The Sex Factor: How does our College contribute to student perceptions of sex

by Priya Krishna | 11/18/10 11:00pm

Upon approaching Kate Taylor '13, a Sexpert and a Sociology major with a concentration in women and gender studies, I noticed she had two documents open on her computer. One was a paper for her "Women and the Bible" class entitled, "Potiphar's Wife: Sexual Independence and the Status Quo," a critical essay exploring biblical portrayals of female sexuality as unnatural and demonized due to the androcentric culture of the time. The second was a rough draft of the weekly Sexpert newsletter, "The Hump-Day Gazette," co-founded by Taylor, which comprised of articles with names like, "Girl Meet Gyno," "A Cherry from a Different Fruit Tree" and, my personal favorite, "Strong Woman, Strong Hymen."

In other words, all it takes is a mere glance to become aware of the clear differences in the way that the range of institutions at Dartmouth address the often-hushed topic of sexuality. And while these institutions have clearly disparate ways in breaching the topic of sexuality, they have demonstrated that they both have important roles to play on campus.

The women's studies program was founded in 1978, and since its induction, it has evolved into a department that, according to WGST major Kashay Sanders '11, "now looks at sexuality from all different theoretical frameworks."

Kelly Tropin '13, who last spring took a class in the department that dealt with black power, gay liberationd and feminism, said she appreciates the way that the department critically examines and takes apart issues of sexuality.

"If you don't know about those movements in the '60s and '70s about feminism and gay liberation, you won't completely understand where our notions of sexuality are coming from today," Tropin said.

Taylor added that the WGST classes she has taken have helped her to question the "social norms" about sexuality at Dartmouth today.

However, not every institution at Dartmouth takes such an academic approach to sexuality.

The Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors, for example, whose goal is to serve as a campus resource for those students who have been those issues, co-host an annual sex festival that includes everything from tutorials on how to use a female condom to flavored lube tastings. In addition to the "Hump-Day Gazette," the Sexperts increase awareness about both sexual pleasure and sexual health through a host of programming events such as "Sex R' Us," whose purpose is to introduce students to the different kinds of sex toys, and "Strangers with Candy," which promotes awareness about Sexually Transmitted Infection.

Elizabeth Hoffman '13, who is a Sexual Abuse Peer Advisor, said that she appreciates the colloquial approach that these organizations take toward sexuality.

"It's important to have the humorous side that embraces healthy choices and uses humor as an educational tool," she said.

Taylor said these groups "normalize" sexuality by expanding the forums in which it is discussed. Hoffmann also, however, expressed concerns that some of the tactics of these organizations may not appeal to everyone.

"I'm always a little worried about the sex jokes for people who aren't comfortable with their sexual choices or aren't addressing them," she said. "I think you have to have a certain margin of awareness for those to be useful.

Sanders agreed, saying that this sort of "overt sexuality" can be "liberating, but it can also alienate communities who don't identify with their sexuality in such an overt and showy way."

"We sometimes don't really give a voice to those who are quieter about their sexuality," she added.

Still, that sexuality remains a controversial topic of discussion at the College even with organizations and classes that help to increase open discourse about it cannot be avoided.

Maya Granit '11 said there is a clear "hesitancy to communicate openly about sex and sexuality" on campus.

Sanders recalled the outcry over "The Orchid Project," in which every female student received a mirror that was intended to facilitate vaginal self-examinations in her Hinman Box.

"The mirrors intrinsically had no connection to sexuality," Sanders said. "But because they hinted at sexuality people went crazy."

She added that it is unfortunate that the only way in which it is socially acceptable to talk about sexuality is in the context of the Dartmouth hook up culture.

"We are afraid to talk about sexuality," Sanders said. "But when we do talk about it, it is not in the healthiest way."

Granit said that despite people's tendency to skirt discussions about sexuality, there is an important function of both classes on sexuality and groups like the Sexperts on campus.

"Those types of groups provided a day to day framework for students for interacting socially with other people," Granit said. "Academic institutions give us a framework of where our current understanding of sexuality comes from."

Hoffman agreed, adding that these institutions could even be improved if they could somehow incorporate more males into conversations about sexuality.

"I think a lot of Dartmouth men feel like they have to fit into a certain role or identity that's really concerned with masculinity," Hoffman said. "I think that people may not express themselves as open or honestly as they would've if those expectations didn't exist."

Above all, whether you're nose-deep in the Hump-Day Gazette or Foucault's "History of Sexuality," there is no doubt that there is no single way to explore the issue of sexuality and help to create a more open communication about the topic on campus.

"You need [organizations like] the Sexperts to say that it is OK to talk about sexuality and to have fun with it, but it's not bad to take it apart and see what it means when it comes to notions of power and how we interact with each other," Sanders said. "It would be cool if they overlapped, but I think both of those realms are necessary."

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