The Real Reason Yale Banned 'Sex Week'


Yesterday, Yale’s president announced that the university’s “Sex Week,” an exploration of sexual issues featuring panels discussions, guest speakers, and other events, will no longer be allowed to use Yale’s name or facilities. Conservative students have been campaigning against Sex Week for some time, calling it pro-porn and anti-relationship. But the president’s explanation for the ban includes some more serious allegations.

Earlier this year, Yale asked a special committee to examine and report on “how sexual harassment, violence or misconduct may be more effectively combated at Yale, and what additional steps the University might take to create a culture and community in which all of our students are safe and feel well supported.” The committee was chaired by former Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Margaret Marshall, famous for her 2003 decision authorizing gay marriage in the state, and it issued its report in September. The report made a number of recommendations, including that the university “improve the mechanisms for addressing claims of sexual misconduct so that every Yale student understands clearly where to make a claim.” It also included this passage:

We heard over and over from students, faculty, and staff that “Sex Week at Yale,” a student-sponsored event, is highly problematic. A student-initiated event begun in 2002, it has described itself as “a campus-wide interdisciplinary sex education program.” Over time, this event clearly has lost the focus of its stated intention. Although “Sex Week at Yale” continues to promote consideration of some serious topics, like international sex trafficking, in recent years it has prominently featured titillating displays, “adult” film stars, and commercial sponsors of such material. We recommend that “Sex Week at Yale” be prohibited from using Yale’s name and any Yale facilities. We recognize the role of events that promote healthy discourse and help students explore issues of intimacy, love, and relationships as they relate to their own lives but feel that the most recent iterations of “Sex Week at Yale” cannot accomplish this. Administrators and student organizers must be thoughtful about working together to create a new program that is consistent with a climate of respect and responsibility (and thus worthy of the University’s support).

In a letter dated yesterday, Yale president Richard Levin announced he would be implementing this recommendation:

The […] Committee repeatedly heard concerns and complaints about a student-led activity known as “Sex Week at Yale.” After comparing the event’s initial purpose with its current iteration, the Committee strongly recommended that the students in charge of this event not be allowed to use the Yale name or Yale’s facilities. At Dean Miller’s suggestion, I have allowed her to give the current student organizers the opportunity to propose a program for next semester that might warrant continuation of this event on campus. We have no intention of suppressing the students’ right to free expression. But we will not allow the University’s facilities or name to be used in the service of corporate sponsors and the private inurement of student organizers.

Earlier this year, the group Undergraduates for a Better Yale College launched a student campaign against Sex Week. Their rationale was not quite the same as the president’s — they complained that at the 2010 event “about one-third of the events were hosted or facilitated by pornographic film actors or people intimately involved with the pornography industry” (including Fleshbot editor Lux Alptraum). They also issued this message to supporters:

Tell Yale that a pornographic culture does not create respect but degrades, does not build up relationships but undermines them, promotes not consent but the ugliest form of pressure, does not stop sexual harassment and the objectification of one another’s bodies but makes us numb, blind, and indifferent to how we actually look at and treat others. Tell Yale that you want a campus marked by respect and love, full of flourishing friendships based on the acknowledgment of each person’s integral value, relationships based on true love between partners — not transient lust — and a sense of familial trust between all students. Tell Yale to say “No” to Sex Week and all it stands for, because Yale can do so much better.

Alptraum, in fact, told me that Sex Week 2010 “was a bit too much of a porn week rather than a sex week.” She added,

I think they should have made the event more well rounded, and that there’s something telling when the main people that college students turn to for a discussion of sex are related to the adult industry. But that said, all the people they recruited were really smart and thoughtful and talked about a lot of things aside from pornography. The line between sex ed and porn is not as distinct as some might think.

It’s possible that the Sex Week organizers will retool their event to be less porn-focused if they choose to submit an alternate proposal to the Dean (they haven’t yet responded to my request for comment about their future plans). And while some sex educators from outside the adult industry might be a welcome addition to the program, the porniness of the proceedings seems like only part of the reason for the ban. While the language about “intimacy, love, and relationships” in the committee’s report may be a nod to the position of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, that position isn’t much in evidence in the president’s letter. Instead, the letter seems to suggest that student organizers might have been getting kickbacks from corporate sponsors, a serious allegation that has nothing to do with sexual politics. Alptraum saw no evidence of financial malfeasance when she spoke at Sex Week 2010; I’ve contacted both the Sex Week organizers and the Dean’s office about the allegations, and await their response. For now, all that seems clear is that the banning of Sex Week isn’t a statement against the discussion of sexuality, but something far more complex.

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