For Claire, the opportunity arose when her boyfriend’s frat initiation required photo evidence; they did it on a Wednesday, around 3:00 p.m., on the sixth-floor mezzanine. For Emily, it was more natural: she and her girlfriend started making out in a reading room, and, when buttons came undone and zippers unzipped, the two decided to change locations. For Brian, the bucket-list chance came not once, but twice, in the same day, in the form of a Divinity School student he met on a gay dating app and put to good use as a distraction from his senior thesis.
For me, the idea of having sex in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library stacks began over lunch. It was last winter, and the senior I was eating with mentioned she wanted to have stacks sex before her graduation. Just as a tourist might be told he absolutely cannot leave Paris without standing on the spot where Marie Antoinette was guillotined, she advised me, with a serious expression, “It’s just one of those thing you have to do while you’re at Yale.”
As a transfer student from an all-male, religious, highly conservative college, I was new to the idea of sex in a library. But as the year progressed, and I learned more about Yalies’ obsession with nudity — from the naked parties to the Naked Run, not to mention the orgy email list (to which I was, to my delight, added by an anonymous benefactor) — the idea of stacks sex seemed perfectly logical, just the type of low-risk but still-edgy fun that Yalies love. It makes sense: if you’re a brainy DS freshman, and you’re also incredibly horny and mildly adventurous, what better way to pursue your interests than to bone directly beneath shelf Gfa84 (Aristotle)?
If sex in libraries occupies a hallowed place in the lore of American universities, sex in the Sterling Memorial stacks is the ne plus ultra of the genre. In my opinion, this is due to two reasons. The first is that Yale is an elite school with its own standards of respectability politics, and people simply get a hoot out of subverting that image. There’s nothing noteworthy about two pimply college freshman sneaking off to an empty library for a quickie, but the idea of a future president giddily orgasming among scholarly monographs of the British monarchy? That’s scandalous.
The second reason is tied to the first: People love to hear about the sexual practices of our future world leaders. This is what happened in 2001, when a secret society at Yale called Porn n’ Chicken announced they had made The Staxxx, a porno featuring orgy scenes with real Yale undergrads. (And when I say porno, I’m not talking about soft-core porn scored from your older brother; I’m talking about a lesbian fisting scene.) The story was first reported by The Yale Herald and was quickly picked up by national publications, including The New York Times. Unfortunately, The Staxxx was never released, but it didn’t need to be. It was already legendary.
After reading the newspaper articles and hearing the rumors, I remained unsatisfied. I understood the motivations for having stacks sex in theory, but not in practice. So I decided to pay my own — solo — visit to the stacks in order to get the lay of the land.
On a sunny day this past October, I swiped into Sterling Memorial Library and walked the straight shot through the main atrium to the back wall, where a painting of Alma Mater (which my WGSS professor once criticized for her improbable breasts) guards a series of heavy leather doors that open onto the stacks. On the other side, I found myself on the first level, which is essentially identical to the other 15 levels, each comprised of row after row after endless row of yellow metal bookcases with black shelving and scuffed sand-colored floors. The walls are off-white brick, and the lighting is a weak yellow cast by fluorescent fixtures. The only sounds come from the whirring AC and the occasional scratch of rickety wooden chairs clawing the floor. The smell of musty book spines hangs heavy. The whole place evokes a semi-dark, noir-movie feeling, less like an erotically charged environment than like a place one would go to get murdered in a horror flick.
But the evidence to the contrary was all around me! Although, to my chagrin, I did not stumble upon any pleasure-seeking students, I did find memorabilia, in the form of graffiti, of good times past. On one carrel I found the records of those inducted into the “Night Before Club” who performed their rites on the nights before Econ 116 (spring ’08), Film 334 (fall ’14) and Sociology 147 (spring ’15). And something also tells me that the lovers responsible for “DK + AC Gay 4lyf3” recorded their love in more than one way in that library carrel-cum-witness.
