Harvard College's Sex Week consists of events from workshops to facilitated discussions, all focusing on sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, and relationships.
Harvard College's Sex Week consists of events from workshops to facilitated discussions, all focusing on sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, and relationships. By Joey Huang

‘A Vital Part of Sexuality’: LGBTQ+ Inclusion at Harvard Sex Week

Since 2012, Sexual Health and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College has hosted an annual Sex Week to advance sex positivity and education on campus — and in the process, the group’s leaders have sought to ensure programming is inclusive of LGBTQ+ experiences.
By Neil H. Shah

“Since I am old enough to vote, old enough to smoke, old enough to drink, old enough to enlist in the military, old enough to be married, I think my parents are comfortable with the idea that I might talk about sex,” Samantha A. Meier ’12 recalls remarking to a reporter who asked about her parents’ reactions to her extracurriculars — a question she was asked in “several conversations,” she adds.

In 2012, Meier and Abby P. Sun ’13, co-founders and then co-presidents of student organization Sexual Health and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College, found their inboxes packed with media requests from national publications like the New York Times and the Boston Globe — so much so that Meier remembers sharing Google Calendars with Sun to coordinate interview scheduling.

At the time, Meier and Sun — through SHEATH, their organization — were spearheading the conception of the College’s first Sex Week — an annual weeklong event series overflowing with sexual education programming like the demonstration-filled “Sex Toys 101: Feel Those Good Vibrations” and discussion “LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Media.”

According to Meier, it seemed like “some of the reporters” sought to “make this more controversial than it really was” due to past coverage of other schools’ sex weeks — Yale, for example, decided in 2011 that the annual “Sex Week at Yale” could no longer use the school’s name.

And with regards to questions about her parents’ opinions, Meier said she would tell reporters “my mom had sewed the vulva costume, and that generally shut down that line of questioning.”

Sun recalls facing some initial “hesitancy” from the University’s administration, attributing it to “national press on sex weeks at other universities.”

“The Harvard administration and the student deans required us to do many meetings with them one-on-one, which was quite unusual from our experience,” Sun says, adding that they had to meet with “deans in charge of student life” to book rooms for events rather than doing so “through the portal.”

“The Dean of Students Office supports all independent student organizations equitably and offers access to guidance, space, and funding based on our established protocols, which are shared with all organizations and student leaders,” Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in response to a request for comment.

According to Sun, SHEATH aimed to “connect different student groups around shared issues and to facilitate conversations with each other.”

“The hope was that with an eventized week, this would seed the more collaborative environment — and SHEATH’s purpose was to provide the structure and programmatic impetus to do so,” Sun says in a text message.

Pins decorated with the message "Break #TheSexMyth" on display at Harvard Sex Week in 2016.
Pins decorated with the message "Break #TheSexMyth" on display at Harvard Sex Week in 2016. By Melanie Y. Fu

SHEATH also sought to ensure that Sex Week and the remainder of the organization’s educational programming were inclusive of all identities. At the time, SHEATH’s website featured “personal stories from a wide cross section of Harvard students that included queer experiences and blog posts from queer students.”

“For us, LGBTQ+ experiences are a vital part of sexuality and sexual health,” Sun writes in a text. “Part of what we were hoping to achieve through providing a common structure and connecting other student groups was to ensure that lgbtq experiences and viewpoints were present in spaces where they might not usually be, like in the interracial dating panel.”

Sun adds that in preparatory talks with speakers for education-related events, they “made sure that language used was not heteronormative” and that they had either a “facilitator” or “a friend from the office of LGBTQ student life” teach SHEATH members about the “spectrum of sexuality” to ensure they “knew best practices when programming events”

Karina A. Pimenta ’22 and Andie E. Turner ’20-’22 — SHEATH’s co-presidents in the 2021-22 academic year — were tasked with bringing Sex Week back after a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Pimenta, their goals for the event were “pretty on par” with Sex Week’s original goals and she sought to “create a more sex-positive environment” on campus.

“We were trying to revive Sex Week a little bit so Andie and I took positions as presidents and tried to — I guess the best way to put it is — go out with a bang,” Pimenta says.

According to Pimenta, making sure LGBTQ+ individuals were included in the programming felt almost “automatic” because a “huge portion” of the SHEATH board identified as queer — including Pimenta herself.

“We were trying to account for people who identified with different genders, different sexualities, we were trying to hit most points within each spectrum that we knew about,” Pimenta says.

Per Pimenta, her favorite event was “Sex Toys 101,” an event at which organizers distribute free sex toys and teach attendees how to use them.

“I’ve gotten several messages after Sex Week is over saying ‘Hey, this XYZ toy that I got changed my life’ and it’s like, ‘It also changed mine and I’m very happy it did the same for you,’” she says.

An educator from Good Vibrations, a sex toy store, speaks to students in Sever lecture hall about sex toys and how they can be incorporated into one's sex life.
An educator from Good Vibrations, a sex toy store, speaks to students in Sever lecture hall about sex toys and how they can be incorporated into one's sex life. By Katherine W.K. Smith

Other than the Sex Week events themselves, Pimenta says she enjoyed tabling in front of the Science Center and handing out goodies to “get people hyped up for Sex Week.”

“We ended up at Dean Khurana’s Instagram once and I think that was my landmark for college,” she quips.

In the present day, Julia R. Bhuiyan ’25 — SHEATH’s current president — says that while she’s happy with Sex Week’s current assortment of partnerships and events, she hopes to expand SHEATH’s scope both in topics and audience.

“I’ve been working with the Boston Children’s Hospital — like the division of adolescent health — and something that we’ve found is there’s a lack of knowledge of vulval / vaginal health and hygiene so maybe having a few events on that,” Bhuiyan says, discussing what she hopes to add to the organization. “Another big goal I have this year that SHEATH has not done before is to start bringing these initiatives to promote sexual health in the greater Cambridge and Boston community.”

“It could be pretty exciting to broaden our range and start empowering perhaps like high school students or middle school students even to understand healthy relationships, understand consent, understand their bodies, and be equipped to undertake safe sex if that is something that they are planning to do,” she adds.

According to Bhuiyan, one of her favorite things about SHEATH is the diversity of both its event attendees and its team members — which she says is why SHEATH is so inclusive.

“Several of our board members are part of the LGBTQ+ community and we all bring very diverse voices and highlight important issues that we feel need to be addressed,” she says. “We just have access to a lot of different voices and stories about things that are appreciated as of now but also things that need to be changed.”

Attending Sex Week freshman year, Bhuiyan says, helped her normalize talking about sex with her peers.

“No one really talked about going to the event — unless you're super close to your friends — and then we go there and we’re like ‘Okay, we’re all in it together!’ and it was just a really nice experience,” she says.

“It just completely made me feel more comfortable with the idea of sex and sexuality and having those conversations with other people,” she adds.

—Magazine writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

This piece is part of The Crimson’s 2023 Pride Month special issue.

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