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.