We wanted it to be special. During Commencement Week last year, while eating lunch together, we wondered: “Why doesn’t Harvard have a Sex Week?” Yale’s first Sex Week was held in 2002, and Sex Week started at Brown in 2009. At that time, Yale’s Sex Week wasn’t yet the subject of media controversy. Sexual health had not yet become the topic of politically charged public debate. Sex Week seemed like a great idea. What better way to learn about ourselves and our relationships than to provide a space for self-reflection and community-based discussion? When we first wrote an open letter explaining our hopes for Sex Week at Harvard, we had no idea what we were in for.
In terms of student initiatives and activism, Harvard always seems to be behind our peer Ivy League institutions, though this is not due to apathy on the part of students. There is plenty happening at Harvard, from the Student Labor Action Movement and Occupy Harvard’s demands for Harvard to divest from HEI Hotels & Resorts to the creation of the Fair Harvard Fund. This academic year saw the creation of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, a resource which, like the Women’s Center, which opened in 2006, was the result of student advocacy and protest. Where sexual health is concerned, the Radcliffe Union of Student’s Female Orgasm Seminar has been attracting huge crowds for eight consecutive years, and the Students for Choice’s 2009 Students Stop Stupak campaign received national coverage for its outspoken message. We admired the programming that was already occurring on campus, and we wanted to ensure that Sex Week would compliment pre-existing resources in a meaningful way.
To achieve this, we reached out to everyone we could think of, from the Office of Student Life to unrecognized social organizations. Along the way, we learned that there was an astonishing amount of support for broadening the public and intellectual discourse on issues of sex and sexuality. We collected dozens of student, faculty, and alumni statements of support. More than 40 student organizations and Harvard offices signed on to help with Sex Week in some capacity, including groups from Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School. Sex Week would not have been possible without the hard work of all of our sponsors and co-sponsors.
Planning Sex Week wasn’t all smooth sailing. We were continually asked if we were planning an orgy (the answer was no). We learned that the key to outreach is following up, following up, and following up again. We discovered that anything that happens at Harvard is national news. We found, to our bemusement, that every reporter wanted to know what our parents thought about our actions. (Many were shocked to learn that a parent had personally hand-sewn a vulva costume for the event!) Most pressingly, we found that the idea that students can decide on, initiate, and promote our own sexual health education was much more contentious than we thought it should be.
Walking into a room of strangers—but also potentially our friends, acquaintances, classmates, and teammates—to lay bare our lives, particularly those parts that we hold to be private, secret, shameful, embarrassing, and sacred, is scary. During Sex Week, we provided a safe space for vigorous introspection and interrogation of the interplay between sex and religion, racial stereotyping, BDSM, abstinence, and asexuality, among many other topics. Despite media reports to the contrary, as we learned from sociologist Lisa Wade, who spoke at Sex Week thanks to the support of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response, students are hooking up less than our parents did in college. This may be because we realize that having choices in our sexual lives does not automatically grant us freedom, equality, transcendence, happiness, or whatever else we may want. And that’s fine. We’re young—we are still discovering what is best for us.
We know that to understand our own lives and to make sound choices for ourselves, we need accurate information that necessarily takes a balanced view of human sexuality and relationships and speaks to our beliefs, values, identities, and communities. And we also know that we aren’t dependent on mainstream media, pornography, or the Internet for our sex education. We can educate ourselves. Sex Week at Harvard proved to us that college students are mature, intelligent, and brave enough to engage in a public discourse about sex, sexuality, relationships, and intimacy and to arrive at deeply personal understandings of their needs and desires.
It’s been a year since we decided that it was time to educate ourselves, and we don’t plan to stop after the first time or after leaving Harvard. Although we won’t be students enrolled in college forever, health, wellness, love, and intimacy should be lifelong pursuits.
Abby P. Sun ’13 is a visual and environmental studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Samantha A. Meier ’12 is a sociology concentrator in Mather House. They co-founded Sex Week at Harvard.