The Wrong Signals

As a senior looking back on my Camp Harvard experience, I find it nearly impossible to remember the flurry of activities that took place during freshman week, and much more so the information we were supposed to have learned from each planned event. However, three years later, “Sex Signals,” a freshman week rite of passage, still stands apart from everything else that filled the pages of the Calendar of Opening Days. After attending the performance this week, I can report few changes have been made over the years.

Sex Signals still stands out because of the gravity of its subject matter as well as the importance of the message all the newly minted freshmen take back to their dorms after the event. In both categories, unfortunately, the program falls short. Sex Signals points incoming freshmen in the wrong direction by how casually it treats both sexual activity and rape, by the amount of sex it implies is occurring on campus, and by failing to adequately address personal responsibility to make smart choices.

Rape isn’t funny. Twenty to 25 percent of women will be raped or will have an attempt to rape them made during their college years. Eighty-four Harvard students utilized the Harvard Office of Sexual Prevention and Response after being raped, sexually assaulted, or experiencing relationship violence in the 2007-2008 academic year. The statistics are staggering and the problem heartbreaking. Sex Signals trivializes this issue by treating it like a joke.

Nearly two-thirds of the program is run like a Harvard improvisation show, with skits exploring societal stereotypes about men and women designed to get a laugh out of the excited crowd. With lines like, “He who hesitates masturbates,” “I’m so manly I don’t just have a dick, I am one,” and “Sometimes hot girls in their underwear make my pants a little tight,” the show feels more like a live version of Knocked Up than a program designed to decrease sexual assault. In fact, making light of this serious subject matter in the university-sponsored event actually seemed to encourage the students to laugh at attitudes that are present during sexual assault. When one of the actors mimicked a male stereotype about sex yelling, “We see what we want and we go get it! Yeah?,” a male freshman in the crowd yelled back, “Fuck yeah!” to cheers and laughs throughout the audience. Does dialogue like this truly discourage rape?

During the last third of the show, the issue of sexual assault is addressed directly, yet still unsatisfactorily. An ambiguous scene is described where drunken sexual intercourse takes place. At the end of the scene, the freshman audience is asked whether the man clearly raped the woman. A few hands go up around the room. The audience is then asked whether the man clearly did not rape the woman. Again, a few hands go up around the room. When the audience is asked if it is unclear whether rape occurred in this vague scene, the vast majority of students in the room put their hands up. The actors then went on to explain why a room full of Harvard students was wrong and what had occurred was clearly rape. While the performers certainly emphasized the necessity of unambiguous consent for any sexual activity, they did little to address the issue of making intelligent decisions to reduce the likelihood of sexual assault. There was no talk of the necessity of taking responsibility by setting clear sexual boundaries with the person you’re with so that lines don’t get blurred in the heat of the moment. The importance of getting clear consent for sexual activity is paramount, yet the obligation to make smart choices in being clear about boundaries and not putting oneself in a position where rape is likely to occur is equally crucial to prevention. This discussion was largely absent from Sex Signals.

At one point during the performance, incoming freshmen were asked to raise their hands if they had ever been naked with a person without having sex. To freshmen arriving on campus who are not sexually active, the room full of raised hands (combined with the free condoms in every dorm) might give the impression that everyone on campus is having sex. The cavalier attitude expressed by the university toward sexual activity could be just enough to nudge some freshmen into sexual activity. During my first year, the Freshman Dean’s Office hosted an event called, “Hooking Up: Hot Hints For Making Your Harvard (Or Future) Sex Life Great” billed as “An All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality” with “sexxxxxy suggestions” to be given.) After all the sex talk, one weak disclaimer was given by a Sex Signals actress asking, “Are there people in the world choosing not to have sex?” However, after sitting through Sex Signals, most freshmen would likely be shocked to hear that a majority of Harvard students report either not having sex at all while at the College or having it with only one partner.

Ultimately, Sex Signals squanders the opportunity that the College has to begin a frank, informed discussion about how serious the issue of sexual assault is and what we can do to prevent it. It leaves students with jokes about sex and the attitudes that fuel rape as well as the impression that much more sex is happening at the College than truly is. At the end of the performance, the actors emphasize that something “magical” can happen when the lessons of the show are followed. They then proceed to jokingly discuss different sexual activities that the magic might entail. What a shame: Sexual assault is no laughing matter, especially at a university-sponsored rape prevention program.


Caleb L. Weatherl ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Currier House. He is president emeritus of the Harvard Republican Club.