‘Sex and God at Yale’
MY SOPHOMORE YEAR at Yale, I had a fight with my boyfriend. It was a typical college dilemma: I wanted to go to a party with my friends and he didn’t want me to go. The only difference is that everyone at the party was going to be naked. Yale undergraduates throw fairly regular naked parties—platonic social experiments, not orgies. I told him it would just be people chatting in a brightly lit kitchen, but without clothes. He told me he didn’t buy it. In the end I told him he was being patriarchal, and he told me I was hurting his feelings, and we stayed home.
Nathan Harden’s book is an attempt to save vulnerable, impressionable female students like me from a college culture where there is a naked party Friday night—and from ourselves. To his 290-page sally forth in defense of my honor, I can only say, “No thanks.”
Sex and God at Yale (the title is a nod to, or a rip-off from, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale, about what Buckley considered the depravity at the school in the 1940s) is in large part a chronicle of Harden’s reactions to the events of Yale’s “Sex Week,” a biennial series of sometimes risqué speeches and Q&A’s. The rest of the book attempts a larger argument about how the Yale administration’s permissive attitude toward sex—from Sex Week seminars with porn stars and sex toy distributors, to racy movies in Spanish language classes, to hook-ups between people who (gasp) aren’t dating—is degrading to women and will destroy Yale.
Harden isn’t the first to peek into Yalies’ bedrooms, and sometimes the voyeurs have good reason. The school was the first to have a “sex week” (the custom began in 2002) and it has some traditions that are less prevalent elsewhere, naked parties included. During my time there, Yale earned notoriety when members of its oldest fraternity marched around chanting, “no means yes, yes means anal.” The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) subsequently investigated whether the school’s sexual climate was harmful to women and, therefore, in violation of Title IX; recently OCR reported “no findings of noncompliance” with Title IX, though it is keeping a close eye on Yale. A group of conservative students lobbied to shut down Sex Week this winter, prompting the administration to take a tighter hold of those proceedings. It’s hard to believe that Yale is all that different from its peer institutions, but occasionally it feels like there’s something in the water in New Haven.
In any case, Harden isn’t the first to argue that universities, and Yale in particular, need to work harder at fostering healthy sexual expectations and practices among young Americans—everyone from Catharine MacKinnon to the journalist Hanna Rosin (and even Joe Biden!) has weighed in on matters of sexuality on campus. But Harden presents a particularly shuttered view of how a healthier atmosphere might be accomplished.