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Sex Haven

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.

Harden says that Yale’s commitment to “multiculturalism” has turned it into a “moral vacuum,” where professors and administrators are so afraid of asserting that one culture is better than another that they treat sharia law as equal to the Western Canon. I’m not sure where Harden went to school, but the course book at the Yale I attended was unquestionably dominated by “dead white men,” and I can’t think of a single person I knew there—international students and Middle Eastern studies professors included—who didn’t have what could be described as a Western perspective on human rights. God, as Harden says, may have fallen out of style as the justification for moral behavior at the largely secular university, but Kant is alive and well.

The root of Yale’s decline, in Harden’s view, is also its symptom: the prevalence of porn. Harden argues that porn fills young people with unrealistic expectations, normalizing violence and the objectification of women. Harden is right that porn stars and sex industry moguls have been guests of honor at Sex Week, and that this has caused controversy—as he points out, porn is the rare issue that breaks partisan lines, dividing liberals and feminists alike. (Now that the university is assuming a regulatory role, this aspect of the week’s programming has diminished.) If Harden had zeroed in on porn, his book might actually have been useful; there is something upsetting about handing the microphone on a college campus to any explicitly commercial endeavor, let alone one with dubious ethical and labor-related practices. The problem is, he tries to tie hardcore adult film to Sex Week’s other events, as if they are one and the same. He ignores the crucial difference between pornography that projects fantasy onto sex and lessons that seek to illuminate sex at its most straightforward and real.

In the chapters that are not about porn, Harden describes vibrator demos, masturbation how-to’s, and other explicit conversations about sex, with the assumption that his readers will, like him, be disgusted. He acts as if the only reason to break down the mechanics of oral sex is to break the rules, which Yalies think they’re too good to follow. He never once acknowledges that the people who put on Sex Week might believe this kind of programming teaches young people to communicate in bed, thereby achieving the safety and respect Harden is advocating. Sure, as Harden says, Yale is overwhelmingly liberal, and people who see a table covered in sex toys and think, “Empowerment!” are rarely challenged in that view. But by refusing to entertain the opposing argument, Harden comes off looking like he doesn’t have one.

The most infuriating thing about the book is its tone. Harden is the one who doesn’t respect women—or most men, for that matter, when it comes to sex. He is convinced that women who have casual sex are always looking for a relationship, and that every red-blooded American man (with the exception of Harden, who was married when he got to Yale) is just looking to hook up. And, of course, men are incapable of respecting women they aren’t dating, so this is a recipe for disaster.

In a chapter about a Sex Week “Fetish Fashion Show”—students, male and female, modeling lingerie designed by their peers to raise money for HIV/AIDS—Harden laments, “all those intelligent, amazing young women on parade before a crowd of rowdy oglers. It felt like something valuable had been thrown around with no thought or care.” Never mind that these women (and men) are the ones choosing to throw themselves around, perhaps because they think they can withstand a little ogling. According to Harden, these girls are in their underwear because they want to be in committed relationships, and their male peers are biologically unable to see them as anything but meat.

To boil it down: Harden likes standing up for women, but he is less fond of women who stand up for themselves. He presents the leadership of the Yale Women’s Center, the home of feminism on campus, as a group of drama queens who play up their outrage to get attention. As he says, the Center has sometimes alienated other women with its reputation for radicalism, but recent leadership has consciously sought moderation. After writing that Yalies think the Center is a “quorum of radical lesbians and bitter man haters,” and that this is a “caricature … not completely without basis,” Harden adds magnanimously that he had one friend on the board who, for the record, was neither. Very generous. And Harden attacks Yale feminists on ridiculous grounds, chastising them for the time and energy they spent retaliating against frat boys who chanted “We love Yale sluts” outside their doors in 2008 when women were being raped in Pakistan at the same time. Can an organization devoted to women on a specific campus not focus on its own constituency? Are traumas that affect women at Yale not legitimate, too? Apparently, they are only legitimate when Harden is the one to point them out.

Finally Harden’s argument completely doubles back on itself. The book is supposed to start a conversation about how Yale’s sexual culture should change, but Harden’s real point is that he wishes we would just, please, stop talking about it. “If colleges can’t do anything to help students,” he writes, “I wish they would at least stop actively doing them harm” by teaching them how to masturbate and tell a partner what they want. He asks, “What interest should Yale have in the details of students’ sex lives?” In Harden’s universe, disrespect toward women and sexual assault are prevalent not because university high-ups aren’t setting rules and teaching values, but because we think and talk about sex too much. If we would just close the doors, everything would be fine.

At one point in the book, Harden quotes a friend saying mournfully that Sex Week manages to “demystify” something that should be special. I tend to think that “mystery” doesn’t belong in sex—it certainly doesn’t help with the issue of consent—but this young woman is right that Yalies have a habit of denying they feel vulnerable when they actually do. And this brings me back to that fight with my boyfriend: I wanted the thrill of pretending I felt completely in control when I actually felt a little bit in over my head. This dynamic can go horribly wrong.

But it is not unique to sex, and it is not all bad. It is part of pushing yourself—signing up for a hard class or taking an intimidating job. Forming the kind of meaningful relationship for which Harden is a cheerleader, sharing your most private self with another person. Only by trying different boundaries can we learn which ones suit us. Harden exhorts Yale women to demand more from relationships, to self-actualize and self-respect. Learning how to do this, as it turns out, is somewhat difficult, and involves making mistakes. Luckily, that’s what college is for.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an Editorial Assistant at The New Republic.