September 25, 2011
The Undergraduates for a Better Yale College would have you believe that Yale’s sexual climate isn’t ideal. And they would be right. This week, the newly public group of students published an op-ed in the Yale Daily News in conjunction with the public launch of their website that espouses their anti-casual sex stance. To be perfectly honest, I, too, have at times felt dismayed at the sexual culture that pervades Yale (and truthfully most college campuses). I, too, have listened to the regretful stories of friends come Sunday morning after they have made the so-called “walk of shame.” And more importantly, I have witnessed the effects of sexual assault and harassment that go ignored, or if treated, responded to with alarming sluggishness.
Yet, a closer look at their stances reveals an image of a “better” Yale far different from my own, and ultimately damaging for men and women alike. Though the UBYC claims to espouse a revamping of hook-up culture at Yale to be more respectful of the inherent “integrity” of all beings, their main argument is in favor of shutting down venues to discuss sex that in fact promote openness and understanding (two backbones of mutual respect). Where I would like to see discussion and a greater acceptance of alternative sexualities and ways of understanding sex, the Undergraduates for a Better Yale College desire to bring a culture of silence and repression to our campus.
Ironically, the UBYC invokes the recent Title IX complaint as evidence in support of getting rid of Yale’s “culture of promiscuity” yet fails to understand the real reasons why sexual assault and harassment occur both in and outside of “romantic” settings. They believe that Yale, as such a culture, “has no right to be surprised by objectification, sexual disrespect and all that comes along with them.” Let me say this once (though let’s be real, it needs much repeating): freely engaging in casual sexuality does not invite sexual harassment. Sex, including casual sex, is not the cause of “sexual disrespect.” An individual who chooses to engage in sexual behavior outside of a committed relationship (e.g. a “hook up”) does not have a ‘pass’ to ignore the very real responsibilities that come with sex, such as but not limited to obtaining consent in an appropriate context. In other words, assuming that both partners in a given situation were enthusiastic, consenting participants, it’s not the act of “hooking up” that causes objectification and sexual disrespect—it’s the tolerated misogyny of our campus. Many respectful sexual experiences occur in casual encounters, and conversely, much violence and abuse can arise in ‘romantic’ and dedicated relationships. The pathologization of sex by those like the UBYC leads to a society in which many, particularly women and queer individuals, are often unable to express what they want sexually, and thus may find themselves condemned to violence.
The strangely evangelical undertones of the UBYC come into full view in their critique of Sex Week At Yale, a biennial event that seeks to help students explore sex, love, and relationships through discussion and lectures in order to promote healthy sexual behavior. However, the UBYC seems to think that SWAY actually devalues sex by encouraging open discussion of all types of practices, and in response throw around loaded terms like “chastity” and even a definitive statement on the “transcendent meaning” of “bonding hormones” during sex. To the UBYC, as “sex is the physical expression of oneness associated with total, self-giving love,” even completely healthy, normal, and ultimately didactic activities such as masturbation—and the discussion of such activities—become anathema. In other words, they believe that because sexual activity should be reserved for a giving of the self to another being, any sexual activity based solely in self-pleasure is immoral, even if it leads to a greater understanding of individual sexual desire or preference. This restriction apparently even applies to explicitly educational events like Sex Week. To impose a belief that sexual exploration is wrong is to tell women and men that knowing their bodies is wrong, that coming to an understanding of themselves before they choose to become truly intimate with another human being is wrong. And to assume that the ultimate intimacy for all human beings is sex is to ignore an incredible amount of nuance and personal expression involved in sexuality. One person’s most ‘intimate’ experience might be intercourse, while another’s could be kissing.
The implicit attack on alternative sexual and gender identities is echoed in the UBYC’s description of Yale and “her” events on campus. On the front page of their website, the UBYC refer to Yale as a “she” that must be protected and honored for her “extraordinary beauty” among other things. This diction is problematic at best and certainly foreshadows the underlying current of conservatism that pervades their views. Besides the fact that changing Yale’s sexual culture has very little to with preserving Yale’s honor and all to do with creating a safe environment for students, it’s disconcerting that the UBYC fundamentally paint the female Yale as something that needs to be sheltered; such language parallels the subsequent portrayals of the subordinate female role in relationships. The description of the UBYC’s idea of a “Great Date Night” makes this stance clear. The “gentlemen” of Yale are told to “buy her some flowers, take her out to dinner, and go for a walk.” Meanwhile, Yale “ladies” are instructed to “plan a couple of activities for the evening.” This conception of “romance,” based entirely in gendered conventions and heteronormative traditions leaves little room for other cultures on campus. Queer culture is excluded, and women that prefer to take a more active, specific, and equal role are basically relegated to a vague position of specious power.
The truth of the matter is that effective change in Yale’s sexual culture means creating respect for all consensual expressions of sexuality. The end of sexual objectification will only come when all partners involved in a given sexual context are able to share their wants and needs, regardless of the presence of a romantic or committed relationship. Ultimately, only the individual can decide what is right for him or herself sexually. If you personally choose to remain chaste, then that is awesome. However, as we work toward a safe and healthy sexual environment, a group on campus calling for the end of “hook up” culture while reprimanding anyone who engages in casual sexuality is exactly what we don’t need. We need truly open dialogue and understanding between all sexes and genders if we are to build a better community.
Demetra Hufnagel is a sophomore in Yale College. She is an associate editor for Broad Recognition.