Sex should not be corporately sponsored or contractually bound. Sex should be neither widely distributed nor publicly viewed. Sex should not be scrutinized, spread out for display. Sex is antithetical to chartered obligations and university affiliations. It is not a glossy, fifty-six page color spread.
And writing about sex shouldn’t be any of the above, either.
Last week a group of students at Yale University unleashed on sixteen college campuses its Sex Week Magazine. Stemming from an annual program of the same name, a series of panels, presentations and events organized around the theme of college sexuality, the magazine shares the program’s goal of “getting beyond the awkwardness, the discomfort, and the taboo of conventional sex education programs by treating sexual behavior as the reality that it is.”
Unfortunately, however, the best efforts of Yale students have yielded only another trite take on sexuality; inclusive of today’s recognized sexual demographics, perhaps, informative, in places, certainly visually accessible—but, like so many efforts to capture the “common essence” of sex, a failure. The editor claims that the “most overarching lesson” of the magazine is that “we are all alike in our sexuality.” No wonder, then, that it fails in getting across anything worthwhile; building a publication from a false premise is never wise.
Perhaps the most striking misconception of sexuality, one that feeds so much of its perversion today—in the media, on college campuses, in the public conception—is that it can be treated as a universal. Sex may be a baseline human desire, a biological drive, but commonality does not equate to sameness. We are not, in fact, all alike in sexuality, and attempts to argue such are misguided, reductive and deleterious to any appreciation of the myriad elements contained within the word’s definition. Yes, the Sex Week magazine includes viewpoints gay and straight, historical and scientific, essays both progressive and misogynistic. But in aiming to encompass all of sexuality in its pages, it covers only a checklist of sexual stances that can speak neither for those they purport to represent nor for “sexuality itself.”
The tone of the magazine is one of complete exposure; nothing hidden, nothing taboo. Conversations with porn stars follow pieces on unrequited love and condom use. “Sex is normal!” it trumpets. “Sex is natural! We can all talk about sex together!” But even in this enlightened day and age, I would venture to disagree.
Clearly, there is a need for effective dialogue about sex. Closed lips of earlier eras blanketed sexuality with a stigma of shame, encouraging misinformation and sexual repression. We needed Kinsey to find out that oral sex existed outside of brothels; we needed Dr. Ruth to convince us that women should reach orgasm; we needed Salt-n-Pepa to make us talk about sex when AIDS was unmentionable. But there are limits. There is a difference between sex and sexuality, and whereas the former should be understood, taught, and practiced safely, the latter has a different element—call it passion, authenticity, originality—threatened by the information explosion of the modern age. Every time we are given a twelve-step plan to the orgasm, sex becomes more prescribed, more cerebral, more predictable. This sort of sexual disclosure is sex as an informercial, as a guidebook, and not as a celebration of anything more.
After reading the last page of the Yale magazine—a particularly heinous take on college sex, simplistic to the point of offense—I found myself troubled that anyone, especially this publication’s editors, could imagine that it had given any sort of lens onto sexuality. If this was all sex was—a pamphlet roughly the size, shape, and coloring of a Delia’s catalogue or a Triple-A travel guide—we have all been very misled.
The real problem with such a presentation is that, while allegedly bringing sex into the spotlight, it relegates it to the depersonalized level of common conversation, precluding sexual openness about its most important elements—the uncommon and personal. Sex and the City may have convinced us of the Fundamental Right of the Female Orgasm, but how many alleged orgasms are faked? (Men: Answer—Many.) We may feel that our meticulous Pill schedules have earned us safe sexual freedom, but how many of us asked for our last partner’s sexual history? We can laugh at porn on a big screen at Terrace with three hundred others and think that sexuality has been fully destigmatized but make no connection to our own sexual attitudes. We don’t know what to make of sex, and in trying to clarify it we get it wrong every time. One needs only to look at the media to see how schizophrenic our conception of sex really is. Americans at large regard sex like we do alcohol, with a strange dichotomy of fascination and repulsion—we overindulge but condemn its abuse; we don’t address alcoholism but keep twenty-year-olds out of bars; we allow any degree of innuendo into television commercials for eight-year-olds to see but won’t include AIDS education in some high school curricula. Publications such as the Sex Week Magazine do nothing to enlighten our conception of sexuality but feed into an already present voyeuristic frenzy. In claiming to give a sophisticated dialogue about sex, they undermine any real attempts to do so; they give us sex depersonalized, which is not sex at all.
Sex should not be treated like any other act because it is not, in fact, like any other act. Sex without meaning, or passion or novelty or fun or creativity or some other element, is either aerobic exercise or baby-making—and surely sex should be more than that. We have been told of mechanics, we have been told of safety, but we have left the intricacies of sexual reality by the wayside. It is these that we need to remember.
So speak unto us, o authors and artists, all havers of sex, of the forgotten. Remind us of seduction! of intrigue! of intimacy! of possibility! And, ultimately, of the personal and of the unique—all that falls outside the pages of Yale’s tribute to generic sexuality. Writing about sex can have unlimited potential, but writing to define sex cannot.