It has been said that we Yalies have sex on the brain, which is a very unsatisfactory place to have it.
Whether it takes place around the dining hall table, inside a lab on Science Hill, or while horizontally reclined on your twin-size bed, the discussion of sexuality permeates the Yale campus day after day, night after night, as students relentlessly seek to expand their knowledge of this hot and sultry topic. Even the most forbidding puritans on campus are not immune to the issue’s seductive allure, as bags of condoms abound in entryways and a particularly memorable freshman orientation session encouraged us to at least think more about our bodies and intimate relationships.
Though talking openly about nudity and sex seems to naturally occur in the company of one’s friends and sexual partners, it also maintains a vibrant source of discussion within the classroom walls as well. While many students may be unaccustomed to talking about contraception or sexual performance with their professors, this phenomenon is an everyday aspect of the Yale curriculum. Some students even devote the majority of their studies to it.
Professor William Summers often directs students’ attention to sexuality in his classes, which span the disciplines of History of Science, Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Women’s and Gender Studies. In his popular seminar “Gender, Science, and Sexuality,” students examine the study of sexual practice through a variety of different lenses, thereby getting an informed look at the construction of gender identity.
“Since sexuality is an important part of human life, it is important to deal with it in a rational way as we do for other crucial areas we wish to understand,” he said. “This requires open and frank discussions, in the classroom and outside of it.”
Summers said he sees no demerits in academic discourse about sexuality and sex in general. While material in “Gender, Science, and Sexuality” may appear risquZ
“As a physician and biologist, I have learned that sexuality and sex is a subject that almost all people can and will talk about easily if put in the right context,” he said.
Summers, who said there are no issues in sexuality he will not address, played an important role in establishing Yale’s annual “Sex Week,” which takes place around Valentine’s Day in February. Last year, he opened the week’s discussions with a lecture on inter-sex, the ambiguous sexuality of individuals born with deformed sex organs.
Along with several science and Women’s and Gender Studies classes, another fertile ground for sexual discussion is the realm of art history. Throughout the ages artists have depicted the human body in all its splendid glory, and such images are by no means off limits to discussion in an academic setting.
History of art professor Rebecca Zorach teaches a course titled “The Devotional Body in Northern Europe.” According to the Blue Book, her course lends “particular attention to the body, including symbolic, experiential, medical, political, and sexual aspects.”
A fair number of artistic works reviewed in her courses display nudity or sexual expression, Zorach said. In her lecture class, these images are usually religious in nature, portraying Adam and Eve, or Christ on the cross, while her graduate seminar features Renaissance adaptations of classical mythology.
Among the works in her curriculum that she considers most provocative include images of the infant Christ in the midst of circumcision, and images that openly display his genitals. She added that there are some images of the crucified Christ in which he appears to have an erection beneath his loincloth.
“Some of these images seem disturbing to modern viewers because they mix religion and sexuality, and this is something we are less comfortable with than medieval or Renaissance viewers were,” Zorach said. “Especially late medieval mystics but even laypeople were accustomed to thinking of religious devotion in highly sensual terms.”
Zorach said she is generally more comfortable discussing images of a sexual or pornographic nature than she is discussing openly racist or anti-Semitic images. Nonetheless, she feels that all of these depictions are all part of history and therefore deserve attention.
In defining the line where art ends and pornography begins, Zorach said the distinction is mostly an issue of socioeconomic class and historical context. While some could consider the art she explores to be offensive, she said such judgments are dependent on the standards of taste in a particular place and time.
“Generally, rich people’s pornography is called art, and poor people’s pornography is called pornography, which is not to say that there aren’t stylistic differences, too — art tending to ‘imply’ what pornographic makes explicit,” she said.
In her graduate seminar, Zorach said a source of graphic sexual depictions are derived from Fontainebleau, a 16th century French painter who depicted scenes of rape, castration, transvestism, same-sex pairings, and bestiality.
“This material might not be particularly shocking if we saw it today on the Internet, but it seems provocative in context because we don’t think of people in the past as having produced and enjoyed images like these,” she said.
For some of us here, sex may always remain a theoretical exercise, rather than a physical one. After all, it’s Yale — if we can’t perform the act, why not talk about it in section?