August 27th, 2012 | University

New book critiques Yale’s sex culture

Nathan Harden '09 levels serious critiques of Yale and Sex Week in his new book.
Nathan Harden '09 levels serious critiques of Yale and Sex Week in his new book. Photo by Twitter.

Welcome to Yale, freshmen — now take off your pants.

That’s what freshman orientation might be like at the Yale portrayed in “Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad,” a new book by Nathan Harden ’09 that slams the University for allegedly creating a sex-obsessed culture. “Sex and God at Yale” has stirred debate over Yale’s sexual culture in major national publications, even landing on the front page of this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Harden, a self-described “post-Bush conservative” who came to Yale already married, also criticized Yale’s treatment of sex in “When Sex Isn’t Sexy: My Bizarre Education at Yale University” on The Daily Beast.

“During my time at Yale, the university hosted porn film screenings in its classrooms that included glamorized sexual violence and ‘fantasy rape.’…It doesn’t take much to get from ‘fantasy rape’ in the classroom to ‘No Means Yes!’ on the campus quad,” Harden writes, in reference to a 2010 incident when fraternity pledges chanted offensive sexual phrases on Old Campus.

In response to Harden’s post, former Women’s Forum board members Kathryn Olivarius ’11 and Claire Gordon ’10 posted on the Daily Beast, as well, arguing that Yale shouldn’t blame porn workshops for on-campus sexism.

“But, in our opinion, bunches of dudes weren’t misogynist dicks because of a talk by a porn star or a workshop on vibrators—the crux of Harden’s book. They were misogynist dicks because they grew up in a world full of misogynist dickishness,” Olivarius and Gordon wrote.

Harden’s book is the latest in a series of public critiques of Sex Week and of Yale’s sexual culture. After the University’s November 2011 report on campus climate called for the banning of Sex Week, the event’s organizers submitted a new proposal that got the OK from administrators. Sex Week went up in February; the event’s detractors organized a “True Love Week” to run at the same time.

  • Goldie08

    It’s Geddy Lee!

  • River_Tam

    > Welcome to Yale, freshmen — now take off your pants. That’s what freshman orientation might be like…

    That’s what freshman orientation WAS like for me. I sat through multiple workshops/seminars/presentations involving the proper use of condoms (and dental dams (LOL)), the proper way to have sex with someone without raping them, how to say “no, I don’t want to have sex with you”, how to let people around you know that you were sexually attracted to people of the same gender as you, and how to conduct yourself when your roommate was getting it on in some glorious consensual action. Oh, and how to get yourself tested for STDs.

    There is no “African-American History Week” at Yale. There’s a “Sex Week”. Students are more willing to become “Community Health Educators” than teach inner city kids how to do long division. Porn screenings pull higher attendance than Supreme Court justices. Porn stars debating the merits of porn pull 20x the attendance of highly-recognized scholars debating the causes of misogyny on campus.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. Yale is unhealthily obsessed with sex. Whether that is the (only) root of misogynistic behavior on campus is a secondary question at best.

    • ernie

      How do you arrive at “unhealthily obsessed” except by your own subjective distaste? What’s inappropriate or unhealthy about teaching safe, legal, and ethical sexual practices? Is there something intrinsically wrong with pornography (a form that obsesses far more than just Yalies) and if so what exactly is it?

      • River_Tam

        Fine: Yalies are far more interested in talking about sex than other intellectual or recreational subjects to the point that I could term it an “obsession”. Whether it’s unhealthy is another matter, although I think that the cultural obsession with sex is in and of itself unhealthy.

        The rest of your post is just a poorly-worded straw man. I’m not opposed to teaching safe sex. I’m not implying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with pornography (although I note you qualify it with “intrinsically”, because there’s a lot wrong with the adult film industry and you damn well know it). I’m implying the degree to which many Yalies put sex at the center of their lives (and the degree to which Yale abets this) is unhealthy.

        • ernie

          “I’m not opposed to teaching safe sex.” OK, so all of the stuff about orientation week was just you blowing smoke?

          Sure there’s plenty wrong with the porn industry, but (a) I don’t see harm in inviting performers to campus for conversation about it and (b) if visiting porn stars is the only real problem you can identify than this really is blown out of all proportion.

          At the end you’re again “implying” that the centrality of sex in Yalies’ lives is “unhealthy,” but there’s still no basis for it beyond distaste.

          • River_Tam

            Orientation makes sex the center of Yale student life. It is a University-programmed week that is all about sex. It erects expectations surrounding sex from day one – that you will have sex with multiple partners, you will have drunken hookups, and that you will need to get STD tested at some point.

            And I’m not even as appalled by inviting porn stars to campus (although I am appalled by it) as I am that these events are bigger draws on Yale’s campus than Nobel prize winners and noted scholars in basically every field.

            As for the fact that the centrality of sex in Yalie’s lives in “unhealthy”, I’m not implying anything – I’m stating it outright. Feel free to tell me that the centrality of sex in Yalie’s lives is perfectly healthy and reasonable (I disagree, but I can respect that opinion), but don’t deny that it’s there.

          • ernie

            I’d venture that sex is central in some shape or form to most people’s lives, especially to the lives of college-age kids.

          • River_Tam

            I find the fact that you believe this to be pretty sad. But you’re entitled to your opinion.

          • ernie

            I think it’s pretty empirically sound. Do you really think sex is a less prevalent preoccupation for students at other universities than for Yale students?

