February 26, 2012
Last week, Betty Ann Dodson came to campus (and the Yale Political Union) to debate sex. She signs her emails BAD: which is all you need to know, really. Ms. Dodson is one of the founders of sex-positive feminism, and she hasn’t slowed down despite being eighty-three. She started out in art–and unveiled the first erotic art show in New York–but she quickly transitioned to activist and educator.
Ms. Dodson’s speech was peppered with unforgettable lines. “I broke every rule I could get my hands on, and the first one was my clitoris,” Dodson said, starting off the debate. The clitoris she named “Clitty Ann.” Later, Dodson offered a prescription for better government: “If all those guys up in Washington had a dildo up their ass just for one minute, we’d be in much better shape.” At the end, when asked whether she endorsed Newt Gingrich’s request for an open marriage, she first demurred: “I don’t give a shit about Newt. I don’t endorse anything he says.” Then, she made it clear that she didn’t “endorse marriage for anyone”—or at least for more than a limited term, like five years.
In her speech Dodson made four main points. First, she argued that masturbation is the foundation of human sexuality and should be encouraged. Second, she posited that sex is an art, not a science, and its key is creativity. Third, she claimed, surprisingly, that today’s sexual climate is less free than 40s Kansas, where she grew up: “No one talked about it, but nobody paid attention either.” Her mother thought masturbation natural, for example, and she and her friends grew up playing around all the time, everywhere from the back yard to the back seat of cars. Repression, she said, came from education. Fourth, and in large part why she believes the situation is worse today, Dodson pointed out that sexual discourse almost entirely uses the male model of response and interest; because nearly all talk about sexuality is male-normative, it is worse than when it was not talked about at all.
Rather than defining the evening, Ms. Dodson’s speech opened the door to more general points on sexual discourse. Later speeches hewed closer to the nominal resolution, “Destigmatize Sex.” There were two key questions throughout the night: Is sex something we should be “modest” about—and what effect does that have on sexual culture and sexual crime? Can sex only be meaningful within a long-term monogamous relationship (traditionally sanctified by marriage)?
Yishai Schwartz ’13, the first speaker in the negative, framed these questions. He argued first that sex is something about which we are “hard-wired” to be modest and private (and that the titillation with which Ms. Dodson had provided the YPU should indeed be stigmatized). Second he claimed that it was high time to move away from the “myth,” propagated in the 60s, that sex could be separated from relationships, and that sex outside of (long-term) relationships could have meaning. Schwartz quickly came under fire. On modesty he was directly challenged by Jacy Tackett ’13, who argued that while there is a public/private divide, that which is included in either sphere changes from society to society and that without social discussion of sexuality we would be dangerously unable to communicate about it to each other in private. On meaning, Mr. Schwartz was directly rebutted by Elias Kleinbock ’14. An hour’s conversation on a park bench with a stranger, he said, could absolutely be as life-changing as a long-term friendship.
The four other speeches in the negative all centered on marriage and loudly opposed the sexual revolution. They sought, in the words of Travis Heine ’14, “not to stigmatize [sex] but to elevate it.” What we desire (or should desire) in sex is intimacy and the giving of oneself to another, they argued, and what we need in life is a life partner. Only through marriage can both these ends be served. (Ms. Dodson was having none of this; of one speaker, she quipped: “He needs to masturbate more; then his skin would clear up.”)
The other speeches in the affirmative, however, focused on the human cost of such circumscribed discourse for those marginalized by it. Marian Homans-Turnbull ’12 argued that the model of guidelines and decorum “buys into the worst misconceptions” about sex: that “if we just act rightly we deserve sex” and that we can and should pass judgment on the sex lives of others. Spence Weinreich ’15 spoke of those who fall outside the heteronormative paradigm: when teachers cannot even speak of homosexuality (for the sake of “modesty”) then gay teens lack the support system they need when it is most necessary, and suicide too often results. “When you can’t talk about it,” he said, “people who don’t fit the norms get isolated.” Finally, in the second-to-last speech of the debate, Nick Styles ’14 explicitly addressed sexual assault. If sex is stigmatized, he argued, then rape victims will not come forward on account of that very stigmatization and “culture of shame.” When we limit discussion of sex in the public sphere, the first topics to go are the hard ones—rape, assault, etc. Thus both because they are too ashamed to come forward, and because the discourse is not even present, victims are doubly marginalized. The least we can do is not stigmatize victims when they talk about their own abuse.
These arguments appeared to sway many: the vote, in the end, was not even close, a full 42-14. Yet it is too soon to celebrate: one need only think how conservative the children of the 60s have become in order for the cheer to subside. With centuries of context on the other side, victories cannot be assumed to persist unattended. The weight of history was most obvious in the speech of Bijan Aboutorabi, Chairman of the Conservative Party. True to tradition he began in Latin: “O tempora! O mores!” He inveighed against all sides theretofore in the debate, and claimed they were merely “sexual Jacobins and Girondins,” all accepting the basic premises of the sexual revolution. We cannot forget that even here such conservatism exists and is espoused—as it is throughout the country and the world. Debates like this are still necessary to reach the other side and sway those crucial votes.
Nathanael Deraney is a junior in Berkeley College. He is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.