Both Hands and a Flashlight

FemSex students can see their genitalia, but they’re blind to the bigger picture

“Interested in ORGASMS? Care about WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT? Ever wanted a place where lots of DIFFERENT types of women could just get together and share their SECRETS, and ask the questions they’ve never DARED to ask?”

No, this isn’t the tagline for a re-vamped Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants DVD release, nor a precocious teen’s slumber party invite; it’s the e-mail pitch for Female Sexuality (or “FemSex”), a student-facilitated not-for-credit seminar given at the Harvard College women’s center four nights a week. The class aims to redress what it sees as the shortcomings of feminist liberation by enabling students to throw off the perceived shackles repressing female sexuality.

The first few pages of its coursepack—a full $15 binder—shock readers with repetitive mention of the word “cunt,” sketches of vaginas, and of course, a Sappho poem. While women are making headway in society, the workplace and politics, FemSex’s claims that, on the cultural liberation front, women and their sexuality have been left behind. But while the class provides a useful outlet for some repressed souls on campus, the irony of its mission eclipses its value.

First of all, the seminar’s secrecy is ultimately self-defeating—to participate in the class, students are required to adhere to a safe space confidentiality contract, and its location is undisclosed. If FemSex wants to bill itself as “the most honest place on campus,” then it should put all of the issues on the table, and be open to participants of all genders. After all, a truly empowered woman can discuss these issues without all of the hoopla.

There very well may be a need for dialogue about female sexuality at Harvard, but cordoning women off into a room is not going to solve the problem. For there to truly be “safe space” at Harvard and beyond, women have to be willing to engage the enemy. FemSex does not offer one seminar on how to confront gender stereotypes in the real world: it is only interested in separating women into these silly slumber party seminars.

Oddly, the focus of FemSex is purely sexual liberation. Despite the numerous other issues confronting the modern woman, the class focuses eight out of 10 sessions on sexual and/or anatomical exploration. The syllabus seems to suggest that sexual liberation is a woman’s only path to empowerment—funny, I thought that was law school. Where are the seminars focused on women in corporate America, or women in the military? By diversifying its syllabus, FemSex might lose its shock value, but it would be able to address a broader range of concerns and appeal to more students.

Even worse, in its attempt to force its members into an archetype of what liberation should be, FemSex’s approach overpowers the individual instead of empowering her. Empowerment is about making your own choices, not about adhering to the FemSex agenda. I wonder how a class member who made the liberated choice to abstain from sex would be received in this group.

According to its information e-mail; “this class requires dedication, openness, willingness to communicate, suspension of judgment, and BRAVERY.” Bravery? It is difficult to understand what bravery has to do with attending field trips to porn shops or listening to a dominatrix give a lecture, both of which are potential offerings of a FemSex curriculum. Bravery would be having these conversations and trips out of your own curiosity, not as some sort of misguided attempt at finding a pre-determined “liberated” identity.

At the information session earlier this month, one FemSex alum recounted her favorite assignment from last term: taking a speculum and a light and getting intimate with her own private parts. Nothing could serve as a better example of FemSex’s misguided philosophy: while its participants are searching their own insides, they’re missing what’s going on outside. We live in a world with those other people—you remember them, the men—and until we can stop judging our liberation as women (sexual or otherwise) by how separate we are from men, we will never be truly empowered.

Vanessa J. Dube ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.