Dear Penn: It’s time that we had “the talk.”
I realize this might be awkward, but we can make it easy for you. In fact, you won’t even have to do the talking. Let’s just bring in a few sex educators, maybe a porn star or two and spend a week celebrating and learning about sex. We’ll call it Sex Week.
Yes, you read that right: Sex Week.
It all started at Yale in 2002. Pitched as an “interdisciplinary sex education program,” the biennial Sex Week at Yale University incorporates everything from exploring the history of the vibrator to a Hillel-sponsored discussion with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of Kosher Sex.
Since then, Sex Weeks have spread like chlamydia across college campuses, making national news. Brown and Harvard Universities soon introduced Sex Weeks of their own; Allegheny College fashioned Sex Fest (“Games! Food! Condoms!”); Sarah Lawrence College boasted a beloved event called “Sleaze Ball.”
“Sex Weeks are devoted to intelligent and provocative conversations about sex, sexuality, and relationships,” sexologist and College and Graduate School of Education alumna Logan Levkoff explained. Aside from being my all-time favorite Penn grad, Levkoff has been a Sex Week speaker at Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern and Yale universities.
“Oftentimes we talk about sex as being completely clinical or completely gratuitous and pornographic. A healthy dialogue exists in the middle, but most people don’t ever have the opportunity to have that kind of intellectual conversation about sex. I think Sex Week serves that purpose really well,” Levkoff advocated.
But what does sex have to do with school? Critics of collegiate sex festivals argue that universities ought to spend their endowments on educational events, not glorified orgies.
I agree with this point entirely — but I think that Sex Weeks are nothing if not educational and, yes, even academic. In fact, it’s impossible to talk about sex without incorporating many interrelated topics: politics, health, literature and more. For example, Northwestern University’s most recent Sex Week featured a panel on sex workers, blending sex and economics. Northeastern married science and sex in a debate about the biological origins of sexual orientation. In 2010, Yale hosted a lecture entitled: “A Philosophical Defense of the Sexual Counterrevolution.” (How’s that for academic?)
Hazel Lever and Martha Farlow, rising seniors at Harvard University, are the current co-presidents of Sexual Health Education and Advocacy Throughout Harvard, the student group that sponsors Harvard’s Sex Week. At the core of each event they brought to campus last year was the belief that students should learn about sexual concepts in ways that they have not encountered before, from experts at the top of their fields.
“Sex Week is absolutely educational!” Lever and Farlow insisted via email. “Our schools don’t teach us, our parents don’t teach us, our peers have only warped and incorrect knowledge [about sex] — so these events become the perfect outlet to give students the information they desperately need.”
Often, that information is practical rather than theoretical: facts about birth control (most college women don’t realize that intrauterine devices are twenty times more effective than the pill), sexual health (only 34 percent of women perform regular breast self-exams), and sexual consent. Speaking of practical, Washington University in St. Louis invited Bristol Palin to their Sex Week in 2011 to talk about sexual responsibility and, yes, the merits of abstinence.
To be fair, Penn has made some attempt at this type of education: you might recall last year’s Sex Camp, a two-hour stint in Houston Hall where the Undergraduate Assembly and Student Health Services partnered to distribute condoms and free food. SHS’s Director of Health Education Susan Villari told me she believes “Sex Camp achieves its stated goal” of giving students need-to-know information, but admitted that “the Penn community would benefit from additional opportunities to discuss sexuality and sexual health issues.” An expansion of Sex Camp into Sex Week would ensure a diverse set of speakers and a wider range of information, about everything from contraception to kink.
If you’re wary of sessions called “Kink 101,” or “A Guide to BSDM,” I understand — but it would be a mistake to write off conversations about pleasure as superfluous. Aida Manduley, who coordinated Brown’s Sex Week last year, believes that learning the vocabulary of sexuality is important to negotiating and communicating with sexual partners.
“Just because we don’t practice something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least learn some of the basics about it. It’s all about knowing ourselves, our desires, and our boundaries so we can more effectively advocate for what we need and what our partners need,” Manduley explained. “Especially at an Ivy League institution, where education and knowledge are so valued, we should be more open-minded about learning.”
The subject matter is sex, but the point is still education.
“Just because it’s called Sex Week doesn’t mean that it’s a week devoted to getting students laid. The better term would be ‘sexuality week,’ but that’s just not as catchy,” Levkoff said. “I think most campuses do a disservice to their students when they don’t have these types of forums for intelligent conversation.”
Levkoff is right, especially because having “the talk” doesn’t mean talking about sex in a vacuum. A week of exploring the relationships between sexuality and every academic discipline at Penn would make Sex Week the most interdisciplinary event Penn holds all year.
Wouldn’t Benjamin Franklin be proud?
Arielle Pardes is a rising College junior and women, gender and sexuality studies major from San Diego, Calif. Her email address is email@example.com. The Screwtinizer appears every other week during the school year.