Sex Week at Yale: An Open Letter to Yale President Richard C. Levin
Richard C. Levin
PO BOX 208229
New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8229
Thank you for stepping down from your position as President of Yale University. As a concerned alumna, I was just about to call for your resignation, but it looks like the Yale Corporation beat me to it.
I don’t know for sure if the Fellows actually asked you to resign, of course. But from where I sit, it looks a lot more like you’ve been fired than retired—albeit graciously, as befitting our distinguished alma mater. And to that, I say Amen. And Awomen.
And yes, “it’s personal”—though that’s not all that it is. As you know, several months ago, you revoked my invitation to speak at the biannual, campus-wide event that I helped to create with Eric Rubenstein (’04) and other Yale students back in 2002, and have spoken at every year since (except the year you disinvited me): Sex Week at Yale.
To be more precise, you had me disinvited via “messenger,” a student who stated he was not speaking for himself nor any of the other Sex Week 2012 student directors that had invited me to speak at a Saybrook Master’s Tea on the subject of “Love and Sex in Marriage.” Rather he was revoking my invitation on behalf of Yale College Dean Mary Miller and your administration, which had apparently just decreed that certain voices, including mine, must not be heard on Yale’s campus.
Interestingly, Dean Miller had enthusiastically hosted and invited me back for two Master’s Teas during previous Sex Weeks when she was Master of Saybrook. She also requested that I speak at a third Tea, but I was already committed to giving a Sex Week at Yale (SWAY) lecture at Linsly-Chittenden that year. What made Dean Miller change her tune so drastically and suddenly, turning into a hatchet woman for your administration…You?
Banned at Yale
The student’s revocation of my invitation was filled with apologies and regrets for the cancellation, as well as appreciation for my “guidance and experience in responding to [the] sex-negative hostility” that the student directors were encountering, primarily from your administration. His elaborate apologies were comforting, but the fact remained: You and your administration had banned me from speaking at the event I helped launch a decade ago and had nurtured with love and devotion right up until that moment.
I was shocked. I was insulted. I was really pissed off. Not just because you had me disinvited, but because with all your reckless, misplaced cutting of controversial speakers, sponsors and even the participants’ Freedom of Speech—where are we, in Singapore?—you virtually castrated Sex Week at Yale (at least for now). I wept like a mother whose baby had been taken away and mutilated by witch doctors.
But I decided not to respond to you…yet. At first, I was just too angry. And like you, I was kind of busy. Firstly, I was helping my husband get through neo-bladder surgery in his fight against cancer (so far, so good…knock on wood). Then, I must admit, I got swept up in celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary, writing a new book (my fourth), getting an honorary doctorate from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS), presenting The Bonobo Way at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), doing my weekly live broadcasts, helping my sex therapy clients, and running my BonoboVille community of artists, therapists and technologists. I could go on, but I don’t want you to think I’m nominating myself for your job or anything.
Besides, being busy wasn’t my main reason. Since just thinking about your disinvitation made me blue—and not in a “boola-boola” way—I just put off telling you off.
Then I got your email saying you were fired—er, I mean, you “stepped down.” I saw that amidst the usual puffy accolades, there were more than a few strong criticisms, and my thoughts flew back to that cold day in January when your administration had me pushed roughly out of the big, strong, liberal-artsy, diversity-loving, all-embracing arms of Mother Yale. And for what?
Oh, I know you were in a pickle, Dick. All those coddled, drunken frat boys marching around our elegant campus, shouting obnoxious slogans like “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!” groping, harassing and even raping female students, over the course of your administration. I’m sure it must have bothered you, even though you didn’t do much about it when it happened. After all, these were pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the same fraternity that boasted both Bush presidents as members.
Then suddenly, when your response to all that fraternal thuggery was reported as “tepid” and “inadequate” in a Title IX complaint from a number of outraged, organized Yalies, the Feds came down like a ton of bricks on your balls, putting Yale in danger of losing over half a billion dollars in federal funding and you in danger of losing your job.
In the end, you didn’t lose it (or did you?). And it may not have been as scandalous as what happened at Penn State. But at the time, I’m sure it was enough to put a distinguished Ivy League university president into a full-throttle panic.
The Making of a Scapegoat
You were named president the year I got married. Your long reign occurred during many positive developments, particularly the renovation of our university’s magnificent gothic architecture, the enhancement of the science departments, the globalization of Yale and the commercial renaissance of New Haven.
And then here was this Title IX Complaint, hanging over your head like a twisted Sword of Damocles, threatening to end your sterling legacy on a very low note, as the university president who turned a blind eye to the most basic needs of women at Yale, especially your most vulnerable students—victims of rape, hooliganism, discrimination and harassment.
