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I could count on one hand my memories of people at Yale talking to me about sex. By “talking” I don’t mean flirting and by “people” I don’t mean raucous acquaintances or advice-seeking friends. Those conversations have been far too numerous to calculate. By “about sex” I don’t mean about curvaceous figures in Renaissance art or gender identity in modernist literature or evolution among great apes. I’ve forgotten most of those instances. I mean knowledgeable people telling my peers and me about the birds and the bees and the various devices they use and tests they take to assure that they’re healthy, consensual, and safe birds and bees.
The most recent of these memories dates from February 2010 during the event formerly known as “Sex Week at Yale.” I was seated in one of the back rows of the balcony in SSS 114. Every seat around me was occupied. Every seat on the ground level was occupied. Every inch of floor in the aisles was occupied, and there were a few heads poking through the doorways. The speaker had been so kind as to invite some of the overflowing students onto the stage to sit behind her as she spoke, and whole sports teams took her up on the offer. The lecture was the now-infamous “Babeland’s Lip Tricks: Blowjobs and Going Down,” presented by Babeland, a female-friendly sex toy company with stores in New York and Seattle. We watched the speaker, Darlinda, demonstrate tongue actions by sticking her mouth under the same projector that David Blight uses to lecture about the Civil War and saw a male Yale student walk onstage and proudly “deep-throat” a banana.
The Babeland lecture has gone down in Yale history. This is in part through the tales of the many students who eagerly attended or unwittingly tagged along with a friend, myself being in the latter category. And it is in part due to a set of mock lecture notes that quickly went viral in the aftermath of the event. But this fall, the Babeland lecture has resurfaced as a talking point in the larger debate about whether Sex Week, a biannual event started in 2002, deserves a place on Yale’s campus.
Last April, in the wake of the Title IX complaint, University President Richard Levin asked a committee of Yale graduates to examine the campus sexual climate, especially the ways in which sexual misconduct can be better disciplined and, ideally, averted. The Marshall Committee report, published in November 2011, recommended that Sex Week not be allowed to use the Yale name or Yale’s facilities.
So too, this fall, a group of students who call themselves Undergraduates for a Better Yale College (UBYC) circulated a petition calling for Yale to withdraw its support from Sex Week. “[UBYC] was started this summer. We had been thinking about Sex Week at Yale and the way it had been presented in previous years,” explains Isabel Marin ’12, one of the group’s founders. With events that brought porn stars to campus, “it had really gone too far in terms of the kind of sexual experience it was marketing. We decided we wanted to take a stand against that kind of unhealthy education, especially given the recent Title IX issues.” Marin says that the petition garnered over 200 signatures, but that the group has not heard back from the administration since submitting it. The Sex Week organizers also approached the administration to work on this year’s series of events in the shadow of Title IX. “As we continued our discussions with the administration,” says Connie Cho ’13, one of the executive directors of Sex Week, “it was clear that there was something else on the table that we didn’t know about: that was the Marshall Committee Report and the fact that they were going to ask for a proposal.”
Spurred by Yale College Dean Mary Miller, President Levin resolved to give Sex Week student organizers a chance to revise the vision of their event. “I think it encouraged everyone to give a lot of thought to what this would be,” says Miller of Levin’s decision not to heed the Marshall Committee’s recommendation but to instead leave the door open for a new proposal. On December 2, 2011, Sex Week organizers submitted a proposal to the administration; notable changes in the structure and content of the week’s events included the removal of the words “at Yale” from the title and the absence of corporate sponsorship. On December 20, they had their answer.
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Sex Week will happen this year. It will happen at Yale, not in name but at least in location. Among the several topics that it will focus on is sexual health. There will be an event discussing the benefits and complications of long- term contraceptive methods, sexual education instructor workshops, and a partnership with Bedsider, operated by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Ad Council, to provide fliers with information about contraceptives and STI prevention. Sex Week will also be the platform for the annual “Get Tested!” STI campaign.
Beyond a handful of presentations offered by Yale Health, Sex Week is the closest many students come to a sex ed class in college. As buzzwords like “rape culture” are thrown around and freshmen await mandatory workshops led by undergraduates
trained as “Communication and Consent Educators,” issues of pure sexual health have seemed to fall by the bedside. It’s easy to think of sex education as a topic that was beaten over our heads in high school. But the truth is that it wasn’t beaten over all of our heads. Many students come to Yale without any comprehensive sex education. A study by L.D. Lindberg, published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, found that in 2002 a smaller fraction of teenagers were taught about birth control methods than in 1995. The New York Times reported that according to research done by the Guttmacher Institute, 25 percent of US teenagers between 2006 and 2008 were taught abstinence-only curricula without any mention of contraceptives.
