Sex Week at Yale: Demeaning Women in the Name of Free Expression

Please note that the following article deals with subject matter only for discerning adults. — Ted

By Nathan Harden

When I first arrived at Yale, its beauty overwhelmed me. Strolling along under its high gothic towers, and listening to the sound of Carillon bells echo across the quad, I felt as though I were part of something high-minded – almost holy. It felt like a place where one could easily be inspired to contemplate, as Paul put it, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure” (Phil 4:8).

There were times, however, when the content of the Yale education did not live up to the uplifting contours of its architecture. At no point was this truer than during Yale’s biennial series of sex-themed special events known as “Sex Week at Yale.”

The event, usually referred to around campus as “SWAY,” has taken place at Yale every other year since 2002. I first experienced Sex Week as a student. This year, I returned to cover the event as a journalist.

Sex Week is billed primarily as an educational event. Its “educational” value, however, is somewhat doubtful – that is, unless one aspires to a career as a porn star. There were more than thirty events during Sex Week 2010. Porn stars or porn producers were the featured speakers or

performers in almost a third them.

Events this year included two talks at which students were taught about the benefits of non-monogamous lifestyles, a presentation on kink and fetishism, and a graphic demonstration of erotic body piercing. At another talk students were offered advice on how to find sexual partners online.

Corporate sponsors provide much of the funding for Sex Week, and the largest sponsor is a sex-toy company. Condoms, pornographic DVDs and sex toys are promoted or given away as door prizes at many of the events.
At one well-attended event, a burlesque performer instructed students on oral sex techniques for more than an hour with the aid of various plastic props.

During Sex Week 2008, students were invited to attend a free screening of a pornographic film. Controversy erupted on campus due to the film’s graphic depictions of sexual violence against women. Nevertheless, this year, a violent pornographic film was once again screened in a Yale classroom. The film showed a woman being beaten, verbally assaulted, and sexually brutalized. Afterward, student volunteers were solicited for a live demonstration of sadomasochism.

In recent years, there has been a series of scandals involving the alleged sexual harassment of female students at Yale. In one such incident, fraternity pledges were photographed holding a sign that read “We Love Yale Sluts” outside the Yale Women’s Center facility. Last fall, an email circulated among students entitled “Preseason Scouting Report,” which included photographs of newly admitted freshman girls, and ranked them on the basis of their sexual desirability. Mary Miller, the Dean of Yale College, published a letter to students calling the latter incident an “assault on our community values.”
Given the Yale administration’s outspoken disapproval of such incidents, one would think Yale’s “community values” would be affronted by images of women being stripped, chained and sexually brutalized by men. But it isn’t the case. I know because I asked Dean Miller myself.

In an email message, I asked Dean Miller whether she thought Sex Week received adequate oversight from the university administration. I also asked her whether she felt it was appropriate for students to participate in sadomasochistic exercises with guest lecturers in Yale classrooms. Finally, I asked if she was concerned that such episodes might send the wrong message to students about Yale’s attitude toward sexual violence.
I received the following response through a university spokesman:
Sex Week At Yale (SWAY) is a student organized and student produced series of events. SWAY is not a registered student organization and is not sponsored, sanctioned or funded by Yale College or Yale University. While the administration may find aspects of SWAY distasteful or offensive, Yale’s policies on free expression permit students to invite the widest range of speakers, politicians, writers and performers to campus.

Contrary to the university’s statement, the university did, in fact, provide grant funds to pay for Sex Week’s printed materials. This I learned from an interview with Colin Adamo, the student director of Sex Week.
According to the official statement, live sadomasochistic performances and the screening of violent pornography fall squarely under the university’s definition of “free expression.” But many students and observers believe that Sex Week takes the notion of “free expression” too far.

Graduating senior Margaret Blume explained in an interview how Sex Week promotes unhealthy views of women: “Just having this message bombarded: ‘This is how you get it; this is how you should get it’ – that naturally makes women feel more like an object. And if you know that all the guys are going to these talks just to learn how they can get pleasure, then you know that that’s how they’re going to look at you in a relationship.”

Sex Week offers a clear example of just how arbitrary the notion of “free expression” is at Yale. Yale would never agree to host a “White Supremacy Week.” The administration would rightly refuse to facilitate a racially threatening atmosphere on campus.

Yet, when it comes to Sex Week, the university cultivates an environment of extreme sexual excess, even though some of its own female students feel demeaned and objectified by its lewd and pornographic content.
Sex Week at Yale sends the message to students that women are to be valued as objects of desire, and that treating them with violence is simply another form of “free expression.” In this case, “free expression” looks a lot like moral relativism.

By refusing to restrict the graphic content of Sex Week, Yale administrators have shown that their commitment to free expression outweighs their concern for the wellbeing and dignity of women.

– Nathan Harden blogs about higher education at National Review Online. He graduated from Yale in 2009, and is currently writing a memoir about his experiences at Yale.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Ivy League Christian Observer, a publication of Christian Union. Used with permission. For more information, visit]

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  1. August 18, 2010

    Greetings! Is it alright that I go a bit off topic? I am trying to view your page on my Mac but it doesn’t display properly, any suggestions? Thanks for the help I hope! Terry

  2. jeff
    October 12, 2010

    Hi, Movieguide here. We actually create and administrate the site on Macs, so I’m not sure why it’s not displaying properly as that I see it okay. Could you tell me what the problem is more specifically?

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