Olivarius discusses sexuality

Ann Olivarius '77 LAW '86 SOM '86 delivered the keynote address for Sex Week 2012 on Saturday.
Ann Olivarius '77 LAW '86 SOM '86 delivered the keynote address for Sex Week 2012 on Saturday. Photo by Connie Cho.

In Sex Week 2012’s keynote address Saturday, Ann Olivarius ’77 LAW ’86 SOM ’86 drew on her experience suing the University for alleged Title IX violations in 1977 to encourage students to celebrate the positive aspects of sex.

A London-based lawyer, Olivarius told her story Saturday afternoon at the Yale Law School in light of the ongoing investigation by Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights into a Title IX complaint filed against the University last March. Olivarius stressed the importance of combating sexual harassment but also said that exploring the joys of consensual sex can empower men and women.

“When I was at Yale, the University wasn’t just lacking a sexual harassment grievance procedure,” she said in a transcript of her speech provided to the News. “It was also lacking any mechanism for talking about the fun parts of sexuality.”

Olivarius was an undergraduate when she and and four other women sued Yale in 1977 “as a last resort,” she said. A decade after the University became co-ed, Olivarius collected “hundreds” of statements from female victims of sexual harassment for a report to the Yale Corporation on the status of women, Olivarius said, and she found that there were no resources or procedures to help victims.

“The woman would be told, usually with sympathy, that it was her problem to sort out,” Olivarius said.

Though Olivarius did not win the lawsuit, Alexander v. Yale, the suit led courts to view sexual harassment as sexual discrimination, and Yale soon instituted a grievance procedure to address sexual misconduct charges.

Olivarius noted that the plaintiffs in her case had chosen not be anonymous to show that victims of sexual harassment should not be ashamed of anything. Still, she said it was not easy suing Yale, a school she loves, adding that the plaintiffs received much flak from the media.

“We were attacked in the media as basically being ungrateful, bra-burning, bitter feminists,” Olivarius said.

Olivarius emphasized the importance of solidarity in the face of discrimination and said the fact that she had never been a victim of sexual assault was only a matter of luck.

She said she admires the plaintiffs of the current Title IX case for their efforts to improve Yale but said “top-down” reforms are not sufficient. Change also has to begin on an individual level, she said, and she encouraged women to “make personal, vocal demands to be treated as equals to men in the bedroom.”

She added that people should invest time and energy in learning about intimacy.

“Good sex makes you feel empowered, centered, happy and able to be a more effective person and professional,” she said.

Four students interviewed said they found the talk interesting and constructive. Julia Calagiovanni ’15 said she appreciated Olivarius’ message that “you won’t be taken less seriously for owning your sexuality.”

McKay Neumeister ’12 she was impressed by how candidly Olivarius spoke about how pleasure can contribute to personal fulfillment.

“Sex is so crucial to her and her success. It was a fantastic thing to hear,” Neumeister said.

Olivarius’ speech was the third event of Sex Week 2012, a biennial event established in 2002.

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