I imagine you were thinking:
What to do? What to do? The government is waiting. The media is watching. Alumni are fuming. Students need to be contained. Parents must be calmed down. The Fellows need to be reassured. Singapore must not get derailed. A crackdown is required! On the students who committed the crimes? But what if they’re star athletes or their parents are big donors? Got to change the conversation, somehow shift the blame. Committees must be formed to disperse the guilt to the less powerful. Scapegoats must be found. Let’s see…whom can we blame?
How about…Sex Week at Yale?
I’ll bet you thought SWAY was an easy target: this biannual week-long event that didn’t even involve football or major donors. Here was a week which started at Yale—I’m proud to say—and soon spread across the country to various other universities, including Harvard, where students of all kinds could learn about sex, love and relationships from experts, professors, authors, scientists, therapists, sex toymakers, entrepreneurs, ministers, rabbis, revolutionaries, born-again virgins, porn stars and each other. But wait, back to those porn stars. Just the thought of those nasty, seductive, controversial, parent-scaring, screen sluts must have made SWAY seem like the perfect scapegoat for your sticky situation.
Thus the Week became your whipping boy, made to suffer for the serious sexual misconduct cited in the Title IX Complaint, acts that did not occur during any Sex Week nor do they have any apparent relationship with SWAY, its past directors or speakers. Sex Week participants never chanted “No means yes, yes means anal,” none of the infamous thuggery, rapes, abuse nor any of the other acts described in the complaint took place during a SWAY, nor did we incite such bad behavior. But you decided that your best course of action was to play “Pin the Blame on SWAY” more or less like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”—blindly.
Then, step by step, you used that pin to prick, stick, slice, cut and yes, castrate Sex Week at Yale. First, you stripped the students of their basic right to include the name of their university within the name of their event. Like a sadistic fraternity president making pledges talk with their mouths full of beer and gravel, you forced students and speakers to say “Sex Week taking place on the Yale campus” or some such nonsense, instead of the traditional, simpler, more accurate, but suddenly forbidden, “Sex Week at Yale.”
Next, you eliminated prime sources of funding and banned previous campus and off-campus venues. Then you smeared and purged sex-positive speakers who spoke at SWAYs past—especially some of the more popular ones—like political dissidents in a Soviet system. Most simply didn’t get invited, keeping the 2012 speaker list to a certain clique deemed “safe.” With me, it was a little more awkward for you. After all, not only had I already been invited, I was in regular communication, emailing, tweeting and talking by phone with various Sex Week 2012 student directors, encouraging and helping them plan the event, adapt to the situation and respond to the sudden onslaught of unwarranted criticisms from your administration, as well as coordinating my own Tea with the current Saybrook master.
Your “solution” was to rudely and crudely revoke my invitation. I know you prefer to be called Rick, but honestly, Dick, the way you did that, I felt like I was a freshman again, walking down High Street, minding my own business, trying to do my best for Yale, when suddenly some muscle-bound drunk jumps out from behind a gargoyle, grabs, slaps, muzzles and pushes me down into the dirty snow.
I know, it’s nothing personal. So please allow me to put it more politically: Sex Week at Yale was grabbed, slapped, muzzled, pushed, castrated, circumcised, scapegoated—or whatever metaphor you prefer—for the Yale campus problems cited in the Title IX complaint. These genuine problems—most prominently, the lack of an immediate and effective response from your administration to incidents of public and private sexual misconduct—had nothing to do with SWAY, and everything to do with an entrenched, privileged, male-dominant fraternity culture that has existed at Yale since long before you or I were students, and that has rarely been made to take responsibility for their members’ official and unofficial misbehavior.
Instead of redirecting the blame to peaceful, wonky, relatively sober, little Sex Week at Yale, why not look the real problem directly in its drunken, loutish face?
As award-winning journalist Chris Hedges writes: “Fraternities [are] hypermasculine systems [that] perpetuate a culture of conformity and intolerance. They have inverted the traditional values of scholarship to turn four years of college into a mindless quest for collective euphoria and athletic dominance…Hazing, comradeship and complicity in sexual abuse, including rape, make up the glue that holds campus sports teams and fraternity houses together.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had many good times at various fraternity and sorority house parties, including during Sex Week (these gatherings were not an official part of the Week and, in any case, no one ever complained about any misconduct at any of them). But there’s no doubt that a careful reading of the Title IX Complaint points directly to those frat houses and their extreme sadomasochistic, nonconsensually exhibitionistic rites of initiation and the pervasive, overindulged arrogance of their leaders. I would tell you to spank those bad boys (or maybe cane them, like they do in Singapore), but I’m afraid they’d like that so much, they’d continue being bad just to get more. Of course, metaphorically spanking them where it really hurts—with serious financial penalties and suspensions of operation on Yale’s campus—can be quite effective. You did this eventually, but why did it take Title IX literally forcing you to take action?
