are just part of a larger movement toward labeling most sex acts as dirty or demeaning. Sex columnist Dan Savage labels these kinds of attitudes as “sex-negative.” Sex-negativity pervades our culture, pushing healthy discussions about sex and sexuality to the fringes of our society. It is no coincidence that Savage, a writer for alternative newspaper The Stranger embraces his position far outside the mainstream, originally instructing his readers to begin their letters to him “Hey, Faggot.” Although we give someone like Savage license to discuss sexuality openly, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Ann Landers could have even acknowledged the kinds of letters that Savage answers. In today’s culture, only a self-professed agent provocateur may speak openly and positively about sex.

Whether or not one embraces Savage’s laissez-faire approach to the practice of sexuality, it is impossible to discount the benefits to his frank and open treatment of the issue. Even the most conservative abstinence supporter does not advocate lifelong celibacy. Obfuscating all consideration of sexuality makes it impossible to have healthy sexual relationships whenever they occur.

Compare the innuendo-filled T-shirts to the perennial game shirt — “Harvard: Less Fun than Abstinence.” These shirts do assume that sex is an expected part of college life, but, paired with sex-negative shirts like Rumpus’s, we are creating poor expectations for sex and sexual relations. Do we expect that what distinguishes Yale students from Harvard students is that Yalies have a great deal of really degrading sex? We can do better.

If we’re going to posit that sex is part of a healthy relationship, regardless of when the sexual component of a relationship occurs, we have to talk about it using language that recognizes it as healthy and natural. To do anything less is as destructive to our sexual and emotional health as Yale’s linebackers will be to Harvard’s offensive line on Saturday.

Leah Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.


  • yale 08

    This column is like a little girl trying on mommy’s heels and make-up, pretending to be an adult.

  • Hieronymus

    Agree with most of the ideas (although perhaps not the tone) presented; however, I quibble with the following: “These shirts are just part of a larger movement toward labeling most sex acts as dirty or demeaning.”

    I see no evidence, within Yale or without, of such a movement. Indeed, I believe we observe quite the opposite, i.e., the cheapening of what used to be termed “making love,” sucking from it all meaning other than raw animal activity.

    Acts of physical intimacy are not being deemed “dirty” (oh how I wish they were!); they are being deemed meaningless.

  • SY ’10

    Great article, Leah. I too was horrified by the shirts you’re talking about, though I don’t think you’re right that it would have been better if situated in a heterosexual context – it simply would have added being demeaning to women to demeaning one partner in the sex act depicted.

  • y10

    This was all well and good until it became a hetero-bash. Le sigh.

  • since when

    since when is ‘sissy’ a slur for gay men?

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure I totally agree. If it’s unwilling, then it’s subordination, and that’s the whole point of the shirt. It’s like forcing somebody to do your job. There’s nothing wrong with digging a ditch, it’s jut tedious.

    The whole point is to show our ability to coerce. Isn’t that what we want a game shirt to do?

  • toopc

    Another minion of the pc army. God forbid the shirts have a little ribald humor.

  • bah

    self-righteousness is unbearably boring.

  • @#5

    With the increase of sensitivity among the ignorant, we must constantly curtail our speech. When did “sissy” become verboten? After the way was paved with:
    tar baby
    Dark Continent
    And the granddaddy of collegiate PC oppression:
    Water buffalo

    (Indeed, I wrote a nasty letter to the right-wing Christian hater Larry the Cucumber after his astonishingly offensive “Water Buffalo Song.”)

    Peace out.

  • ’12

    great article. i know people are quick to shout “pc!!!” at anything that tries to make us think and/or be considerate.


  • Gaius Lucilius

    Thank you, Leah, for putting into words what others are thinking.
    Interesting, how sex slurs are dismissed by those who are not the target of such slurs. Perhaps if oral sex was not spoken of as a demeaning act, men’s partners would be less likely to see it as a chore.
    I personally cannot understand the “sissies” brouhaha, since the word was never used in a gay-bashing context in my home town. If refraining from using the word makes others feel more comfortable around campus, though, I am willing to put up with the minor inconvenience of not using the word on a T-shirt.

