Professor William Summers reads the label on the box in front of him: “‘Erotic Love Piggy’?” Judging by the smiling cartoon piglet on the box’s front, it indeed contains a raunchy, inflatable farm animal. “See, animals are a big thing,” he posits. Professor Summers and I are at V.I.P., “Very Intimate Pleasures,” in Orange, Conn., and he is teaching me about sex toys.
I hadn’t expected the interview to turn out this way.
“Why are we going to V.I.P. for this interview, exactly?” he had asked in the car.
“Well, I thought I could follow you through the store as you pick something out to show in your class.” That way, I thought, we’d surely discuss all the salacious details of his famed lecture, “Porn in the Morn,” more formally known as WGSS 255: Biology of Sex and Gender.
“I only show pictures in class,” he replied.
Perhaps the course wasn’t as X-rated as its moniker (and saucy reputation) had implied. Well, we were here, and though my original plan was gone, we had to talk about something. Why not start with Big Important Issues About Sex?
“How young is too young to be here, you think?” I ask as we stand facing a leather bustier, modeled in a photograph by a woman wearing nipple clamps.
“Well, you have to be 18 to get in here. Anyway, leather and rubber. I think a lot of women wear these not for other people, but for themselves,” he says, pointedly uninterested by my question. He has determined, it seems, that while we are here, he should explain what everything in the store is for.
In his mind, it is all for my education.
Given his track record, his reflex to teach made sense. Summers, who is officially with the Yale School of Medicine’s Therapeutic Radiology Department, started his undergraduate teaching career with a class on reproductive biology. Looking at the Blue Book, however, Summers saw a distinct lack of classes students could take to learn about their own anatomy. “That class had more to do with cells and organisms and less to do with humans. I thought I’d teach a class that students could take about themselves.” Thus, Porn in the Morn was born.
Though students are wont to mention Summers’s lecture on sex toys, this giggle-inducing aspect of the class seems small in Summers’s mind, judging by his passion for other, more intellectually challenging topics, such as the social implications of sex between the young and the old. “What is intergenerational sex?” he asks his students. “What is it about Anna Nicole Smith that so interests people? Why was she with a 95-year-old man? What does she see in him?”
As we peruse the vibrator aisle, these seem appropriate questions, as a friendly, female staff member offers, “If you want to know how anything works, I’m happy to put batteries in it for you guys.”
“No, no, this is my professor. I mean, uh, I’m interviewing him, I mean…”
“She’s writing an article about sexuality,” Summers says, darting for a quick save.
“Alright, well, let me know if you need any help!” she beams. Clearly, we’re not the first odd couple to visit the store.
Undeterred, Summers resumes his explanation of the store’s wares. “See, they come in all colors and sizes,” he says, gesturing to the Crystal Ice, the Top Stud, the Shock Wave, the Cyclone. “This one lights up. Like you can see it down there anyway!” Further wandering brings us to larger, more complex… appliances. “Total Ecstasy Triple Stimulator with Vibrating Pleasure Pearls… whatever pleasure pearls are.” He picks up the package for a closer look, intent on figuring it out.
At this point, I am reminded of something Summers said in the car: “How can you learn about something if you don’t teach yourself?” He had posed the question in regard to his varied intellectual pursuits — he joined Yale’s Department of Radiation Therapy in 1968, but 10 years later was asked to help start the Department of Human Genetics (later shortened to “Genetics”). The field was so new, however, that Summers was one of the few professors at Yale who had even taken a class on the topic. Thus, he and those he worked with had to seek out, and learn, all their teaching material on their own.
His proclivity for self-teaching is evident as we arrive at a glass case stocked with cans of soda. “Plain old Dr. Pepper? It must be hiding something,” he muses. After several shared seconds of intent soda-can scrutiny, I follow Summers’ lead. To teach myself about that which I do not yet understand, I ask the cashier if the seemingly benign can is concealing something more.
“…It is,” says the cashier, not planning on elaborating.
Oh well. I had learned a lot that day already.