ABOUTORABI: Right and wrong sexual choices

It was heartening to see Ted Lee’s ’12 column grace the op-ed page of Friday’s paper (“Love, sex and intimacy,” Sept. 22). Lee offered a sincere reflection on the intricate relationship between sex and love, the physical and the emotional. He encouraged us to consider the fundamental question that must underlie any proposed reform of our sexual culture, something that the back-and-forth about “rape culture,” in my opinion, has only obliquely touched upon. We cannot envision a better sexual culture until we have settled the meaning of sex.

Nevertheless, Lee’s conclusions rest on a number of crucial confusions, some of them dramatic. I was particularly taken aback by these sentences: “To follow UBYC’s logic … requires some sort of separation between the mind and body. My experience suggests emotional and physical intimacy are inextricably linked.”

As an active member of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, I am somewhat distressed that there has arisen so fundamental a misunderstanding of our advocacy. I can only conclude that we have not been clear enough in articulating exactly what we stand for.

We do not advocate a separation of mind and body. On the contrary, we oppose hook-up culture precisely because it seeks to divorce the physical pleasure of sex from the mental, spiritual, and interpersonal dimensions of sexuality. In so doing, it reduces sex from an experience of total intimacy with another human being to the mere relief of a simple bodily appetite. We are against Sex Week because it reinforces this mindset and the culture that exists around it.

Likewise, as my friend Eduardo Andino has ably pointed out (“Clarifying the Sex Week debate,” Sept. 21), the repeated suggestion that UBYC is trying to “silence discussion” about sex makes no sense. The very first clause of our petition against Sex Week explains that we are “[c]onvinced that issues of love and sexuality are integral to the human experience, and that both individuals and communities must therefore address them with responsibility, integrity, and respect for the dignity of all human beings.”

What is obnoxious about Sex Week is not that it has the brashness to acknowledge that humans are sexual creatures. Rather, it is the way it talks about that fact and the specific sexual ideology that it pushes, an ideology of narcissistic pleasure-seeking that wrenches sex out of any meaningful or humane expression. One third of Sex Week 2010 events were about pornography or hosted by porn stars or directors. Another event offered instruction in masturbation; two divulged helpful hints for oral sex. My college, Trumbull, hosted a dance called “Se7en” to which attendees were encouraged to come dressed as their favorite sin. Meanwhile, only two events addressed the subject of dating. One of these, a speed dating session for charity, bore the suggestive title “Give Some, Get Some,” betraying Sex Week’s constant insistence upon the salacious.

Sex Week masquerades as an open forum to discuss all things pertaining to love, sex, relationships, and intimacy. In fact, it serves to impose one hegemonic sexual culture on Yale’s campus. This was clearly illustrated two years ago at the Yale Political Union’s Sex Week debate on the topic, “Reject hook-up culture.” As one student argued from the podium that hook-up culture made women vulnerable, a group of students from the Pundits began aggressively making out in the audience, interrupting her speech. One pair launched themselves onto the stage, tearing off each other’s clothing and forcing the debate to halt. This was more than a juvenile act of exhibitionism. It showed the dominant sexual culture’s inability to abide disagreement when faced with a true open forum.

Lee ends his column with a string of well-meaning platitudes about the choices we all face in negotiating the thorny issues of sexuality. He misses two points. The first is that none of us makes choices in a vacuum. We are all influenced by the values of the culture surrounding us. The darkly alluring world of hook-up culture seduces us into neglecting the interpersonal meaning of every sexual act, and tricks us into believing that our complex sexual nature can be satisfied by a mere physical sensation.

The second point Lee misses is that not every choice can be a right choice. If every decision is equal so long as it is freely chosen, the very idea of choice becomes meaningless. There can be no grounds for selecting one choice over another. Put concretely, there are right choices about sex, which we ought to encourage, and wrong choices, which we ought to discourage. The wrong choices — like meaningless hook-ups, like Sex Week — naively divorce the physical from the personal, failing to see that they are indeed, as Lee put it, “inextricably linked.”

bijan Aboutorabi is a junior in Trumbull College and a founder of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College.


