Sex Week: From BDSM to public policy

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The year of 2011-2012 has been one of much heat for Sex Week. With the release of the Campus Climate Report in September 2011, the biannual tradition was placed on shaky grounds: its right, and its util, as a campus event was seriously questioned, and, for a time, it seemed that we might not have a Sex Week 2012. And yet here we are, eight days into this renewed endeavor with four more to go. And we’re pleasantly reaffirmed in our right to discuss – to communally educate ourselves — on matters sexual. WEEKEND dispersed its investigative, its critical, its opinionated force into the talks of Sex Week, and is glad to report that the items on the agenda were serious, thought-provoking and adequately addressed. But not without a bit of laughter and cheek added into the mix.

BDSM: Not this year’s blowjob oration

// BY NATASHA THONDAVADI

Have you ever gotten a hickey? Given a hickey? Most of us have. But what most of us don’t know is that even something as simple as a hickey can share motivations with BDSM, a collective term that denotes the sexual preferences of Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. Despite this ignorance, about 40 students gathered on Wednesday to hear a panel on the topic of BDSM. From the experienced kinkster to the virgin, everyone seemed to be curious. To be honest, from the moment I saw the event on the Sex Week 2012 calendar, I was intrigued.

As a gaggle of giggling freshmen filed into the back row of the small LC lecture hall, I realized what it was that was so captivating about the event on paper: the spectacle. As a sophomore, I wasn’t at Yale for the famed blowjob oration, and this event probably seemed the closest within this year’s Sex Week repertoire to the hotly debated scandal. So it’s really remarkable that the panelists managed to keep the dialogue mature and the analysis reasonable — if you expected to see one of the speakers whip out a pair of handcuffs, you were probably one of the many students who trickled out over the course of the talk.

The three panelists offered diverse perspectives. Dr. Charley Ferrer, who ran the show, is a Clinical Sexologist and seemed well versed herself in the goings-on of the BDSM “community” (more on that later). Judy Guerin’s place on the panel derived explicitly from her extensive experience in the practice and education of BDSM. And adding a sobering tone to the whole experience, Dick Cunningham spoke of BDSM from the angle of a legal consultant on issues of discrimination with WASP flair.

Many of the ideas discussed were new to me. The panelists spoke of the “BDSM community” as a source for warmth, advice, acceptance and continuing education — but as one anonymous audience member asked, isn’t BDSM a kinda, ya know, private thing? Especially when the speakers seemed to continually stress the difference between the consensual, if uncommon, sexual practices and actual violence. But BDSM can be private or public, sexual or nonsexual — it’s more of a need to, say, feel like a slave than to necessarily be a sex slave. Guerin stressed this angle of looking at BDSM as an overall desire, describing it as her sexual orientation, much as some people would identify as gay or straight.

But regardless of the variety of viewpoints expressed, the panelists agreed that the most important aspect of learning about BDSM is learning to accept the practice. Less than twenty years ago, the desire for BDSM sexual practices was considered a mental illness. While that classification may have been erased, the associated stigmas still exist. And so the speakers stressed that the main take-away from the event should be that BDSM isn’t weird, gross or misogynistic. Rather, it’s anything you and your partner want it to be.

Taking seriously syringe exchange

// BY JACK LINSHI

Compared to other Sex Week talks, “Repeal the Syringe Exchange Ban,” which took place on Wednesday, Feb. 8, seemed a bit dull. But it nonetheless confronted a critical, fascinating issue: the politics of the syringe exchange.

Led by moderator Leif Mitchell and panelists Allan Clear, Shawn Lang and Elaine O’Keefe, the lecture and discussion featured strong figures in local public policy and AIDS activism. The Linsly-Chittenden lecture hall was filled, but not packed, with a crowd that was evidently rather self-selective: almost everyone in attendance was familiar with the syringe exchange — or needle exchange — programs. The needle exchange program, which is not a national movement but a local effort, allows injecting drug users to exchange their used hypodermic needles for sterile ones in an effort to reduce the transmission of HIV through the sharing of dirty needles. But in many areas, federal funding has been slashed, and lives that could have been saved by a simple swap of needles have instead been lost.

The panelists’ arguments in favor of the Harm Reduction Program were extremely personal, ranging from involvement in needle exchanges to witnessing drug-injecting friends, who eventually died before they should have, contract HIV through needle-sharing. For someone less versed in the politics of syringe exchange, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the talk was the stress that Clear placed on the dangers that result from the stigmatization of injecting drug users. According to Clear, drug users often do not seek help for their addiction for fear of other people knowing their addictions, or for fear of other people knowing. But when these drug users enter the needle exchange program, the place in which the program takes place becomes a sort of safe haven, a cultural center. There are no stigmas, and important issues that extend beyond the immediate medical safety, such as mental health, can be properly addressed within a supportive environment.

Clearly, syringe exchange programs work. They save lives. And that in itself should merit federal funding.

“Stripped” down to laughter

// BY DEVIKA MITTAL

“Stripped Stories: a night of hilarious sex-themed storytelling and games.” As I read this title, I envisioned a twisted Truth or Dare, complete with stories of strippers, whips and whipped cream — maybe even some demonstrations. Being of the “innocently curious” bent that I am, I naturally decided to go. This being Yale — the land of free rainbow parades, dramatic theater majors and “secret” BDSM-themed societies, of course it was what I expected.

