We are, of course, in the middle of Yale’s legendary Sex Week. Remembering that evening two years ago when half of participants in a meeting I was attending disappeared for a massive “how-to” workshop on oral sex (titled “Babeland’s lip-tricks: blowjobs and going down”), I found myself dreading this week. This year, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The tone just seems more normal. I’m not quite sure how, but the organizers seem to have reasonably navigated the perilous path between prurience and Puritanism.
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Before coming to Yale, I never considered myself particularly squeamish; hey, my mother has a doctorate in human sexuality and wrote her dissertation on women’s expectations and experiences when using vibrators. I thought I was cool with sex talk. Nevertheless, I found myself shocked at the unfamiliar combination of coarseness and openness that seemed to surround sex at Yale.
I have no particular interest in the field of sexuality, and I don’t fall into either of those strange partisan camps that seem determined to remake the social and sexual culture of the country in their own image. Nevertheless, openness and education about sex and sexuality certainly strike me as laudatory goals. Overwhelming shame about a universal aspect of the human experience seems rather silly, and depriving people of helpful information about an aspect of everyday life is unhealthy.
Naturally, then, some of the more extreme statements by the students vocally opposed to Sex Week come off as ridiculous and small-minded. And it also doesn’t help these students’ cause that their alternative program, “True Love Week,” is a marketing disaster. Its Disney-worthy name, unappealing advertisements and overtly Catholic flavor seem deliberately calibrated to repel Yale students.
At the same time, we shouldn’t pretend that these students are reacting to nothing. Sex Week 2010 shocked me, but it was merely a reflection of the culture we already inhabit. Sex is not simply discussed openly; it’s discussed coarsely. On my first day at Yale, my college dean encouraged my freshman class to get to know each other — biblically. When many of my friends try to be funny, they seem to think that alcohol and sexual innuendo are a substitute for actual humor. I hardly think I am the only one who leaves encounters feeling slimy.
Openness and privacy do not necessarily exist in conflict. We can have meaningful conversations and transmit important information without reducing ourselves to a circus of titillating first-person narratives and raucous vulgarity. I am not a WGSS student, so there are certainly many minds much smarter, more learned and more qualified than mine to think about these questions, but surely there must be a way to salvage privacy, decency and genuine modesty without returning to Puritan New England? The problem, though, is that no one seems to be trying.
As most readers are well aware, the schedule for this year’s Sex Week is very different from 2010’s. After significant criticism from the Marshall Committee on Campus Climate, and facing the threat of a withdrawal of University support, the event’s organizers adopted a series of impressive changes. The corporate sponsorships have disappeared, and there seems to be a wider range of workshops and presentations, with prominent time given to sexuality’s intersections with law, religion and medicine. The calendar still has its fair share of purely titillating events, but there does appear to have been a general swerve toward the educational.
In all honesty, the exhibitionist stuff (like Stripped Stories: A Night of Hilarious Sex-Themed Storytelling and Games) still makes me uncomfortable. But I understand that these exist precisely because they have an audience, because people think they are fun. Sex Week’s organizers don’t want their event to be a dreary soul-less lecture series — and nor should it be.
The problem, then, is not a Sex Week that mixes the popular with the educational. The problem is what’s popular. Society’s conception of fun banishes privacy and valorizes vulgarity. So how can a sexual discourse be open, affirming, educational and fun — and still stay modest? I don’t think we have an answer yet. But I hope we’ll know it when we see it.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.