  • wtf

    I fail to see how “a group of students” equals “the dominant sexual culture.”

  • Jerry

    I very much respect UBYC’s desire to improve the sexual climate on campus, but I’m not sure you guys could get it more wrong on so many different levels:

    1. Obviously you’re not “silencing discussion” about the kinds of sexual relationships YOU think are good. The criticism being leveled is that *you silence discussion on OTHER parts of the issue* – the parts you deem “naive,” “meaningless,” “wrong,” in short, shameful and deserving of exclusion. I don’t think all the textual slight-of-hand could absolve you of trying to silence a major part of the discussion.

    2. Masturbation and oral sex are not in any way morally debased and are both very healthy components of human sexuality – I’m pretty sure this has not been a controversial issue in the past century among the majority of people and in forever among the reasonably minded.

    3. With Se7en as with all of Sex Week, if you can’t stand it, *Don’t go*. This is the single argument that has been left untouched through every single UBYC response. Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go. Goodness knows enough investment bankers come to campus that I dislike more than UBYC could possibly dislike a pornographic actor – I simply don’t go.

    4. “Give some, get some” is suggestive? It’s *charity*, for Pete’s sake – you “give” to a charity and you “get” moral satisfaction. Sounds like somebody’s mind was in the “juvenile,” “darkly alluring” gutter!

  • Jerry

    5. “One hegemonic sexual culture” – lulz. With all due respect, lulz. Your single piece of evidence comes from the actions of a group that has no affiliation with Sex Week, a group whose closest flirtation with any display of hegemony involved a gorilla suit and light-sabers? The Pundits are as much the yardstick of cultural hegemony as the Rumpus is the yardstick of dignified literature.

    6. “Seduces” and “tricks”? Sounds like somebody isn’t secure enough in his own moral righteousness that he needs to find a taller soapbox from which to preach. Let’s say you’re right – an environment that condones casual sex will invariably lead to all of your nightmare scenarios – I’m pretty sure in that case UBYC is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and not getting any in the process. Sorry to break it, but the media and Hollywood alone dwarf the influence of Sex Week by a million-fold, rendering your efforts terminally futile. Of course, all hope is not lost – it turns out, thanks to this amazing thing called “personal agency,” we CAN make decisions based on our personal convictions, independent of the world around us – the fact that some can continually make intolerant claims in a largely tolerant community attests to this!

    7. “There can be no grounds for selecting one choice over another”… hmm… here’s a suggestion – *personal preference*. Lee’s argument wasn’t that every single choice is equally beneficial from one’s personal perspective – that’s an absurdity of a straw-man. I hardly believe Lee contends that one has no ability to prefer shoes on feet rather than shoes tied to ears. The argument is that *you* shouldn’t attempt to impose upon *me* your views of morality; rather, you should respect my agency and not construct grounds that shame my decisions while promoting your personal agenda.

    • roflairplane

      Let me sum up: “Wah wah, you can’t tell me what to do, it’s a free country! Morality is relative, not absolute. Wah wah, I’ll do what I want.”

  • The Anti-Yale

    *We do not advocate a separation of mind and body.*

    You may not ADVOCATE such a separation, but it the outcome of the world be live in post Descartes (*Cogito ergo sum*), i.e. the Cartesian split: *I think, therefore I am.*

    I would argue that *Sentio ergo fio* (I FEEL therefore I become) is the desperate hedonistic attempt of our culture to rewind to the pre-Cartesian world where humans felt a oneness and wholeness about their being.

    Perhaps this is self alienation is the very meaning of the Garden of Eden myth itself. If so, its opposite may be unattainable, if one believes biblical myths.

    • JE14

      what is this? I don’t even.

