In 2006, Trojan conducted its first annual review of sexual health on college campuses. In the Sexual Health Report Card, as they called it, Yale ranked first.
The report card pointed to Sex Week at Yale as a reason for the University’s perfect score. Since its founding by two undergraduates in 2002, the week had fostered dialogue and awareness about sexual health issues.
As Sex Week at Yale garnered national media attention, the idea of a multi-day event dedicated to exploring topics of sexual health also caught the attention of students at other schools. “Sex Week at Yale: The Magazine” was soon distributed on 18 college campuses. In a word, Sex Week became contagious.
“We were inspired by Sex Week at Yale,” said Stella Fayman, who founded Sex Week at Northwestern in 2006.
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Over the past three years, at least five other college campuses — Brown, Northeastern, the University of Kentucky, Indiana University and Washington University in St. Louis — have held “sex weeks,” and Harvard is poised to hold its first sex week this year. Several campus organizers said they have looked to Yale’s Sex Week as a model.
Each is student-run and shares the challenge of striking a balance between events focused on the concept of safe sex and events dedicated to its pleasures. All sex weeks have experienced varying levels of criticism.
But a decade after its founding, the existence of Yale’s own Sex Week was seriously called into question by campus administrators and fellow students alike: From the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate, which recommended that Sex Week be eliminated in its November report, to the newly formed group Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, who circulated a petition to ban Sex Week 2012 in protest of the current sexual culture at Yale, the controversy has brought scrutiny to the mission and purpose of the student-driven project.
“With something like Sex Week, you’re always going to get a negative reaction,” said Megan Lane, a Sex Week chair at Wash. U, adding that the amount of negative reaction varies among campuses.
In response to this criticism, Lane said organizers have to return to their goals and ask themselves: “Why did Sex Week start happening?”
LAUNCHING SEX WEEK
After seeing Trojan’s report card, Northwestern organizer Fayman said she called Eric Rubenstein ’04, co-founder of Sex Week at Yale, and exclaimed, “This is so cool, tell me about how it works.”
Rubenstein had founded Sex Week in 2002 along with Jacqueline Farber ’03 simply with an intention “to raise awareness about health issues,” Farber said. She had been working as a Peer Health Educator and, after leading workshops for freshmen on safe sex, she began to see the need for an event dedicated to encouraging dialogue about sex across Yale’s campus. She added that she especially noticed a lack of awareness about the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among college students.
Four years later, at Northwestern, Fayman echoed Farber’s concerns surrounding the lack of knowledge on her college campus.
Fayman said she was shocked that girls knew so little about sexual health. She did not recall having the opportunity to attend any events about sexual health during her freshman orientation.
At Yale, Farber said the first Sex Week was “fairly well received.” She said that while some individuals felt uncomfortable at an event held with Al Goldstein, founder of a pornographic magazine called Screw, they nonetheless remained present and vocal at the talk with Goldstein.
Still, she said avoiding the impression that Sex Week was “flippant” about sex proved difficult, especially when a separate group of Yale students announced plans to release a pornographic film entitled “StaXXX” around the same time as the inaugural Sex Week at Yale commenced.
“It was not our intention to be affiliated in any way [with the film],” Farber said.
Farber then expressed concern that Sex Week at Yale may have changed since she graduated, becoming “more of a sensationalist thing.”
Maintaining and appropriately conveying the mission of Sex Week has proved challenging at both Yale and schools around the country, especially in dealings with campus administrators.
While Yale’s Sex Week began as an independent student organization, Fayman convinced the Northwestern’s College Feminists organization, of which she was director, to host Sex Week.
Fayman did recall running into difficulties with Northwestern administrators after surveying 500 students about their sexual practices and conceptions of sex. Fayman said she had planned to publish the results in the campus newspaper. But she received a call on her cell phone from a campus administrator who said the results could not be published because a campus research board had not approved the survey.
The next year, when the group applied to the board, it denied their request.
Still, the event itself lives on.
“Overall, the administration was never supportive, but it didn’t really stand in the way,” Fayman said.
At Northeastern, Jimmy Okuszka, vice president of programming for Northeastern’s Resident Student Association, which hosts the school’s Sex Week, said the advisor for the event prohibited him from speaking with the News. (The advisor could not be reached for comment.)