  • Straight Yalie

    The shirt Idea was fabulous. People at Yale need to understand that crying doesn’t always mean you get your way. What’s next a Female “Mr. Yale” oh wait that is happening.

  • Branford ’10

    I completely agree with this article, except for the fact that I believe it would be just a problematic (if not more so) if these shirts represented heterosexual oral sex in the same manner. Two adults performing consensual oral sex should not be considered an inherently degrading or humiliating act, regardless of the genders involved. And if as #6 suggests these shirts are meant to display a non-consensual act, then they are all the more disgusting and despicable.

  • GS ’10

    PR aside, this year’s game shirt selection was pretty lacking

  • FailBoat

    Only arrogant yalies with their ultra-activist mentalities would believe that their usage of common tropes would somehow have an effect on societal norms.

  • Recent Alum

    It’s ironic how the author of this column, who seems to get offended by nothing and everything, nonetheless has no problem with the most offensive shirt of all: “Harvard: Less Fun than Abstinence.” The “sissy” shirt isn’t intended to poke fun at any particular group, but there is no question that the abstinence shirt is poking fun at students who are against pre-marital sex. That’s the double standard of Yale today, where openly mocking conservative Christians is okay, but making a statement that could be perceived as (but isn’t intended to be) derogatory of homosexuals is unacceptable.

  • Montague H. Withnail

    #15: Oh for Christ’s sake, how do you think societal norms (well, specifically discursive societal norms) change? They change when people speak differently, because they’re only effective to the extent that people continually recapitulate and re-establish them. Yalies are perfectly capable of influencing societal norms through diction (especially around Yale and New Haven). So are non-Yalies.

    #16: The two aren’t comparable. At all. Making fun of a set of beliefs someone holds (people certainly aren’t born conservative Christians – for that matter, as the authour points out, even conservative Christians don’t believe that sex is ALWAYS bad) is fundamentally different from demeaning someone based on who they are and who they can’t help but be. For that matter, your movement is actually totally dependent on your ability to endlessly complain about those awful people who are out there having sex before marriage or making fun of pre-marital abstinence. It’s also inherently a proselytizing movement, in that abstinence advocates aren’t just making a personal choice, they typically want EVERYONE to stop having pre-marital sex, and are mostly pretty vocal about it. Gays, on the other hand, would pretty much just like to live their lives without constantly bumping into overwhelming societal disgust and dismissal.

  • Montague H. Withnail

    Also, excellent article.

  • D

    Thanks for writing the Op-Ed that I wanted to write.

    A comment on political correctness: often, “PC” is portrayed as a force that silences discourse and kills fun. It has the potential to do that, true–but it can also be used as a tool to get us to where we can discuss what makes us offended or uncomfortable, to learn from each other’s personal politics, without shouting over each other’s cries of “PC! PC! PC!” Use the idea of “political correctness” to talk, not to silence. Use it to get to a position of tolerance and curiosity–even if we don’t agree, we can listen. And see what changes.

  • Y11

    Can we please stop using the term “PC” as a way of discrediting those who (often rightly) point out that a statement is offensive? I too am against using political correctness to silence proponents of controversial ideas; I’m also against the former using the term to demean their opponents.

    No one’s trying to ban free speech…calling a spade a spade (these shirts ARE offensive and demeaning) is different from preventing an opinion from being expressed at all. People who wear the shirts are more than welcome to advertise their sense of “humor” — but should remember that those of us who oppose the commodification of sex reserve that very same right to express our dislike.