  • nmmp

    Oh, Bijan. You’re so smart, and yet you are so wrong. I’ll tell you what, why don’t we leave Sex Week alone and organize Relationship Week? Or something to that effect, with a snappier, alliterative title. Why is the emphasis put on vigilance and repression, instead of on promotion of positive ideas? By opposing Sex Week you are doing more damage to your cause than good. You say that none of us makes decisions in a vacuum –and you are right. The same goes for our speech. You guys are not speaking in a vacuum, there is an immense historical weight to this debate which you seem to be ignoring. Whenever people hear “wrong moral choices,” they hear echoes of Victorianism. Of course, you guys don’t actually want to see XIX century sexual morality return (at least I hope so). You want to see Yalies care for the people they sleep with. That’s great, but if you tell a bunch of postmodern children that their sexual choces are morally wrong, you are only going to get laughed at. I know you think that is a tragedy, and perhaps it is. But to take on a knight-of-infinite-resignation stance towards it all and tragically fight the fight that you can’t win with a bleeding conservative heart is probably the worst way in which to actually challenge people’s ideas. Drop the moral righteousness, drop the critique of blowjobs (really, Bijan?) and instead of apocalyptically stating that everything everybody is doing is wrong, open up spaces for discussion of what would be better. This is politics, and as you know form matters as much as content. Besides, even if we grant that there are better and worse sexual choices, we shouldn’t assume from the start that we know with certainty what those choices are. Epistemological modesty, man. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to convince you of the virtues of the ocassional casual encounter. Not every single hookup at this university is a drunken mistake. Please, at least grant us that. Love, N.

    • SY

      “Not every single hookup at this university is a drunken mistake. Please, at least grant us that.”

      That’s a minimalist position, if ever was one. I’ll grant you that. Bijan argues imperfectly that he wants people to have sex and be happy, and happier. That sex should lead from relationship to better relationships. At least prepare someone for someone else. I keep reading and hearing that many are unhappy, lonely, depressed, abused, in therapy or filing lawsuits. It wasn’t always that way, and one can hope won’t always be so. Ending the Sex Week circus is a little shift that reduces the noise. When it ended in 2010, I thought, another form of sexual relief that I did not know about.

    • RexMottram08

      Morality isn’t that hard to discern. Your agnostic posturing is just an excuse to do whatever the hell you want

  • ldffly

    I am happy that I am not a Yale student in this day and age. I’d rather deal with Vietnam, the Cold War and Watergate.

  • jm252

    Although I don’t think we should end SWAY, Mr Aboutorabi makes some interesting points.

  • AnonymousStudent

    1. The attitude of “if you don’t like it, don’t go” is lazy in response to the investment bankers, and lazy in response to the porn stars and facile attitude regarding lust sometimes advocated by Sex Week. Yale students aren’t mere consumers in the market of possible ethics, choosing one or the other, offering no comment on the irreducibly public choices of our peers; rather, we shape the ethics available to ourselves. It’s good to have this conversation on the pages of the YDN, and on balance, good to have Sex Week, too, although I guess I’m with Aboutorabi in finding the very name of the week to be unfortunately norm-creating.

    2. Some seem to accuse Aboutorabi of espousing the end of sexual liberation. I haven’t read him falling down this slippery slope. He’s advocating a less hedonistic approach to enjoyment of that liberty. Hopefully Sex Week this year will reflect the best of this conversation.

    3. “Love is an angel, disguised as lust.” -Patti Smith

    Be brave and be kind, young lovers.

  • River_Tam

    > As one student argued from the podium that hook-up culture made women vulnerable, a group of students from the Pundits began aggressively making out in the audience, interrupting her speech. One pair launched themselves onto the stage, tearing off each other’s clothing and forcing the debate to halt. This was more than a juvenile act of exhibitionism. It showed the dominant sexual culture’s inability to abide disagreement when faced with a true open forum.

    This happened?

    Doesn’t surprise me.

    • Inigo_Montoya


  • TedLee

    Thanks for your thoughts, Bijan; I appreciate your comments. I do, however, want to clarify a couple of things about what you claim I misunderstand.

