Sex Week At Yale Survives Conservative Backlash…Sort Of

by Thomas Roche on February 5, 2012

Did you know that on Trojan’s 2006 report card on sexual health on college campuses, Yale was the only university with a perfect score, praised by Trojan for its excellent student sexual health resources?

One of the reasons Yale students rate as such sexual smartypantses is the annual Sex Week at Yale (SWAY), which kicked off today and runs through February 14. It’s been an annual event since 2003. Sex Week is “an interdisciplinary sex education program designed to pique students’ interest through creative, interactive, and exciting programming.” It’s long been the state-of-the-art event when it comes to sex education on college campuses. This year’s event features oodles of interesting programming, including programs by friends-of-Tiny-Nibbles like Maggie Mayhem, Babeland‘s Claire Cavanah, Bawdy Storytelling‘s Dixie De La Tour, The Center for Sex and Culture‘s Carol Queen, and more.

Unfortunately, not everybody has been stoked about the inclusive, sex-positive nature of SWAY, and as a result, it looks like the event’s undergone some unsettling changes. Sex Week At Yale 2012 almost didn’t happen. Anti-sex, pro-marriage activists tore into it last year under the euphemistic name “Undergraduates for a Better Yale College,” with a headline “Why Say No to Sex Week?”

And why, pray tell, should Yale “just say no?” Because Sex Week At Yale was too cozy with that old demon, pornography, and its bestest friend, BDSM.

Here’s what “Better Yale” says:

As we approach and prepare ourselves for Sex Week 2012, we ought to ask ourselves if these are really the messages we want to reinforce, and if these are the “experts” and role models we want to seek out for advice and instruction on the preciously important questions of love, intimacy, relationships, and our sexual nature.

[Link.]

See what they did there? Clever of them, huh? They called Maggie Mayhem and Carol Queen “experts” instead of experts. It’s passive-aggressiveness at its classiest, which is apparently one of the relationship values these cats “want to reinforce.” In protest, Undergraduates for a Better Yale College is sponsoring its competing “True Love Week” at the same time as SWAY. Because nothing says “no sex” like “true love,” right?

The backlash resulted in Yale’s decision in November to cancel SWAY, which caused gleeful fandangos from ultra-conservatives. That decision was based on the findings of a panel of inquiry that expressed horror that although Sex Wek does “promote consideration of some serious topics like international sex trafficking, in recent years it has prominently featured titillating displays…”

Hey, I’ve seen “titillating displays” that were about as serious as a display can get, but the panel’s statement was among the least nasty of the anti-SWAY propaganda out there. This delightful National Post article accuses the event of being “evangelical Paganism.”

After the event was cancelled late last year, the event organizers created a new proposal for a SWAY and submitted it to Yale’s administration, who approved it, and SWAY went forward. The price? The “messages we want to reinforce” at SWAY now includes abysmal, imaginary non-science in the service of an arch-conservative social agenda. One of SWAY’s presenters is Gail Dines, whose anti-porn, anti-sex, anti-feminist, anti-female views were cheerfully refuted on Tiny Nibbles last year

Dines is not the only anti-sex activist at SWAY this year. But for what it’s worth, the programming overall seems to have (mostly) retained its generally pluralistic and sex-positive nature, even if some of the event appear to be steeped in anti-sex hysteria. There are such treats as classes on sex-positive writing — including a XXX haiku workshop — pegging-positive performances and a gender-neutral swing dance lesson. This year also features a wide array of international programs, such as a lecture about perspectives on masturbation in the Middle East.

Even if the SWAY controversy cost the event some of its sex-positive flavor, is it still important? Hell, yes — because the chief enemy of sex-positivity is not anti-sex propaganda, but lack of information. Institutional sex ed in this country is largely bankrupt, and it’s getting worse every year. SWAY is one of the few places where genuinely broad discussions about sexuality are happening on college campuses at this large a scale. I think Yale Daily News put it this way:

Beyond a handful of presentations offered by Yale Health, Sex Week is the closest many students come to a sex ed class in college. As buzzwords like “rape culture” are thrown around and freshmen await mandatory workshops led by undergraduates trained as “Communication and Consent Educators,” issues of pure sexual health have seemed to fall by the bedside.

It’s easy to think of sex education as a topic that was beaten over our heads in high school. But the truth is that it wasn’t beaten over all of our heads. Many students come to Yale without any comprehensive sex education. A study by L.D. Lindberg, published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, found that in 2002 a smaller fraction of teenagers were taught about birth control methods than in 1995. The New York Times reported that according to research done by the Guttmacher Institute, 25 percent of US teenagers between 2006 and 2008 were taught abstinence-only curricula without any mention of contraceptives.

[Link.]

SWAY’s own page said it fairly well, too, explaining some of the reasons behind the shift in programming:

Sexual culture is not homogeneous. We differ not only in the way we understand sexual culture, but also in the way we negotiate our place inside of it. Conversations about sexuality matter to us because they implicate ideas about what we should and should not do with our bodies; ideas that affect not only our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, but also the social environment around us.

This year, Sex Week is collaborating with a wide variety of Yale student organizations and seeking constructive input from faculty and students alike. We want to create a communicative network of individuals and organizations on campus, in order to provide the most effective educational resources for Yale students on sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.

As Directors of Sex Week 2012, we care deeply about these issues. Like any educational program, Sex Week is not a neutral event; we are not without individual assumptions or opinions. But our strongest conviction is that an open and multifarious dialogue about sexuality is essential to the safety and well-being of our peers.

[Link.]

One of the challenges of a meaningful sexual debate is getting in bed with people you disagree with. So even if SWAY has changed, in my opinion, for the worse, I’ll still say “Hooray that it exists.”

Image from Blackboards in Porn, via Popcorn And Sticky Floors.

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