But leaving the stacks, I did not feel any closer to understanding their sexual draw then when I entered. To understand this phenomenon in its totality, I’d need to hear firsthand accounts.
“FRIENDS,” I began my Facebook status, “have you or anyone you know ever had sex in the sterling library stacks?? … you can remain anonymous! slide into my direct messages!” I crafted the message half in jest, figuring that once I pressed upload, it would immediately be buried in the detritus of online information, a post to which the only responses would be HAHA and LOL.
I was wrong.
Although I had specifically referenced Sterling library, messages immediately began pouring in from all over the country. Friends in multiple time zones sent me stories of sexing it up in a school library. One woman who attended a large state school in the Midwest, and to whom I hadn’t spoken in almost eight years, messaged to say that she had had sex in her library. The next thing I knew, I was looking at a photograph of a campus lawn, clearly taken from behind a window. And as I examined the image closely, I realized I could make out the crown of a man’s head along the lower part of the frame. Wait, did she take this — but before I could type my question, the answer arrived: “Yes I took that photo while a p was in my v.” I choked with laughter.
Although I was happy to learn that many of my Facebook friends embraced library sex, I was even more thrilled to receive responses from people I knew at Yale. And I can gladly report that these students weren’t nymphomaniacs, adrenaline junkies or public exhibitionists; they were normal college kids who wore jeans and t-shirts and just wanted to have a little fun. Overall, their stories confirmed my suspicions. The idea of subverting the Ivy League persona was a common theme; throughout, the stacks were described as “old, sacred, and hallowed” as well as a “dark spooky place” where people “love to bone.” One woman called Sterling library the “temple” to academia and confided that having sex in a place with such a specific “notion of success … and power” felt transgressive. I was also happy to hear a queer woman tell me it felt “especially rebellious to do it in a lesbian way” in the stacks and nodded my head in support when she told me it was hard to go down on her girlfriend due to limited space. Wrapping up my final conversation, I felt I had reported on the subject with due diligence.
But wait! How could I? In my rush to hear from my friends about their carnal experiences on the sixth floor of Sterling library, I had forgotten to interview a crucial demographic, one that on matters of sex is usually elevated to the loftiest heights despite an almost universally acknowledged and endemic vanilla-ness: straight men! Not to sweat it, I thought; surely I could find a couple of straight men who wanted to talk about their sex lives. Isn’t that what straight men loved to talk about?
The thing I quickly learned about straight men is that in order to engage in those semi-homoerotic locker-room sex talks — which, really, for me are modeled after the elegant locker room scenes in “Remember the Titans” — one must also be a straight man, an identity this queen gave up long ago. After asking all the straight men I could remotely call myself friends with and coming up short, I returned to Facebook for help:
“literally me right now to straight men at Yale: ‘hi i know this is so rude but i’m writing a journalism piece … about having sex in the sterling stacks and i’m missing testimony from a straight man because i don’t know any so for the sake of journalism i’m asking random men who seem straight and if you are and have had this experience can i please interview you.’”
I should also mention that I didn’t limit myself to Facebook — I wrote exactly the same status update on a piece of paper (crude punctuation included) and held it in front of unsuspecting straight-looking men on Yale’s campus while they were studying. I’m sad to report that no one took the bait. So if you found my reporting insufficient, blame it on the straight men of Yale.
Finally, just when I thought my reporting was done, I received my own chance to experience a library romance. It came from a guy I hooked up with last year, whose message began, “Saw your Facebook status about reporting on sex in the stacks.” Innocent enough, but then he dropped the ask: “Nothing like a visceral first person experience to write from.” His message was signed off with a winky face emoji. I thought for a long hard minute about his proposition and how gratifyingly credible it would be for me to pass off stacks sex as journalistically necessary. After the minute was up, there was still nothing erotic to me about the juxtaposition of musty books and lube. So I politely declined, and left the fun to my classmates to have for me.