          • River_Tam

            No, I think they’re having more sex and institutionalizing it less. This has its own set of problems, but it doesn’t lead to the sexual obsession that you see at Yale. Students having sex is something that happens everywhere. The University endorsing and promoting sexuality as “central” to the lives of their students is another thing entirely. Remember, Sex Week at Yale touted ITSELF as a unique, one-of-a-kind, open-minded experience. It was, they said, the sort of thing that could only happen at Yale.

    • Everthingequal

      I’m sure my parents would be thrilled to know that their hard earned dollars are educating me about double anal penetration, thanks to sex week. Ah Yale, an intellectual oasis. We are so uneducated about sex here at Yale that we need a 10 day conference! Nerds here are finally learning what the rest of the world already know and we pay the porn industry to promote it. We have some real brains running the show here.

  • ldffly

    What happens to freshmen who refuse to attend these sessions?

    I wish I had a history of the administration’s deliberations on Sex Week. What was the origin of this thing? I intend to read the book and I’m hoping for discussion along that line.

    Offering a point of controversy, I would suggest that one look to Derrida, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartmann for ultimate sources.

    • Yalie

      Well I didn’t attend them and precisely nothing happened to me.

      • Everthingequal

        You were wise.

  • eli1

    I just think its funny and kind of sad that the womens center went crazy over the dke chants but continues to defend inviting porn stars on campus who emphasize rough/hardcore/domination/rape porn scenes…literally makes no sense to me. While I agree this is not the root of campus issues, wouldn’t calling out the objectification of women in these type of pornos as opposed to defending them be a good place to start???

  • ernie

    The piece by Olivarius and Gordon is very good. Harden’s game seems to be to take every campus pathology he can think of and link it by lazy insinuation to Sex Week, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the tired “closing of the American mind” argument.

  • terryhughes

    More than 70 years ago the society wit Dorothy Parker famously observed:

    “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

    Of course, after two popular plays were written with characters based on her, she also said “I suppose that now if I ever wrote a play about myself I’d be sued for plagiarism” and “the only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.” But that’s an entirely separate story.

  • ldffly

    I remember reading the Dorothy Parker quote back in the 70s. That sort of observation used to draw laughs of a different sort back then. The campus of that era was often described as sexless. What went on off campus, who knew?

  • terryhughes

    I don’t recall the Yale campus of the 1970’s ever described as “sexless.” One imagines that in Parker’s era, when women were not allowed beyond the common rooms, heterosexual campus sex was rarer. But Parker seems not to have believed that was much of a parameter.

    On/off campus? [**According to the Harvard Crimson**][1], there have been two stranger rapes at Harvard in the past few days: The first occurred early Aug. 10 “on campus” right smack dab in Harvard Yard, and the second happened late on Aug. 14 “off campus” near the intersection of Oxford and Kirkland streets. Some undergraduate student leaders are calling for Harvard to tighten its security policies, and I have always thought that Cambridge is far more dangerous than Harvard misleads its students into believing (in serious contrast to Yale’s far more realistic, but sympathetic, presentation of New Haven). But the Crimson doesn’t mention anyone making much of an on-campus/off-campus distinction in it’s description of what comes across as a fairly intense fear among Harvard students.


  • basho

    it’s dumb that we’re still doing this

  • The Anti-Yale

    Psychologists tell us that subconsciously once every nine seconds a teenager thinks of sex (How does one “measure” the SUB-conscious, anyway?)

    If one ninth of a teenager’s subconscious is devoted to sex, then obviously a great Ivy League research university should not waste it’s time on something as trivial as 1/9th of human reality, even if most of its freshmen are still teenagers at matriculation.

    Let us therefore devote ourselves to what really matters.

    Perhaps we should have a “Football Week” instead of a “Sex Week” at Yale, featuring scholarly speakers on traumatic brain injury (TBI) or football as an apprenticeship for the ritualization of violence
    known as “war” and, indeed “masculinity” itself.

    I’m sure football takes up at least four of those other nine seconds in the subconscious dontcha think? Especially among women.

    Paul D. Keane

    M.Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • River_Tam

      PK, do you ever get tired of twisting everything to fit the subjects you want to talk about? You gotta get out of your comfort zone a little bit… the topic is sex, not football.

    • CharlieWalls

      One wonders about this comment. How long does a thought take? If say 1/10 sec, the referenced fact does not mean 1/9 of thinking is about sex, subconscious or otherwise. More importantly, how on earth is “1/9th [sec] of human reality” too trivial for intellectual consideration? Has the author no idea of how many other people are on earth or how thick the catalog of courses is at Yale? Maybe he/she should study more than Div., or at least look around.

  • KenMcKenna

    I haven’t read the book. But it’s striking that there is no mention in any of the discussion of it of any attempt in it to compare Yale’s supposedly charged sexual climate with the sexual climate of places that do NOT have something like a “sex week,” or who have NOT admitted someone like a Taliban student, or any other college at all.

    Can that be correct? Does anyone know?

    Isn’t it pretty obvious that extensive comparisions among variously structured colleges and universities have to be core of any such effort, if it’s to be taken seriously. How else would one argue for “causation?” Maybe being taken seriously wasn’t the point?

    Who knows, maybe there’s a topic for a significant, serious book in all this. Maybe some enterprising Yale student will research and write one.

  • The Anti-Yale


    So DREADFULLY serious.

    Have you not one scintilla of irony in your indefatigable-posting-constitution?


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