And even for the group that arrives on campus having memorized the symptoms and treatments for STIs, sexual education takes on new relevance in a college setting, where many students have sex for the first time. The Sex Week proposal notes that 41 percent of sexually active students have not been tested for STIs, despite the fact that half of the sexually active adult population has contracted one.
The controversy over Sex Week raises the question: what should sex education look like in a college setting? What, if any, responsibility does Yale have to teach its students about sexuality? And can an increased understanding of sexual health help to ameliorate the hostile sexual campus culture of which the Title IX complaint speaks?
My first experience of someone at Yale talking to me about sex did not involve bananas or pronouncements like, “It’s like cooking. If you don’t make a mess, you aren’t doing it well.” It did not occur in SSS 114 but rather in a dark theater somewhere on campus — at that time, all of Yale seemed one big labyrinth to which only my freshman counselor had a map. It was freshman orientation weekend, and the program was called “Sex Signals.” Sex Signals is a theater production about dating, rape, and sex that mixes comedy, education, and audience participation. It’s been taught at over 400 colleges and universities, and, for those of us in the class of 2012, it was an official grand welcome to our college sex lives. We were supposed to wave little red stop signs in the air when the scene onstage went “too far” or made us feel uncomfortable. One presentation explained that, in the state of Connecticut, a person is not able to give consent when inebriated. During the Q&A session, a boy asked, “So, if you’re both drunk, are you raping each other?”
No one seemed to be able to adequately answer that boy’s riddle, and “Sex Signals” left Yale’s campus after 2008, to be replaced by student- made films on issues of harassment and consent. What has remained is the freshman orientation event run by Yale students trained as Peer Health Educators: the Connections workshop. Peer Health Educators are a subset of the Student Wellness Office, which coordinates education- based programming on health topics for students. “We provide pamphlets and written materials on many wellness topics, as well as have safer sex supplies, including male condoms (latex & non-latex), female condoms, dental dams, and lubrication available for free to all students,” explains Haley McCarthy, Assistant Health Educator at the Student Wellness Office. It is Peer Health Educators who stock the colleges with free condoms.
In those early days of freshman year, they are simply trying to offer freshman information on Yale-specific resources. “‘If you have a problem at Yale, here’s how you can deal with it,’” says Caroline Jaffe ’13, a Peer Health Educator. Jaffe explains that the length of the Connections Workshop, on stress, STIs, and sexual assault, was cut down this year to be only about an hour because in the past students seemed to get bored. Emily Suran ’12, who became a PHE last spring, says that she felt this fall students really did pay attention: “I was happily surprised by the level of engagement I saw while conducting the workshops.”
This engagement likely stems from the fact that some freshmen are actually learning this information for the first time. “That workshop was basic stuff.
‘Don’t go get STDs,’” says Bijan Stephen ’13. “Anyways, it was fun. And by fun I mean helpful.” Stephen attended a Catholic school in East Texas and had minimal sex education through the Texas-based non-profit education organization “Aim for Success” that leads sexual abstinence programs. “In seventh grade, they had some people come by: a man and a woman. They had a PowerPoint. They showed us some slides of inflamed penises and vaginas. And they were like ‘If you have sex, this will happen to you and you’ll die.’” jokes Stephen, who remembers repeating a similar workshop in eighth grade. “And that’s literally all I can recall of sex education. Luckily, I had the Internet to catch up a bit.” When sex came up in the classroom, he remembers students being told that condoms weren’t that effective and birth control always failed.
There’s been much talk in the news recently about sex education in primary and secondary schools. In November, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story by Laurie Abraham, entitled “Teaching Good Sex,” that looked at an elective course on “Sexuality and Society” taught in Philadelphia by Al Vernacchio. In arguing how rarefied and unique Vernacchio’s course is, the article quotes Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation America: “There is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed. There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.” The Times article also quotes a 2006 study by Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland in the Harvard Educational Review: “The campaign for abstinence in the schools and communities may seem trivial, an ideological nuisance, but at its core it is … a betrayal of our next generation, which is desperately in need of knowledge, conversation, and resources to negotiate the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality in the 21st century.” Indeed, a 2004 Congressional report prepared for Representative Henry Waxman of California found that 80 percent of federally-funded abstinence-only curricula studied included information about sexual health that was false, misleading, or distorted.
The delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality often begins with college. Stephen is not alone in feeling that he did not come to that terrain prepared. “We all come from different parts of the country with different levels of sexual education,” says Cho, who is from Missouri and also had abstinence-only education. “Honestly, high school sexual education is speaking to a totally different crowd; people live under their parents’ roofs. It’s just a totally different scenario.” Cho was only required to take a health class online — “where they told me to be nice to others, don’t smoke, and don’t drink and drive” — but sat in on some of the abstinence-only sex lectures at her school: “They showed us pictures of diseased genitalia. And then told us that they could not tell us how to put on a condom to prevent such diseases.” Allie Bauer ’12 had abstinence-only education in Texas. The speaker who visited her school asked the students what the best way was to protect yourself from pregnancy and STIs. “And someone said ‘Condoms,’” Bauer remembers. “And she stared him down.”
Bauer has immersed herself in issues of sexual health at Yale as co-president of the Sexual Literacy Coalition, the umbrella group which is organizing Sex Week; as an executive director of Sex Week; and as a Group Head and Steering Committee Member on Community Health Educators, an undergraduate organization that teaches sex education in New Haven’s middle and high schools. Cho jokes that there’s a reason that she joined the Sex Week board: if Yale had offered optional sex education to freshmen, she thinks she would have done it. Stephen says he too would have happily attended optional workshops: “Because most kids who come to Yale are pretty well-versed in sexual health. But I think for someone like me back in freshman year — it would just [have been] nice to have the option … Maybe a week-long seminar during Camp Yale.” Or maybe a twice-weekly lecture for a few months, like the one that Yale had for 25 years.
I met Dr. Philip Sarrel and his wife, Lorna, in the corridor outside of the Yale Law School auditorium. The husband and wife, aged 74 and 73 respectively, are auditing Laurie Santos’ lecture course “Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature,” whose nickname among Yale students is “Sexy Psych.” I walked in a few minutes late on the first day of shopping period to Santos proclaiming, “This is not a class about sex,” to an audibly amused — and likely disappointed — group assembled in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall. Apparently, such a statement still didn’t scare quite enough students away, and the lecture course has had to be moved to the law school.
The Sarrels are not strangers to over- capacity lectures. When Yale became co-educational in September of 1969, the University hired the couple to work in the Department of Mental Hygiene and provide sex education and sex hygiene for students. Philip is a trained gynecologist, who taught at the Medical School from 1963 to 2002, including a class on human sexuality from 1967 to 1982. Lorna is a trained psychiatric social worker. Both were also trained in sex therapy by famed sex therapists, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
The 1970s were a pioneering era in the realm of sex education. Abraham writes in the New York Times Magazine article, “It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the pill, feminism, and generational rebellion smashed the cultural consensus that sex should be confined to marriage.” Dr. Sarrel estimates that in 1969 only two or three college campuses nationwide had any form of sex counseling. High schools weren’t doing much better. According to a 1998 article by Patricia Donovan in the journal Family Planning Perspectives, by the early 1970s 20 state legislatures had voted to restrict sexual education, and, by the end of the 1970s, only Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. required sex education in schools. “In that sense, Yale was pioneering. What we did in 1969 was to start a program from a sex education point of view that had more than one component.”
The first of those components was a lecture called “Topics in Human Sexuality,” which was presented for the first time in the spring semester of 1970. Dr. Sarrel estimates about 1,200 students attended: “The first year, there were so many students that wanted to take the course that we had to use Battell Chapel. And we filled Battell downstairs and upstairs.”
“Topics” was a series of twice-weekly evening lectures that ran from about the end of January to spring break. The series not only was not for credit, but students actually had to pay $5 to enroll. The Sarrels’ best calculations suggest that about 80 percent of Yale students took “Topics” during the period from 1970-1982; in its later years, the course saw about 300 students each year. Many students enrolled more than once. Prior to the beginning of the course, the Sarrels would ask students to complete an anonymous questionnaire that would allow them to use the class’ own data in lectures: “Here is a class for you, about you,” says Dr. Sarrel of the theory. When the Sarrels learned that students wanted to meet with their peers to discuss lecture topics, they arranged such groups, facilitated at first by medical students and then by underclassmen who had already gone through the course.
Such lecture topics included masturbation, contraception, sex in an intimate relationship, and pregnancy and delivery. As other colleges around the county heard of the success of “Topics,” they sought to copy it. Thirty schools ended up with courses like “Topics.” Dr. Sarrel would typically go to the school one year to present the lecture series and then local faculty would take over: “I was sort of the Johnny Appleseed transplanting the Yale seed everywhere.”