    I am very aware of the effect that culture has on behavior. I worry, however, that failing to provide a forum about the physical aspects of relationships will create a culture even more uncomfortable with sex. Stopping discussion about the pleasures of sex won’t stop anyone from pursuing sex; it will merely stigmatize sex and destroy opportunities for dialogue. I also believe you overestimate the extent to which events like Sex Week affect individual actions. Do you honestly think that receiving tips on blowjobs or masturbation changes whether or not an individual chooses to engage in those activities? Moreover, why can’t giving physical pleasure to your partner or yourself enhance the emotional experience of sex?

    Furthermore, I believe your argument that UBYC can define absolute “wrong” and “right” choices of sexual expression is an outdated, outmoded way of thinking that has in the past been used as justification to condemn homosexuality, interracial marriage and, yes, masturbation. Recent research suggests that our ideas of right and wrong arise from a place outside traditional ideas of “rationality” and that people conceive of morality differently. A majority disagrees with some of these conceptions (e.g., “rape is okay”), but your argument that there are only some right and wrong choices which you decide prevents any of us from having a nuanced discussion on these topics.

    • River_Tam

      > A majority disagrees with some of these conceptions (e.g., “rape is okay”), but your argument that there are only some right and wrong choices which you decide prevents any of us from having a nuanced discussion on these topics.

      … are you saying that someone who says “rape is okay” just has a different perspective on this whole rape thing?

      • TedLee

        Absolutely not. I would say that the fact that most people agree that rape is wrong indicates that the opposite position is probably in some way flawed. But we don’t get to those conclusions without discussion. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

        • RexMottram08

          “Truth is not subject to a majority vote” – Some German guy

  • JArou

    The idea that Sex Week is fine because people are going to “do it anyway” is a non sequitur. It is certainly no justification, and claiming it as one is a grievous logical fallacy. I seriously doubt that those who advocate this complacency would also find themselves comfortable with the notion that if crime is taking place outside your window, you should simply close your blinds. Before the comments come flooding in about this likening of sex to a criminal act, let me clarify: it is obviously not. But the situations are analogous in the sense that if one perceives something as morally wrong, they then are obligated to try to help stop it if is at all within their power. That is why “good samaritan” laws have been enacted all around the world.

    The suggestion, then, that if Sex Week events bother someone, they should simply “abstain” from attending is ridiculous. That is not a moral answer for one who views the kind of conversations and dialogues held during Sex Week to be antithetical to true love, decency, and morality.

    Which brings up a new question: Are they? As Bijan so adroitly argues, the answer is yes. To begin with, a conversation at Yale about these issues and acts legitimizes them. Brings them into the fold. Assumes that these are part of normal sexuality. In fact, they truly represent our sexual appetite run amok. We all know that no appetite can proceed unrestrained for too long before the negative repercussions are felt. Take eating as a case in point. Exercise no self-control over this appetite and the consequences for your health are disastrous – eventually fatal.

    Sex Week legitimizes – and has the audacity to even promote – letting your appetites run free. Don’t give up the effort, Mr. Aboutorabi. Nature, biology, and reason are on your side.

  • The Anti-Yale

    The libido was trapped in the chastity belt of Puritan morality and guilt for two hundred years until Freud picked the lock and released it on the world. The advent of pregnancy-free coitus (post-pill epoch) and guilt free same-sex (post AIDS epoch) has turned the libido into a world-ide funhouse and pleasure palace.

    Sex Week at Yale?


    Sounds rather stuffy in comparison to the last few decades of television and Hollywood presentations.

    Remember the good old days when Ricky and Lucy occupied separate tandem twin beds and somehow Lucy managed to get pregnant?

  • RexMottram08

    Pundits. They have never been nor will ever be funny.

    The body/mind separation is certainly not coming from UBYC. The emotional compartmentalization needed to participate in the hook-up culture is astounding.

  • claypoint2

    I think that Bijan gets it right on every count….

  • The Anti-Yale

    *“To follow UBYC’s logic … requires some sort of separation between the mind and body. My experience suggests emotional and physical intimacy are inextricably linked.”*

    The Cartesian Split (Previously known as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden) has troubled humankind for a thousand years before Descartes was born. It is metaphorically defined as “Original Sin,” the sense that my body has to ask my mind how it ( my body) feels and then try to monitor, restrain and coordinate the two.