  • Gaius Lucilius

    To #19–Thoughtful comment. You succinctly capture the true (in my view) virtue of “PC”–not to end public discussion, but to open people’s minds to being more considerate of others, and giving people with unusual characteristics the space to be safe. That includes gay people, who should not have to face demeaning messages daily.
    It also includes people who believe in abstinence before marriage, of whom I am one. While I believe many people (not all) would be more emotionally healthy if they practiced the same lifestyle as I do, in no way am I agitating for mass enforcement of my principles. (For one, I don’t think it’s a practical expectation on a mass scale). Montague Withnail–in a way you are very similar to the rigid fundamentalists whom you upbraid. Both you and they claim, “Everyone should accept my way of thinking on X subject, but those who think a different way are to be shunned.”

  • eh

    If you’re offended by the term sissy, you’re right, it does apply to you.

    “In today’s culture, only a self-professed agent provocateur may speak openly and positively about sex.”

    That’s so completely, obviously untrue I’m starting to wonder in what universe Miss Libresco is residing, or, perhaps, what she means by speaking “openly and positively about sex”.

  • Montague H. Withnail

    Gaius Lucilius, I’m not sure when I ever said that anyone who didn’t believe in pre-marital sex should be shunned; I doubt I did, since that’s not what I think. My point is simply that: a) it’s absurd to compare making fun of someone’s beliefs to making fun of someone’s biological orientation, and b) people like #16 who moan about how oppressed abstinence advocates are, who call the abstinence shirt the ‘most offensive shirt at all’, and who go on about how the only group it’s publicly acceptable to mock are conservative Christians would, in fact, have *nothing whatsoever to talk about* if it weren’t for things like the Harvard-abstinence shirt. If that shirt didn’t exist, #16 would have to invent it. There is, mind, a fundamental difference between people who quietly practice abstinence in their personal lives and people who take every opportunity to expound upon how virtuous abstinence is, how depraved most people who live sexual lifestyles are, and how conservative Christians are horribly oppressed. I take issue with the latter group — I don’t take issue with the former. I know it’s always fun to fling around accusations of fundamentalism, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t just put words in my mouth.

  • Hmm

    Montague, Im pretty sure if someone made shirts that said that pre-marital sex people were “gross” you would be offended, even though you say that shirts that offend beliefs (as opposed to biology) are a-okay.

    I think the biology-belief distinction is dumb (most Christians are raised that way so in a way can’t really help but believe in the virtue of abstinence, it’s ingrained in them)….the point is that the Harvard: Less Fun Than Abstinence t-shirts make fun of people’s bedroom habits just like anti-gay t-shirts do. Neither are tasteful.

  • Gaius Lucilius

    #23 Montague Withnail–Thanks for the response–it really clarifies things, and to me it seems that my views align with yours more than originally thought. I agree with the distinction that you make between quiet practitioners and those who proclaim their celibacy from the rooftops. The latter, incidentally, tend to be the ones who pull a 180-degree turn lifestyle-wise; they have to make big announcements because they are either insecure, or trying to shore up their own certainty that this is a good idea for them. Also, you’re right, there is no way these are the most offensive shirts.
    That said, I don’t reveal my V-card status to others b/c most folks around here consider premarital abstainers irrational and a bit cracked, a quaint niche interest group somewhere between Wicca practitioners and Big Foot trackers. If my belief isn’t driving me to actions that harm others or infringe on their expression, it should be subject to the same consideration granted to aspects determined by biology.

  • ugh

    Yalies are so boring now. The YDN articles are so boring now. Instead of taking on big ideas, they consistently make mountains out of the most insignificant college-drivel. What happened to changing the world? Instead of reaching for something spectacular and inevitably falling short(but making a significant step towards something new), we settle for inane punditry. Are Yalies that disinterested in anything that exists outside of their tiny little world?

  • unpleasant

    It’s people like the author of this article that make Yale a really unpleasant place to be sometimes. It’s impossible to speak your mind in a group anymore because everyone is offended by everything. Seriously, if you don’t like the message a shirt sends about sex, then don’t buy it. Don’t post your manifesto in the newspaper to scare the humor out of others.