Conducted by comedians Giulia Rozzi and Margot Leitman, the session was named after their wildly popular show (voted the “best thing to do in Manhattan with your clothes on” by the NY Press). “Stripped Stories” started with Rozzi and Leitman’s disclaimer that the Saybrook Underbrook, for the one-hour duration of the event, would be a “safe zone” — what was said in the Underbrook would stay in the Underbrook. (Whoops, I guess I’m breaking that rule.) The idea was that Yalies brave enough to attend the session would “unite” through the experience. Kind of like surviving Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s “hell week” and being blood brothers ever after. Fun.

Now to the actual event. The show entertained four speakers, with an interactive audience game serving as an intermission to their stories. The first speaker, Leslie, recounted the story of a boy Doug. “You know a Doug — everyone knows a Doug,” said Leslie. He’s a Mike wishing he were The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” or with some failed “Frat City” swag. “A Doug always insists he’s as funny as Adam Sandler AND as Jewish,” she continued. Leslie’s Doug thought that dead birds left in his bed were funny, and so Leslie sent him dead animals in an attempt to seduce him.

The next story was one with which every girl can identify: falling in love with a walking, talking European cliché, an older French painter called (cue thick French accent) Pierre. Margot’s Pierre had taken his job as a Pierre very seriously; he even wore a beret. He wooed her with his sexy Frenchness and then, through Margot’s college drama and with lots of heartbreak, left her for a senior girl instead. Oh Pierre.

After these two anecdotes followed the best part of any night worth remembering in college (you know you know what I’m talking about): Never Have I Ever. Until that point, I had certainly underestimated the kinkiness of which some Yalies are capable: from changing appearances and walking in on someone to awkward run-ins with exes to orgies. Needless to say, I now know a lot of unnecessary information about a room full of people whose names I however have yet to learn. That’s probably for the best. This, I think, is what Margot and Giulia had meant by the event being a uniting experience; you do develop a bond with others when you get to know when, where and why they’ve lost their underwear.

On to the next story. The third presenter, Dan, discussed his past as a gangly 16-year-old fashion disaster (complete with a mullet and crooked teeth), whose first encounter had been with a “woman of the night.” This was, of course, at the insistence of his cooler cousin. “I may not have lost my virginity, but I did lose my dignity at 16,” Dan said.

All in all, the show was hilarious — having started out being just a teensy bit uncomfortable, the hilarity escalated as the stories just kept getting more cringe-worthy and ridiculous. “Stripped Stories” made me wish I had gone to more Sex Week events. But, as I clutched my stomach and gasped for air while listening to Rozzi regale us with her college attempts to get into a girl’s pants, I realized that the real fun was not a result of my being a part of this awkward community of mishap survivors, as the show presenters had said in the beginning of the show, but a result of laughter and relief: thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t Margot. Or Dan. Or Giulia. Or Leslie. Or Doug’s dead birds.

The right to privacy and the importance of public opinion

// BY NATALIE COLLINS

Privacy as a right was first summoned up from the penumbras of the Constitution in 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut. It reached new heights in 2001’s Lawrence v. Texas, when the overturning of a Texas anti-sodomy statute gave Americans the right to be free from prosecution for private, consensual, non-commercial, non-injurious sexual conduct. At the Sex Week discussion of “Privacy, Sexuality, and the Law” this past Tuesday, panelists Dick Cunningham, Judy Guerin and Liz Montegary outlined the limitations still inherent in the Lawrence decision and the next steps for activists looking to expand on the sexual freedom it offers. (Cunningham is a lawyer who has played a leading role in landmark cases relating to gender, race, and sex; Guerin is the director of NCSF’s Consent Counts Program to decriminalize BDSM in the U.S. and former advisor to the European Union Human Rights Commission on sexual freedom and LGBTQ issues; Montegary is a visiting lecturer in Yale’s WGSS Department.)

With Lawrence’s decision still restricted to the monogamous, non-commercial and non-injurious, the next stage of the expansion of sexual freedom may lie in the work of what Cunningham called “sex-positive activists” looking to legalize certain sexual behaviors like polyamory, sex work and BDSM. Such lifestyles are often difficult to reconcile with the traditional conception of marriage, the expansion of which has been the main goal of LGBT activism in recent years. The panelists agreed that marriage is problematic, with the potential to coerce as well as liberate.

While legal reforms are important for sexual freedom, the speakers stressed the importance of public opinion. Recent victories for the LGBT community, such as the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the rejection of Prop 8, have been made possible by the increasing willingness of the body politic to believe that homosexuality is neither inherently scary nor harmful. Other communities looking for sexual freedom, such as BDSM and polyamory participants, need to accomplish a similar feat. “In some ways, the law can lead public opinion,” said Cunningham. “In other ways, public opinion has to lead the law.” Guerin was optimistic on this front. Noting the 15-20 year lapse between societal evolution and policy change, she posited sexual freedom to be the next big civil rights movement on America’s horizon.

Cunningham called the right of privacy and the responsibility of consensuality the two fundamental concepts for sexual-freedom advocates. Once society understands that certain acts are non-destructive as long as they’re consensual, it becomes reasonable that such acts deserve privacy. And this privacy, once achieved, reinforces the need for those who have it to act consensually. Montegary, meanwhile, suggested that the relationship of sex and the law should be contingent not on inherently private and public spaces but on the quality and quantity of pleasure. “What if erotic justice had to do with the degree of pleasure you got from getting fucked, whatever you define as getting fucked?”

Ultimately, the freedom granted by Lawrence, while tentative, limited, and in some ways restricting, was seen by the panel as a huge step forward. The discussion’s most heroic sentence came in Cunningham’s description of the Lawrence decision: “Moral disapproval is not a legitimate social interest that can justify the enactment of a statue criminalizing a private consensual sexual act.” The case is over, and the (conspicuously complex) battle for sexual freedom in the United States is just beginning.

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