SCHWARTZ: Sex Week and sensibility

The Gadfly

We are, of course, in the middle of Yale’s legendary Sex Week. Remembering that evening two years ago when half of participants in a meeting I was attending disappeared for a massive “how-to” workshop on oral sex (titled “Babeland’s lip-tricks: blowjobs and going down”), I found myself dreading this week. This year, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The tone just seems more normal. I’m not quite sure how, but the organizers seem to have reasonably navigated the perilous path between prurience and Puritanism.

Yishai Schwartz '13
Yishai Schwartz '13

Before coming to Yale, I never considered myself particularly squeamish; hey, my mother has a doctorate in human sexuality and wrote her dissertation on women’s expectations and experiences when using vibrators. I thought I was cool with sex talk. Nevertheless, I found myself shocked at the unfamiliar combination of coarseness and openness that seemed to surround sex at Yale.

I have no particular interest in the field of sexuality, and I don’t fall into either of those strange partisan camps that seem determined to remake the social and sexual culture of the country in their own image. Nevertheless, openness and education about sex and sexuality certainly strike me as laudatory goals. Overwhelming shame about a universal aspect of the human experience seems rather silly, and depriving people of helpful information about an aspect of everyday life is unhealthy.

Naturally, then, some of the more extreme statements by the students vocally opposed to Sex Week come off as ridiculous and small-minded. And it also doesn’t help these students’ cause that their alternative program, “True Love Week,” is a marketing disaster. Its Disney-worthy name, unappealing advertisements and overtly Catholic flavor seem deliberately calibrated to repel Yale students.

At the same time, we shouldn’t pretend that these students are reacting to nothing. Sex Week 2010 shocked me, but it was merely a reflection of the culture we already inhabit. Sex is not simply discussed openly; it’s discussed coarsely. On my first day at Yale, my college dean encouraged my freshman class to get to know each other — biblically. When many of my friends try to be funny, they seem to think that alcohol and sexual innuendo are a substitute for actual humor. I hardly think I am the only one who leaves encounters feeling slimy.

Openness and privacy do not necessarily exist in conflict. We can have meaningful conversations and transmit important information without reducing ourselves to a circus of titillating first-person narratives and raucous vulgarity. I am not a WGSS student, so there are certainly many minds much smarter, more learned and more qualified than mine to think about these questions, but surely there must be a way to salvage privacy, decency and genuine modesty without returning to Puritan New England? The problem, though, is that no one seems to be trying.

As most readers are well aware, the schedule for this year’s Sex Week is very different from 2010’s. After significant criticism from the Marshall Committee on Campus Climate, and facing the threat of a withdrawal of University support, the event’s organizers adopted a series of impressive changes. The corporate sponsorships have disappeared, and there seems to be a wider range of workshops and presentations, with prominent time given to sexuality’s intersections with law, religion and medicine. The calendar still has its fair share of purely titillating events, but there does appear to have been a general swerve toward the educational.

In all honesty, the exhibitionist stuff (like Stripped Stories: A Night of Hilarious Sex-Themed Storytelling and Games) still makes me uncomfortable. But I understand that these exist precisely because they have an audience, because people think they are fun. Sex Week’s organizers don’t want their event to be a dreary soul-less lecture series — and nor should it be.

The problem, then, is not a Sex Week that mixes the popular with the educational. The problem is what’s popular. Society’s conception of fun banishes privacy and valorizes vulgarity. So how can a sexual discourse be open, affirming, educational and fun — and still stay modest? I don’t think we have an answer yet. But I hope we’ll know it when we see it.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at


  • River_Tam

    I <3 Yishai Schwartz. Probably my favorite YDN columnist at the moment.

    The answer, Yishai, is that SWAY (or just SW now, I guess) organizers don’t value modesty. In fact, they actively oppose modesty. Modesty involves the delaying of gratification. It involves restraint rather than impulse. Modesty is difficult. Promiscuity is easy.

    In my experience, the Yalies who talked about sex the most were the ones with the most deep-seated guilt issues regarding their own sexual behavior. The Community Health Educators were the ones who hadn’t gotten over their first boyfriend. The SWAY organizers were the ones who were crying Saturday morning because the boy from Toad’s kicked her out of bed at 8am that morning. The YWC board members were the ones who were paranoid that people thought they were sluts. The WGSS majors were the ones who made me go with them to go get the morning after pill, and then looked around furtively hoping no one would see them as they picked it up. They are spending their lives – their time and their energy – trying to self-justify.

    Maybe they’re just the ones who are most easily affected by the societal guilt, or maybe it’s something biological that causes these conflicting emotions. Maybe it’s spiritual, maybe it’s physical, and maybe it’s metaphysical. All I know is that it’s all pretty effed up, and when they go and tell freshmen that it’s A-Okay to sleep around as long as he wears a condom, they’re really just wishing it were so.

    • ShaveTheWhales

      Is he your favorite because he tries to straddle both sides without choosing one?
      Also, you’re a horrible person. Way to throw a blanket over everyone and dismissing them as people with “deep-seated guilt issues.”

      • River_Tam

        > Is he your favorite because he tries to straddle both sides without choosing one?

        Yes, I love people who don’t take sides on controversial issues.

        > Also, you’re a horrible person.

        Britta’d it.

        > Way to throw a blanket over everyone and dismissing them as people with “deep-seated guilt issues.”

        I’m not sure where the “throw a blanket” idiom came from but it’s a confusing one. Are you saying I’m ignoring them? As for the “dismissing” part, I think it’s clear from what I write that I’m *not* dismissing anyone. In fact, I think their experiences are vitally important to our understanding of Yale’s messed up sexual culture.

        The only people who will dismiss the people I listed above as aberrations unworthy of real discussion are the ones who are trying desperately to prove that there are no negative consequences of casual sex.

  • croncor

    True Love Week basically makes me cringe. Not because I’m under some delusion that its organizers and speakers hate gays (they don’t), or because I think its organizers are just out to repress and puritan-ize us all. Mainly I don’t like it because it’s cheesy and hits the wrong issues. Chastity conferences are like trying to fight fire with fire and instead finding that the best you can muster is a warm glass of Nesquik. All that sickly sweet talk about “integral human fulfillment” and “personhood” and the like makes one wish that the original challenge had gone unanswered.

    A Lesson for Everyone:
    What makes powerful errors so powerful is that they twist some ordinary good by attributing to it the goodness proper to something more fundamental in human life. If Sex Week glorifies intercourse in an unrealistic way, hitting back with a faux-traditional account of sexual fulfillment is never going to do the trick. They’re saying “Behold the Lord Zeus!” and you’re countering with a lesson on bodily proportion in statuary. Likewise, for those of us who would rather “TLW” didn’t exist, perhaps it would do these people some good if you engaged them on their more basic beliefs — the ones motivating them to peddle this half-baked chastity-talk, the ones they actually believe in. (E.g., the existence of absolute truth, of God, or a natural moral order.)

    I would like to see right-minded young people invest their energies in something that doesn’t remind one of a purity march in 1984. I would like their liberal opponents to be intellectually mature enough to go beyond name-calling (“bigot” “homophobe” etc.) and actually tell some of these people why they’re fundamentally wrong.

    Finally, concerning modesty: there’s a myth circulated in our culture about the happy-go-lucky guy who has sex with a different girl every other night and is the big man on campus or in the office, triumphantly manly, etc. What is the goal of Sex Week if not to help everyone (male and female) realize that myth? And yet, what an awful reality, for the people who live it and for those unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

    • River_Tam

      This is an awesome comment and I heartily endorse it.