To slightly adapt the slogan of iconic TV therapist Dr. Ruth, let’s talk about Sex … Week. As it stands now, the debate surrounding the Marshall Committee’s recommendation to ban Sex Week boils down to two questions: First, does Sex Week have a right to exist — insofar as “existing” means having access to on-campus venues? Second, can the organizers of Sex Week design an event that does good things for Yale — promoting sexual respect and rigorous consideration of taboo subjects?
The first issue has already been argued to death in the pages of this paper: Banning Sex Week boils down to an attack on student free speech, as defined in the Woodward Report. On a campus that has hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a class discussion, clearly the potential controversy of discourse should have no bearing on the right to speak.
If Sex Week happens, though, what value will it offer? Thanks to President Levin and a heroic defense of student freedom by Dean Mary Miller, Sex Week At Yale’s board of executive directors (of which I am not a member) has been given a chance to answer that question. Today, they’ve released a mission statement and tentative schedule of events for Sex Week 2012.
Hopefully, the evaluation of this proposal will not be based solely, or even primarily, on the biases against Sex Weeks past, but on the merits of this particular document. Yale has grown up since our last Sex Week in 2010, and so too has the Sex Week board after an unflinching review of its past conduct.
Instead of immaturely ignoring its critics, SWAY’s organizers have confronted the three primary concerns of the Marshall Committee: that Sex Week has “prominently featured titillating displays,” sponsored events with “adult” film stars and used commercial sponsorship to fund its programming. For 2012, the board has crafted a program that represents more diverse views on sex and desire — without sacrificing the uncommon frankness and the joyful celebration of intimacy that made us like Sex Week in the first place.
First, skeptics claim that the event “titillates” impressionable Yalies with images that seduce them into sexual experimentation. To this end, the Marshall Committee’s unreasonably vague critique of hormone-firing “displays” presumably refers at least partially to racy photos used in past years’ advertising, some of which included scantily clad women and couples. In order to get people talking before Sex Week — which is after all the primary goal of an ad campaign — this year’s board has already launched a poster campaign based not on objectification, but on provocative and thought-provoking slogans, which ask students to fill in the blanks with their own desires and boundaries.
For other students, sexual well-being means not having sex. Sex Week 2012 proposes to feature a number of events that advocate abstinence as a personal choice both inside and outside the context of religion. Yale Hillel has already signed on to sponsor discussions and lectures, and “Faith & Sexuality” is a bolded event category on the proposed schedule. Contrary to popular belief, SWAY has never been called “Everybody Should Have Sex” Week — and thank goodness for that.
Next, Sex Week’s critics have focused a disproportionate amount of attention on pornography-related events, which composed only about 10 percent of offerings on the 2010 schedule. Bondage isn’t for everyone, and people who find these select displays upsetting should not attend them.
Given the firestorm, a meeker Sex Week board would have shied away from controversy. Instead, the organizers have refused to ignore a fact — that many undergraduates at Yale watch porn — and are instead holding students accountable by inviting them to consider the ethics of participating in the adult entertainment industry. A highlight of this conversation, a panel between an alternative porn duo and anti-pornography feminist activist and professor Gail Dines, would present contrasting viewpoints on a complicated issue — the opposite of blind exaltation of sex for sex’s sake. Why should we feel less comfortable debating the morality of videotaped sex than the morality of nuclear war?
Third, in response to the Marshall Committee’s criticism of SWAY for relying on corporate sponsors and debauched parties, this year’s proposed Sex Week will be entirely paid for by student fundraising and private donations, and it will (brace yourself) include no events at Toad’s. On the bright side, this change means that students will set the agenda for Sex Week with others students’ well-being foremost in mind, and not with the secret incentive of selling vibrators for a sex toy company.
Beyond the Marshall Report’s explicit criticisms, opponents of SWAY have also implied that the majority of students don’t want Sex Week on campus because it perpetuates a cheapened and violent sexual culture. The first half of this accusation crumbles easily. Twenty-five student groups have already committed to co-sponsor Sex Week events — from the DRAMAT to the Epicurian to the YPU to feminist magazine Broad Recognition and pretty much every LGBT organization on this campus. That sounds like broad-based support to me.
Lastly, Yale doesn’t need any more silence on the topic of sex or any more polite conversation that sheepishly euphemizes the word “orgasm.” Even as we continue an invaluable campus evaluation of how to reduce instances of rape, harassment and degradation, we must take care to preserve the notion that sex at Yale between consenting and invested partners can sometimes be a profound good. However, the Marshall Committee says it has “encountered a widely held perception that there is no serious conversation on the campus about the complicated issues of positive sexual and gender relationships.” With all due respect, after frank discussions about sex with friends in the dining halls, late-night talks with my suitemates and debates in section, that is not the perception I hold.
So let’s make this conversation louder and more genuine — let’s hear administrators lend their voices and their support to raise the volume, as they have already begun to do. Shutting down Sex Week and the wide range of perspectives it presents sends a strong message that students should be ashamed to discuss our own sexuality. We aren’t.
Start spreading the news, because I hope beyond hope that Sex Week is coming.
Bonnie Antosh is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at email@example.com.