CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For a table set up by a campus student group, this one held some unusual items: a gynecologist’s speculum, diaphragms, condoms (his and hers) and several packets of lubricant. Nearby, two students batted an inflated condom back and forth like a balloon.
“Implanon?” said Samantha Meier, a fellow senior, who was viewing the wares. “No, you don’t.”
“My friend just got it for free,” said Ms. Bryant, resolving the matter.
It was Sex Week at Harvard, a student-run program of lectures, panel discussions and blush-inducing conversations about all things sexual. The event was Harvard’s first, though the tradition started at Yale in 2002 and has since spread to colleges around the country: Brown, Northeastern, the University of Kentucky, Indiana University and Washington University have all held some version of Sex Week in recent years.
Despite the busy national debate over contraception and financing for reproductive health, Sex Week at Harvard (and elsewhere) has veered away from politics, emerging instead as a response to concern among students that classroom lessons in sexuality — whether in junior high school or beyond — fall short of preparing them for the experience itself. Organizers of these events say that college students today face a confusing reality: At a time when sexuality is more baldly and blatantly on display, young people are, paradoxically, having less sex than in generations past, surveys indicate.
“I think there’s this hook-up culture at Harvard where people assume that everyone’s having sex all the time, and that’s not necessarily true,” said Suzanna Bobadilla, a 21-year-old junior.
Students here seemed less interested in debating the Republicans’ social agenda than in talking about how sexual mores related to their own lives. One event, “Hooking Up on Campus,” got participants talking about perceptions that have been built up about casual sex — for instance, the idea that all women are so liberated that they are happy to have sex without commitment (a theme that is examined in depth in the new HBO series “Girls“).
The event had helped dispel that rumor, Ms. Bobadilla said, by presenting statistics showing that college students were having less sex than their predecessors and by “letting people come out with their own perspectives.”
Such plain-spoken sex education is particularly important at a school like Harvard, she said, because “Harvard kids don’t want to admit they don’t know something that they feel like they should know.”
As Sex Week has spread to more campuses, it has maintained a balancing act between matters of sexual health and pleasure. Unlike typical student-run college programs in the decades following the discovery of H.I.V./AIDS, the campus events go beyond instruction on safe sex, rape prevention and sexually transmitted diseases to giving advice on how to feel more comfortable and fulfilled sexually, all, at least in theory, in a judgment-free atmosphere that embraces all lifestyles. The idea is to give the sex education that schools cannot — or choose not to.
“I think that what our generation is doing is really trying to address these issues in a way that respects individual experiences and beliefs and identities,” said Ms. Meier, 23, one of the two student organizers of Sex Week at Harvard. “And I see Sex Week as a part of that.”
Sex Week began life at Yale as Kosher Sex Week, an idea that the Yale Hillel had for generating interest in the group. But as more clubs and the faculty got involved, “one faculty member threw out the idea, why does this have to be a Jewish event?” said Eric Rubenstein, one of the founders. The decision was made to drop the kosher angle, giving birth in 2002 to what was then called Campus-Wide Sex Week.
”Everyone who was involved in it wanted it to be something relatable and real and challenging, and something that people have to consider,” said Mr. Rubenstein, 29, who now works as an oil strategist and trader for Citigroup. “It’s not just talking about your regular topics.”
Sex education has always been a part of college, one way or another. And every generation of students has tried to fill perceived gaps in the formal curricula with their own initiatives, whether through the condom giveaways of the 1990s or the explosion of student sex columns — and even pornography magazines — in the last decade. Students call it education; parents and administrators may call it acting out.
At Harvard’s first Sex Week, which ended March 31, there were panels on talking to your doctor about sex and on careers in sexual health, but also events about the ethics of pornography; sex and religion; kinky practices like bondage; and gay and lesbian sex. After every event, organizers raffled off vibrators.
While some professors, chaplains and health care providers took part, the university itself was not a sponsor. At Yale, the name was changed this year from Sex Week at Yale to simply Sex Week because of administration pushback.
Sex weeks have faced some opposition from colleges, alumni and students nearly everywhere they’ve been staged. Some people don’t like the idea of university resources being used to promote sexual activity. Others think the events promote an irresponsible, pleasure-first approach to sex.
This year, a new group called Undergraduates for a Better Yale College began offering an alternative to Sex Week called True Love Week. In 2007, Chelsea Thompson, a Northwestern student who described herself as a Christian, formed a group called Women of Worth that hosted a spa night to give female students an alternative to Sex Week. According to the group’s blog, more than 100 women attended, including the entire softball team.
“Education does not mean giving everybody every choice they could make,” said Isabel Marin, a member of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College. “It’s giving people the right information on how they should be pursuing relationships and sexual choices. It’s not a buffet.”
But campus organizers say they are simply trying to acknowledge reality: that a lot of students have sex for the first time while they are in college, and this can muster many strong feelings and reactions.
“College classes about sexuality are always fairly academic, they don’t necessarily reflect peoples’ personal experience,” said Aida Manduley, a chairwoman of Sex Week at Brown. “We try to balance out the situation.”
In an era when explicit sexual materials are readily available by keystroke or remote control, some students found the week’s proceedings at Harvard surprisingly tame. Brenda Serpas, a freshman, attended a seminar called “Dirty Talk” and found it to be, well, not that dirty.
“A lot of people just thought it was going to be tips on how to talk dirty,” she said, “but really it wasn’t. It was just like, being consensual and comfortable in expressing yourself with your partner.”
Shana Kim, a sophomore, added: “That you have to have no shame. Be comfortable with yourself.”
“And I think that’s what the whole week was about, basically,” Ms. Kim added. “Knowing what you want, knowing how to consent to what you want and allowing other people to do the same.”
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