Since its inception in 2002, Yale’s infamous “Sex Week” has held pride of place among efforts to further the apparently never-ending cause of college students’ sexual liberation. The biennial event, always held the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, offers a full schedule of lectures, panels, and workshops dedicated to increasing “self-awareness and understanding of sexual topics.” Over the past decade the model has been adopted at numerous other universities, including Northwestern, Duke, Brown and, starting this year, Harvard.
Yale’s Sex Week bills itself as a neutral forum simply dedicated to “engaging and meaningful discussions about sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.” In practice, however, Sex Week has always stood for a very particular ideology of sexual license, narcissistic hedonism, and reciprocal objectification. Even this year’s Sex Week, which ostensibly sought to correct the sensationalism of past years in response to administrative concerns, featured such salacious events as a BDSM workshop and a lecture titled “Fornication 101,” intended “to introduce students to carnal knowledge.”
This February, however, Sex Week wasn’t the only forum for discussion of relationships and sexuality.
My classmates and I founded a group called Undergraduates for a Better Yale College (UBYC) in order to address the one-sided agenda in Yale’s Sex Week and similar events: namely, the lack of any attempt to put forward a positive vision of sex, its meaning, and its purposes. UBYC hosted a slate of eight speakers (and one film screening) under the name “True Love Week.” With True Love Week, we provided an opportunity for Yale students to hear an alternative perspective to that of Yale’s Sex Week, one that treated sex less as an end in itself and more as a texture in the complex fabric of human love.
As UBYC wrote at the beginning of the year,
Sex Week reflects and reinforces students’ assumptions that the physical pleasure of sex is its most important purpose, with its interpersonal aspect coming a distant second; that there is no intrinsic difference between the solitary pursuit of pleasure embodied in pornography and masturbation, and the sex that expresses a couple’s mutual love; that the body is only raw material that we can legitimately use however and whenever we feel like it; that it is natural and healthy to be obsessed with sex; and that transgression is synonymous with progress.
At True Love Week, meanwhile, students could hear Dante translator Anthony Esolen extol the beautiful challenge of giving oneself to another entirely in love; philosopher Christopher Tollefsen recommend chastity as essential to the virtue of integrity, a mode of life characterized by unity of intention, not domination by transient desires; and sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox discussed the ingredients and the rewards of happy marriages.
In cynics’ eyes, of course, these speakers were ill suited to address the realities of college life: too romantic, too unrealistic, too idealistic. I think these dismissals give Yale students too little credit. If the rhetoric with which we and our peers are continually bombarded is true—if we really are the gifted, talented, passionate leaders of tomorrow our administrators say we are—then it’s hardly expecting too much of us to think we might lead our sexual lives with the same maturity, integrity, and intentionality we aspire to in other aspects of life.
The need for reforming Yale’s sexual culture has been obvious to virtually everyone, save the most complacent, since 2010’s Delta Kappa Epsilon incident in which male students marched through campus shouting “No means yes.” In 2011, a group of current and former students filed a Title IX complaint against the university, charging the administration with chronically inadequate responses to reports of sexual assault.
Yet there remains disagreement about the kind of reform most needed. Sex Week and its partisans think that debauchery—so long as it’s consensual debauchery—is the antidote to sexual assault and disrespect between the sexes. (Here one might cite the adage about ideas so foolish only intellectuals can believe them.) We who make up Undergraduates for a Better Yale on the other hand, propose that a renewed sense of the seriousness of sex—as opposed to the juvenile frivolity of campus culture—is the key to a sexual culture grounded in the beauty and dignity of human love.
Fix Contributor Bijan Aboutorabi is a junior at Yale and a founding member of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College.