Freshman Week is a time when undergraduates begin to understand how Harvard functions as a college and a social space. Eager to make friends and meet others, freshmen scurry from ice cream socials to faculty panels to organizations’ introductory meetings. Sex Signals—a mandatory seminar on sexual harassment and consensual sex—is one such staple activity.
But some say that Sex Signals does not simply represent freshmen’s introduction to consent. Rather, the seminar is the first in a line of many Harvard traditions, both formal and informal, that highlight the College’s unconscious bias towards heterosexual students, known as heterosexism in the field of gender theory.
Sex Signals, a show of improvisational comedy presented by a man and a woman, deals primarily with ‘signals’ sent between a heterosexual couple.
The College does offer a same sex variety of Sex Signals. But, as the seminar is required, students must go through the extra hurdle of explaining to their proctor why they will not be attending ‘regular’ Sex Signals—a situation that some say could be particularly awkward if a student has not yet come to terms with his or her sexuality.
Only twenty or so students—out of a class of over 1,600—attended same sex Sex Signals last year, according to Queer Students and Allies Co-Chair Emma Q. Wang ’12. As a freshman, Wang says she was not even aware of the same sex seminar.
Furthermore, while ‘Straight Sex Signals’ is held in a massive auditorium in the Science Center, ‘Gay Sex Signals’ is tucked away in a small room in the Holyoke Center—leading some students to say that though Harvard has made significant strides in the recent past, the University still has not fully integrated its straight and gay communities.
“Sex signals should be integrated, because in reality sexuality is very fluid, and anyone could be dealing with a same sex harassment issue or opposite sex at any time regardless of their sexual orientation,” Nicole K. Poteat ’11 says.
But the issues that some members of the gay community say the Sex Signals performance bring to the fore do not end Freshmen Week, with some queer students noting that Harvard’s unconscious bias against many members of its community is salient in their daily lives.
“[Heterosexism is] just a less aggressive form of intolerance,” says Carolyn W. Chou ’13, who is not active in the QSA but is involved in social justice initiatives on campus.
Some queer undergraduates say that they would like to see a Harvard where the student body and the administration consciously work toward full cohesion between the straight and gay communities.
“There’s a difference between tolerance, which is passive, and acceptance, which is active,” Chou says.
A CULTURAL DIVIDE
Some point to the paucity of straight allies participating in the QSA to indicate the College’s lack of true integration. In the past few years the group’s board members have included only a handful of straight allies, according to Wang.
“Heterosexism is subtle enough. If it doesn’t feel like an assault on your own identity, it’s hard to recognize it on a day to day basis,” Chou says, proposing an explanation for the lack of vocal allies on campus.
The QSA’s social functions are poorly attended by straight supporters, according to Wang. She says that she hopes to bolster the number of active allies in the QSA by holding several events specifically targeting allies.