But administrative protest does not always occur: At Brown, Sex Week co-chairs Aida Manduley and Jennifer Conti said their week — sponsored by a student group devoted to sexual health — has remained relatively free from controversy since its start in 2009.
Students have also never protested the event, she said, though she said she is aware of some students who dislike the event. Manduley only knew of one alumnus who had made an effort to raise concerns in 2010, but the University reviewed the week in response. Manduley, who served as chair at the time, said Brown administrators told her, “You’re doing everything right, so continue.” Unlike Northwestern, they were able to conduct a survey, and found that Brown students were eager for the campus-wide conversation about sex.
Beyond navigating administrators’ scrutiny, organizers must consider that the success of their week depends largely on the opinions of their peers.
“Sex weeks should not only be happening on college campus, [they]should be happening wherever people are,” Manduley said.
But at Northwestern, and other schools, sex week organizers have encountered resistance among students as the events progressed. For Yale, this has most recently taken the form of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College’s True Love Week.
Northwestern Sex Week founder Fayman said she knew her campus was “a little more conservative than Yale” and said that they had tried to make their event more “intellectual.” But after seeing the fliers announcing the first Sex Week at Northwestern, Fayman said the President of Northwestern College Republicans launched a “crusade against Sex Week,” starting her own organization, named Women of Worth, to host events scheduled to conflict with Sex Week. For example, during an event sponsored by sex toy company Pure Romance, Women of Worth held a spa and manicure event off campus.
Now, executive directors of this year’s Northwestern Sex Week Kelsey Sheridan and Amanda Mather said, the organizers are working to incorporate differing perspectives and opinions into their event. By involving more students with a variety of viewpoints, the two hope to avoid protest from their fellow students.
At Washington University in St. Louis, which Lane said also modeled its program on Yale’s Sex Week, a similar student protest caused Lane, a chair of the event, to evaluate the purpose of Sex Week for this year. In 2011, the organizers at Wash. U invited Bristol Palin to be the keynote speaker on a panel about sexual responsibility. After outraged students protested Palin’s abstinence-only stance and the use of university funding to support her appearance, Palin’s invitation was cancelled.
Six years after the founding of Northwestern’s Sex Week, Laura Stewart, who works at Northwestern University Health Service as the Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention Coordinator, said that “the best sex weeks represent a variety of different viewpoints about sexuality and do not vilify or shame anyone for their sexual identities, behaviors or choices.”
ONE MORE, AT HARVARD
At the end of March, Sex Week will begin for the first time at Harvard.
“We noticed that there were a lot of events about sex, love, and gender already happening on campus, but weren’t really connected in any coherent way,” said Samantha Meier, a co-president of Sex Week.
Like Northwestern and Wash. U, Harvard’s organizers have contacted Yale’s Sex Week organizers for advice. Connie Cho ’13, an executive director of Yale’s Sex Week 2012, said the two groups of organizers have discussed ideas for speakers, sources of funding and issues of legality. Cho said that she and other sex week directors have been communicating for some time, and they have even discussed forming a “national council” for sex weeks.
At Harvard, administrative support hasn’t been a problem, Meier said, adding that graduate students and campus groups have been reaching out to the Sex Week organizers and have offered to help host events.
“Even our office of career services has signed on for an event,” Meier said.
Like many other sex weeks, Harvard’s week will be run by a sexual health group on campus.
When asked about the criticisms that other sex weeks have received, Meier said she believed that education about sexual morals and sexual enjoyment could co-exist.
“I don’t know if morals aren’t fun,” Meier said. “We’re interested in the full range of sexuality — that includes not having sex.”
But most importantly, Meier said that sex weeks must be “attentive to community feedback,” in order to deal with criticism like the situations seen at Yale and Wash U. At Yale, Cho said she hopes that other sex weeks have seen Yale’s example as inspiration to keep “being bold, and addressing issues of sex and sexuality in bold terms.” Meier said the Harvard team has been consistently meeting with students about proposed events.
“[Sex Week] will be part of the ongoing conversation of Harvard,” Meier said.