Eric Henney examines how the “Sex Weeks” being held at universities such as Harvard fail, and also how they succeed.
College sex weeks are all about hyperbole, which makes their execution tricky and often clumsy. Their primary function is broad: help widen students’ understandings of healthy sex and the issues attendant to that notion. But too frequently, sex weeks fail to balance their latex theatrics with reasoned, earnest discussion, which provides important structure for disinterested students.
Problems of execution certainly dogged my college’s own sex week festivities, but that doesn’t mean they were without value. In principle, college sex weeks can put young adults through crucial yet accessible exercises in sexual sympathy and empathy, which is something a lot of people need. Even though ours is a hyper-sexualized culture, it is primarily of a Victorian type, which engenders prejudice, silence, and shame. The unabashed ribaldry of sex weeks, properly couched, would be an effective strike against that.
So it is unfortunate that critics of sex week often use practical issues to mischaracterize the entire enterprise as irresponsible and misguided. This seems to be the case with discussions in and surrounding a recent New York Times piece on Harvard’s inaugural sex week (which ended on March 31st). Opposing students viewed sex week activities as promoting a “pleasure-first” view of sex. And Isabel Marin, a student at Yale, assails the value of sex weeks’ educational values thus:
“Education does not mean giving everybody every choice they could make. It’s giving people the right information on how they should be pursuing relationships and sexual choices. It’s not a buffet.”
I see two false premises at work here. The first, sillier one assumes that sex week activities are organized with a moral blindness that lends approval to even plainly immoral sexual acts. But attitudes which are laissez-faire about sex are not therefore nihilistic. Sex week ideas of what constitutes acceptable sexual acts and proclivities are broader, perhaps, than tradition dictates, but they are still subject to an ethical system. No matter how bad the sex week, you will not likely find seminars justifying serial rape, nor will you see advertisements for child prostitutes. This is because the ethical structures that guide sex weeks predicate themselves on upholding the rights of moral agents, not tradition. So the key presumption of sex weeks is not that every sexual act and tendency is a morally acceptable one, but only that more is morally acceptable and healthy, or at least morally gray, than many believe.
The more serious criticism is that rather than promoting a heterogeneous understanding of sexuality, sex weeks simply wish to swap one narrow view (the traditional one) for another. This would be a fair criticism if sex weeks were created for people who knew nothing about sex and society, since it would withhold information. But sex weeks are not for those people; they presuppose some knowledge of the sexual canon. And there is no attempt by sex weeks to refute those acts (so long as they are healthy). There is only the attempt to normalize those acts which are unfairly shamed–homosexuality, anal sex, premarital sex, masturbation, and so on.
This plays into a specious intuition people have that in order to be a useful social program, you need to present every viewpoint available. But sometimes what really matters is dignifying that which is suppressed over that which never stops being reinforced. In fact, to do otherwise would be antithetical: it would reify the subordination of uncommon sexual acts and tendencies to the status quo.
So it is therefore not sex week’s job to let everyone know that waiting until you’re married is a perfectly acceptable and moral choice. Or that not experimenting with the same sex is okay. Chances are you’ve got that covered.
All this being said, sex weeks do have at least two theoretical obligations (in addition to adhering to sex week ethics and knowing their audience). First, because they travel in dangerous social territory, they must express a willingness toward exploration, if not outright acceptance. Masturbation, fetishism, homosexuality must all have at least prima facie dignity. To withhold that is to risk pathologizing what might be actually healthy behavior. Second, they must stay true to the fact that sex as such is complicated, and that different acts carry with them unavoidable risks about which people ought to be informed.
Of course, some aspects of sexuality you encounter at sex weeks will be hard for even open minds to come to terms with. But that’s alright. You aren’t supposed to want to take part in everything you hear about at a sex week, but you are expected to try to understand those things’ existence and significance. And that’s an important thing.
Photo courtesy of Paul Keller