I’m sure it was a scary time for you, Dick. When one of Yale’s finest, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, led the fight to shut down fraternities at Williams College, he was greeted by a bullet shattering a window of his house. It’s a lot scarier to take on a real bully on campus—like the rich and powerful fraternity system—than it is to beat up on a fledgling, extremely underfunded entity like Sex Week at Yale. But it certainly would have been more appropriate.
So finally, with the Title IX gun to your head, you effectively spanked the frat houses, taking measures you should have taken a long time ago, and the complaint was settled. Whew for you—and for Yale. May I remind you that settlement had absolutely nothing to do with taking the Yale out of Sex Week?
Of course, you already knew that, so I’ve been wondering… Besides misplaced self-preservation and personal prudery, were there other reasons for you to circumcise SWAY (as well as for your recent resignation)?
Is Singapore Shaping Yale?
For instance, might your sudden crackdown on Sex Week—and your current step-down as President—have something to do with your determination to open the Yale–National University of Singapore (NUS) College to students in August 2013?
You proudly predicted that Yale would “shape…liberal-arts education…in Asia” with NUS. But your critics maintain that the authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which is bankrolling the deal, is more likely to “shape” Yale, and not in a good way. NUS opponents at Yale, as well as Reporters Without Borders (which ranked Singapore 133rd out of 175 nations in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, say you made a devil’s deal, compromising our beloved university’s reputation as a center of open debate by essentially selling the Yale name and the rights of its students to a cash-rich, repressive, right-wing political system that censors speech, monitors its people, outlaws civil protest, harshly discourages any form of dissent and certainly wouldn’t allow anything resembling Sex Week—at Yale, NUS or anywhere else in the Lion City.
Could the “shaping” of Yale by Singapore already be taking place, not just in NUS, but in New Haven? Sex Week at Yale must seem way too “free” for your über-repressive Singaporean friends. Is that an underlying reason you saw fit to neuter SWAY’s power, strip it of the Yale name and silence its controversial guests? Is that why you wouldn’t let me speak this year? If that was one of your goals, I guess you missed the mark, because now I’m making more noise than I would have if you’d just minded your manners and let the students run SWAY as usual.
Kowtowing to Creationists
Perhaps you also were bullied by homegrown, right-wing factions. In its sixth year, SWAY had grown enough to attract the rabid appetites of zombie-like right wing fanatics who see taking a bite out of Sex Week as a chance to thrive and get media attention for their walking-dead ideas. Some created a group for themselves called “Better Yale” (gag me with a silver spoon), fronted by a handful of radical right-wing students that revere Congressman Todd Akin’s interpretation of female reproductive biology and are supported by none other than Focus on the Family.
Nothing against a modest, take-it-slow approach to sexuality; SWAY has always presented conservative voices right along with progressive ones like mine. But the Better-Yaleniks are out to eradicate sexual literacy, not to mention diversity. They also revealed their unscrupulous determination to feed off SWAY’s success by hijacking the domains SexWeekatYale.org and SexWeekatYale.net, redirecting them to BetterYale.org. Apparently, under the Levin regime, this extremist reactionary group is allowed to use the sacred Yale name, but Sex Week is not. That’s discrimination.
So tell me Dick—Rick, how did these carpetbagging creationists sway you to sucker punch SWAY? Or was it just a happy coincidence that the creationists and the Singaporeans both aim to repress free speech about sex, among other things?
Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above, a perfect storm of pressure and misdirected paranoia that led you to do the wrong thing. And this too is part of your legacy.
Needless to say, the views in this letter are my own, not Sex Week’s. At this point, I don’t expect you to become a booster of higher sex education. But I do hope that now that Title IX is resolved, and you’re on your way down (watch your step!), you’ll do no further harm to SWAY.
At least, you didn’t kill it completely. Sex Week 2012 was, from what I hear, a worthwhile event with fine speakers, including a few friends of mine (some of whom were asking where I was, and one of whom now appears to be trying to exploit and monetize “Sex Week” for himself at college campuses across the country). However, there is no doubt that your destructive behavior wounded the Week, along with the meek. Hopefully, those wounds can heal before 2014.
On another positive note, just after your step-down notice, I received an email from Ed Bass, Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation, asking for my input—along with that of thousands of other alumni—regarding candidates for your successor. Naturally, I will tell him that I hope the next Yale President will be more in touch with the students and more enlightened regarding the importance of higher sex education—for frat boys, feminists, virgins, artists, athletes, sexual literacy wonks, the meek, the strong and everybody else—and yes, more supportive of Sex Week at Yale.
And why not shoot for grander goals? I believe the Week will recover from your unwarranted beating, and perhaps be stronger than ever, certainly wiser and capable of doing greater good for a truly better Yale. And it would be great indeed if someday soon, Yale would establish a school for the study of sexuality. I’m sure it would rapidly become one of the most highly regarded in the world.
Susan M Block, PhD
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