Sex Week at Yale

In which academics ponder "webcam girls," hermaphrodites, demonic-male chimps, the history of the vibrator, and "sex with four professors" 

Call me Is-male. You've probably heard about my distant ancestor Ishmael, and the way that when he felt the chill of a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul, he took to following coffins in funeral processions. When Is-male feels a chill in his romantic life, he does something similarly funereal: he tries to give the whole thing the long good-bye. After all, Is-male reasons, he's had more than his fair share of exhilarating encounters—a marriage here, a divorce there—and more than his fair share of misery and heartbreak as well. Why not just draw a line under it, call it done? Style himself after the romantically embittered and disillusioned Graham Greene heroes who trudge off to leper colonies to lose their worldly desires? But Is-male has tried variants of this before, and there has always been some backsliding. He's been looking for something that will put the final nail in the coffin. And then, as if in answer to a prayer, he heard about Sex Week at Yale.

There's nothing like the prospect of a week of academic theorizing about sex and love to make you want to give it all up. And that's exactly what I was hoping for when I heard about Sex Week at Yale—lots of theory, lots of abstraction, lots of intellectual distance.

I heard about Sex Week last year in the following press release, forwarded to me by e-mail:

I'm coordinating a huge event for Yale University which is titled "Campus-Wide Sex Week." Four organizations are organizing the event: Yale Hillel, Peer Health Educators, the Women's Center, and the Yale Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual Cooperative ...
The week involves a faculty lecture series with topics such as transgender issues: where does one gender end and the other begin, the history of romance, and the history of the vibrator. Student talks on the secrets of great sex, hooking up, and how to be a better lover and a student panel on abstainance. A Valentine's Dinner at the Jewish Center with an afro/cuban band and a debate after the dinner between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (author of Kosher Sex) and Dr. Judy Kuriansky (radio show host of [Love Phones] and author of [The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex]). A faculty panel on sex in college with four professors. a movie film festival (sex fest 2002) and a concert with local bands and yale bands. and lastly, a celebrity panel with Al Goldstein (screw magazine), Dr. Gilda Carle (sex therapist), Nancy Slotnick (Harvard graduate and owner/operator of the Drip Cafe in NYC), and lastly Dr. Susan Block [also a sex-therapist radio host, and a Yale graduate].
The event is going to be huge and all of campus is going to be involved ...

One of my first thoughts on reading this was that before Yale (my beloved alma mater) had a Sex Week it ought to institute a gala Grammar and Spelling Week. In addition to "abstainance" (unless it was a deliberate mistake in order to imply that "Yale puts the stain in abstinence") there was that intriguing "faculty panel on sex in college with four professors," whose syntax makes it sound more illicit than it was probably intended to be.

But the academic lectures on sex and romance seemed to promise just the aversion therapy I was seeking. I know, from keeping up with trendy literary theory, that the more ostensibly "sexual" most academic theorists get, the further from actual sex they get. Thus the disciples of the Parisian postmodern post-Freudian theorist Jacques Lacan are always going on about "desire" and "the body," but one never feels the remotest presence of desire or the body in their thinking. Listening to academics going on about desire is a profound anti-aphrodisiac treasure for those of us seeking surcease from worldly temptations.

DAY ONE: The Medicalization of Sex

My train arrived in New Haven an hour or so before the first scheduled lecture (on "intersex" issues), which gave me a chance to take a nostalgic sex-scandal tour of the Yale campus and wonder, What the hell is it with Yale and sex?

I first passed the Tomb of Skull and Bones, the legendary secret society that made a ritual of sexual confessions—when not ruling the world, planning the Kennedy assassination, and the like. Seriously, as I once reported, the distinctive element of the Skull and Bones bonding ritual (which two Presidents named Bush took part in) is the sexual confessional session, in which each of the initiates must devote one evening to sharing with the other fourteen initiates a detailed history of his sex life. Whether or not they once lay naked in a coffin while talking about sex has not been definitively established. But nudity does figure in another remarkable Yale scandal, one in which I was both exposed and exposer, so to speak, which took place a few blocks north of Skull and Bones, at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

This was "The Great Ivy League Nude Posture-Photo Scandal." Yale was not alone in being victimized by the posture-photo scandal: just about every Ivy League and Seven Sisters school from the 1930s to the 1960s was inveigled into allowing photos of nude or lingerie-clad freshmen to be taken and then transferred to the "research archives" of a megalomaniac pseudo-scientist, W. H. Sheldon. Sheldon believed that the secret of all human character and fate could be reduced to a three-digit number derived from various "postural relationships" (the photos were taken with metal pins affixed to the spine to define the arc of curvature). I was the reporter who discovered, in 1995, that all these nude photos of America's elite—tens of thousands of them, anyway—were available for viewing by "qualified researchers" in an obscure archive of the Smithsonian Institution.

I don't know if this can be classified as a sex scandal, exactly, but it demonstrates the tendency of a certain strain of academic to find a way to abstract from an actual body to a body of mathematical relationships—to pure number rather than impure flesh, if possible.

But to guard against bias during Sex Week at Yale, I made a point of acquiring, confidentially, lecture notes for Harvard's core-curriculum sex course, in order to compare what two of the nation's pre-eminent schools teach their students about the birds and the bees.

The official title of Harvard's sex course is "Science B-29: Evolution of Human Nature." But according to an impeccable source (a recent graduate), "Everyone just called it 'Sex,' and people would make little jokes to the effect of 'I have Sex right before lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.'" That Crimson sense of humor!

Actually, that's unfair. Thumbing through the Harvard course notes on the train to New Haven, I came upon a number of funny, flip remarks by the notetaker about the lecturer's solemn pronouncements on the roots of all human sexual behavior. It seems that Harvard's sex course takes a very strict sociobiological, selfish-gene, evolutionary-psychological, chimp-focused view of human nature—one in which culture and nurture take a back seat to genetics, to millions of years of ingrained primate nature. The main variations admitted to exist in human sexual behavior, the chief alternate paths, are based on chimp models. There are the very bad chimpanzees, with their patriarchal "demonic males," and the very good "gentle apes"—the bonobos, pygmy chimps whose females rule. The bonobos have a lot of recreational sex, whereas violence prevails among the demonic males of certain larger primate species. As the Harvard notetaker put it, "So basically Bonobos are a species of female dominated sex freaks. Cool."

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