The Advisory Committee on Campus Climate’s finding that Sex Week at Yale, in the eyes of current students and alumni, is “highly problematic” probably should not surprise us. Admittedly, I’m grouchy, but I have yet to find a student group, syllabus, administration policy or aspect of our campus’ culture or climate that is not in some way highly problematic. Maybe problematic is a problematic word because it obviates the need to identify particular problems with things, as in the Advisory Committee’s report.
How easy indeed would it be to read the one paragraph about SWAY in the report as a squeamish knee jerk, a weird crutch in an otherwise excellent and exciting set of recommendations. Rather than justify their call for a ban to SWAY, the authors do little more than play with implied — and problematic! — associations between things like “titillating displays, ‘adult’ film stars” and a disrespectful or irresponsible sexual culture. Part of the purpose of SWAY is to de-stigmatize pornography, titillating displays included, and to break down some of the taboos surrounding sex for the purpose of making sexual culture freer, more open to critique and improvement, and thus better. Regardless of one’s view of such a project — and some fair objections to that project have appeared in these pages over the past few weeks — the report overlooks the value of frankly airing out those aspects of sexuality which otherwise remain, so to speak, closeted and obscure.
For that reason, we can cautiously commend President Richard Levin’s response to the part of the report about Sex Week, provided that he and Dean Mary Miller are actually serious about keeping the event around without sterilizing it into a state of irrelevance. Levin’s call to reduce the event’s commercialism, as the report suggests, sounds fair. It is not clear where the claim that Sex Week contributes to the “private inurement of student organizers” comes from, but I remember no small amount of corporatism — best embodied in the Pure Romance sponsorship. Pure Romance sells sex toys and advertised a lot at SWAY events in 2010.
I wonder to what extent commercial presence at Sex Week deadens its value. Sex toys can do wonderful things, but only when approached as potentially useful tools, not vital commodities — faddish fetishes — for real sex. Corporate sponsorship turns Sex Week, and, by extension, the ways of thinking about sex it puts forward, into just another set of iThings. It cheapens sex, which is a potent force. Maybe this year’s organizers could emphasize the startling diversity of sexual practices out there, which include many without consumer or popular recognition. Perhaps professors of literature or art history, who spend an awful lot of time thinking about what is, in the final analysis, high-brow porn, could deliver lectures related to sex or the erotic.
After all, SWAY is innovative and valuable. Sure, sessions on how to perform better oral sex come dangerously close to making sex a kind of competition, if not a commodity all its own, with normalized, peer-reviewed (ick!) expectations and practices. Panels with adult film stars seem almost to take for granted that the adult film industry is not exploitative and harmful to men and women alike — which may be a very bad assumption.
But broadening the range of behavior that is legitimate to talk about in Yale classrooms is good, if only because it has the effect of multiplying legitimate-seeming options available to curious students who want to learn. The ultimate goal should be to ensure that folks do not need culture’s seal of approval to authorize the behavior they want to practice. Until we get there, Sex Week, even at its earthiest, is vital to our campus.
Do the provocative Sex Week posters we’ve seen around lately, which ask us frankly about our sex habits, alienate some people? Certainly. Is this harmful? Yes. Nonetheless, on a campus where folks have sex, often experience sex through the smoky lens of sense-numbing alcohol and face a sometimes quietist discourse around sex which prevents healthy exploration, that frankness is not just provocative posturing, but also good for us.
Let us hope Levin is not just hedging. Throw out the commercialism, but keep Sex Week. And keep it as racy and piquant as ever.
Ryan Pollock is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at email@example.com.