The Sarrels also allowed students to come see them privately, founding the Yale Sex Counseling Service. “In the beginning we saw almost everyone,” says Dr. Sarrel, highlighting that 214 of 223 women in the first Yale class came to see them. “When we would send people off to other colleges following the model of offering the course ‘Topics,’ we would always tell them, ‘See if you can possibly at this college have counseling available.’ Because the education would almost always stir up ‘I have problems. I better go talk to someone.’”
The third prong of the Sarrels’ sex education program brought me to the hallway outside the Law School Auditorium: a 52-page pamphlet called “Sex and the Yale Student,” the cover of which boasts an image of Brancusi’s “The Kiss.” The edition that Dr. Sarrel hands me is from 1983; the pamphlet went through five editions in the 70s and 80s, as the sex scene on campus changed. Between 8,000 and 10,000 copies of each edition were printed and distributed free to Yale students. It has a section devoted to “Questions Students Ask,” as well as chapters on “Anatomy,” “Heterosexual Experience,” “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Experience,” “Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” and “Yale Health Services.” The Yale University Press printed the pamphlets at cost, and they were paid for using the course fees from “Topics.” Freshman counselors would distribute the pamphlets to the freshmen as they arrived in New Haven: “So every Yale student for 25 years or more got a copy of ‘Sex and the Yale Student,’” says Dr. Sarrel, who also recalls University President Kingman Brewster keeping 100 copies of Sex and the Yale Student on a stand in the entryway of the President’s house so that he could give them to people visiting campus.
By 1995, the Sarrels were beginning to hear from students that their parents had taken “Topics.” A course appeared in the Psychology department dealing with human sexuality for credit and Dr. Sarrel says, “We felt that that was good. Let that take our place.” After retiring from the Medical School in 2002, Dr. Sarrel continued working at the Health Plan in the Mental Hygiene department until 2009. In 1999, Dr. Carole Goldberg was hired to replace a retiring Lorna Sarrel as a clinical psychologist in the Department of Mental Hygiene and Health Education. Goldberg is a licensed clinical psychologist who now runs the SHARE center, founded in 2006 to provide students with counseling and information in the wake of sexual violence. The psychology course was short-lived, and Sarrel notes that the sex education program has gradually been replaced by Sex Week, with which he was not involved, but Dr. Goldberg was. “The takeaway message is that trying to present good, helpful sex information that can be used by people all of their lives is not such an easy thing to accomplish,” says Dr. Sarrel. “What it took for 25-plus years: it really took a delicate balance of administration, of student health, and also, in our case, of two people totally immersed in the issues who the administration and students could depend on.”
“Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature” is not a lecture about sex. But from 2005 to 2009, another lecture course at Yale, “The Biology of Gender and Human Sexuality,” was, in a way. Taught by Professor William Summers, the course, nicknamed “Porn in the Morn,” saw over 550 students enrolled a semester: “It was to explain human sexuality and what you could say scientifically about complicated issues about sexuality and gender,” says Summers. Summers became a stand- in sexual educator; he says students used to email him questions about sexual health issues — likely they were comfortable talking with him because he was so frank in class — and that he would steer them in the correct direction. “A few students dropped the course right away because they thought that these frank discussions made them feel uncomfortable. Most students were pretty open-minded about it. I suspect some students were surprised about one fact or another.” There was always a careful line to toe between being too timid — as some students accused him of being — and too explicit.
For several years, Northwestern University had a similar course on human sexuality — everything from sexual orientation and health to fetishes — taught by Professor John Michael Bailey. Like “Porn in the Morn,” it was a huge lecture: In the winter of 2011 about 600 students were enrolled in the class. Claire Kennedy, then a sophomore, was sitting in the front row during a lecture on sexual arousal. After class, Bailey had organized an optional supplementary event for students, as he often did, a panel on “networking for kinky people.” “It was completely optional,” says Kennedy who stayed for the additional event. “We weren’t even strongly encouraged to be there. If you didn’t want to that was fine too.”
During a subsequent discussion of whether female ejaculation was possible, one of the invited guests, Jim Marcus, used a motorized sex toy, to stimulate his fiancée, Faith Kroll. Kennedy says the whole presentation was consensual: “The girl [Kroll] — one of her fetishes was sexual acts in front of large groups of people. She got off to it, and we learned something.” Kennedy adds that most people she’s talked to at Northwestern who saw the presentation were not offended: “It’s like deciding whether or not to go see one of the ‘Saw’ movies. If something is going to happen that you don’t think you can handle, that’s on you.” Nevertheless, news of the incident exploded in the national press.
University President Morton Schapiro denounced the incident. Bailey issued a statement clarifying his decision to let the guests do the demonstration. The course is not being offered this year.
Summers’ course is also no longer offered, but for very different reasons, none of which relate to public controversies. In 2009 the Yale College Science Council removed the science credit from the course: “They didn’t think it had enough biological content.” Summers agreed with the Science Council that the course had grown far too big. There was never any question of shutting the course down, though, and Summers says he would consider offering it again but “under somewhat of a different context.” Still, he admits it’s hard to determine whether Yale has a responsibility to provide curricular education about sexual health; he says it’s a slippery slope toward determining what courses are “good” for students: “We don’t have compulsory religious education; these are things one is supposed to make his/her own choices about.”
One’s “own” choices in the arena of sexual health can have far-reaching consequences. There are the obvious dangers of not understanding the risks of certain sexual behaviors or of not getting tested and unknowingly perpetuating the spread of STIs on campus. Yale has many good resources to offer. The Trojan Sexual Health Report Card, released annually, is funded by Trojan brand condoms and fielded by Bert Sperling of Sperling’s BestPlaces; the survey measures not sexual health on campus but rather the type of information services and resources at students’ disposal. Researchers send a two-page survey to student health centers across the country; if universities refuse to fill it out they seek information about things like the availability of contraceptives and testing and the hours of the student health center. “Yale has gone up and down, but it has consistently been near the top,” says Sperling. In 2006, the first year that the survey was done, Yale came in the number one position. By 2011, Yale had fallen to 14th place out of the 141 schools surveyed. Sperling highlights that Yale’s offerings haven’t gotten worse; the university gets A’s for its free condoms, sexual assault programs, HIV and STD testing, and its special programs and initiatives. Other schools have simply gotten better. Yale’s lowest grades are a C for the ease with which students can drop in for sexual health issues without an appointment and a D for “Anonymous advice via email/column.”
An anonymous advice column is one of many proposals for ways to increase the presence of sexual education on campus. Summers thinks that informal small group sessions — something along the lines of fireside chats — for freshmen with individuals slightly more knowledgeable and experienced than PHEs might be useful. Cho says that if she were given the task to redesign Yale’s sexual education program: “I would ask Yale to apply its academic philosophy to the subject of sex and sexuality and sexual health. Yale promotes small classes because it’s easier to have discussions or raise questions when you are in a smaller class setting. Classes don’t meet once every four years.” Learning to talk about sexual issues openly is like learning a new vocabulary: “Our language classes meet every day.”
With that new vocabulary can come increased respect for sexual partners. In the New York Times Magazine article, Abraham recounts a story of two boys who had been masturbating to Internet porn since middle school, whose understanding of female subversion changed in Vernacchio’s class. One of them told her that pornography “givwes boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you, or to, you know, role-play to your liking. But yesterday, when Mr. V said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual — I’d never thought about that.”
And so it seems that an increased understanding of sexuality and sexual health can only help to ameliorate the campus sexual environment that the Title IX complainants deem “hostile.” Of the connection between sexual health and the sexual climate on campus, Marichal Gentry, Dean of Student Affairs, says, “It’s related. Our job is to educate students and create a climate where everyone feels safe and respected and everyone is aware.”
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd ’90, who runs the CCE program says: “The relationship between promoting sexual health and preventing sexual assault is a complex one. Sexual well-being of all kinds is helped by self-reflection and agency, by a willingness to engage in clear communication, and by having respect for your partner(s). But empowerment alone cannot always protect someone from assault; even the strongest of us can be vulnerable to coercion and violence.”
Four Title IX Complainants published an op-ed in the News in September denouncing Undergraduates for a Better Yale College’s attempt to silence Sex Week. The op-ed suggests, “The only way to challenge that culture is to talk about it in class, in Sex Week, and most importantly, in bed. Silence encourages rape and allows it to go unremarked and unpunished.”
There will surely be a lot of talking this February. On February 4, just days after the CCEs will finish their first set of programs for freshmen, Sex Week 2012 will again launch on Yale’s campus and in its classrooms. On February 5, Love Week, UBYC’s Sex Week alternative, will begin. And on February 8, Babeland will return to campus as part of Sex Week. Claire Cavanah, one of the company’s founders will discuss female sexuality: “We’re putting the how-to workshop in more context because honestly it’s a practical workshop,” says Cho noting that the common practice of discussing sex in abstract terms is “like taking classes for theory and not ever discussing its practical application.”
Joseph Breen ’12 signed the Title IX complaint. Of the correlation between better sexual education and an improved sexual culture, he says, “Knowledge is power. The more you know about it, the more you can protect yourself.”