No matter how far I have traveled, something from Yale has always followed with me.
—Gerald Ford, L.L.B., class of 1941
My very first class as a Yale student told me much more, in hindsight, about the education I was about to receive than all the glossy brochures and guided tours I had been given before I arrived. It was a literature class called Heroes and the Mock-Heroic, taught by an eminent professor of English, Dr. Claude Rawson. Fresh from summer break, half a dozen students and I, along with Dr. Rawson, were seated around a seminar table in a small classroom. Rawson was dressed rather sloppily in an oversized, untucked polo shirt. He wore white socks and flip-flops with the thong wedged between his toes. He lacked couture, perhaps, but he had an impressive British accent to make up for it.
The room was only about half full, and there were plenty of empty seats left around the table. I glanced around at the other students, and waited silently for class to begin. It was all still very new to me, and I was simply trying to soak in the experience. Out the window I could see the stately stone-clad buildings of Yale’s Old Campus, the earliest of which dates back more than 250 years. I felt an incredible sense of belonging. I was at Yale! That’s all I could think about in that moment.
The reading that day was from Homer’s Iliad. It was the famous climactic scene in which Achilles chases Hector around the city of Troy, catches him, and savagely cuts him down. We read a brief passage aloud in which Hector pleads for an honorable burial and begs Achilles not to feed him to the dogs. The professor then paused and asked the class to analyze the passage.
A few of us offered interpretations, none of which seemed to be what the professor was looking for. Then a girl seated directly across the table from me spoke up. She had dark hair with severe, short-cropped bangs. She half smiled while she talked, as if she were pleased with the insight she was about to impart to the rest of us. She began to describe—with plenty of impressive theoretical language—how all of the bloody battle imagery of the Iliad’s climactic scene was really an elaborate metaphor for sex.
That girl turned out to be Aliza Shvarts, an art major who would, later that school year, initiate a media firestorm and provoke national outrage over her senior art project, which she claimed consisted of blood and tissue from numerous self-induced abortions. (More on that later.)
For my part, I was unimpressed by Aliza’s interpretation of the Iliad, and my furrowed brow must have shown it. I couldn’t see what the battle of Achilles and Hector had to do with sex. But, as a new Yale student, I guess I had a lot to learn. Dr. Rawson, while still appearing not to find the exact answer he was looking for, seemed to acquiesce: “Well yes, of course,” he said, glancing down at the text, “everything is sexual.”
* * *
A few years before my arrival, Yale University had begun hosting a veritable marathon of sex-related seminars and special events every other year, known collectively as “Sex Week at Yale.” At no other time do those words of my professor, “everything is sexual,” appear more probably correct. It happens during the spring semester. The campus is flooded with banners and posters announcing, Sex Week! Sex Week! Sex Week! Students are barraged with e-mails announcing each day’s proceedings, and encouraged to attend the week’s “educational” programs. Sex Week is everywhere you turn.
No fewer than seventeen official events were held during Sex Week 2008—ranging from a porn-star look-alike contest (judged by a real-life porn film director), to safe-sex workshops, to lectures on the female orgasm. The event was so chock-full of goodies that organizers were forced to stretch Sex “Week” into eleven continuous days of nonstop sex, sexuality, sexiness, and sexsationalism.
Somehow during those eleven days, amid all the sex, students are supposed to go to class. No one is forced to attend Sex Week events, of course, but you cannot escape the storm of sex-related activity. National media descend upon the campus to chronicle the strange mix of lewdness and Ivy League snob appeal. There are news vans in the quad with big satellite dishes bolted on top. And reporters with press badges roam the hallways, trailed by camera crews. The university’s student-run paper, the Yale Daily News, recounts each day’s highlights to the entire student body. As one of my classmates put it: You can hardly understand what it is like to walk into the dining hall, grab some eggs and coffee and the morning paper, then try to maintain your appetite after glimpsing a front page full-color photo of a smiling freshman clutching a pair of anal beads.1
In February of my junior year, Sex Week was due to be held at Yale for the fourth time. I received an e-mail detailing the schedule of events. The first few items on the list seemed relatively harmless:
TONIGHT!! FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8
Speed Dating—Give Some, Get Some! SM Dining Hall: Doors Open 9:15 p.m.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10
8 p.m., SSS 114
Life, Love, Sex, Death, and Other Works in Progress … a Multi-Chakra Extravaganza
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11
Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D.
4:30 p.m., LC 101
Myths & Misconceptions About Sex and Relationships
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
7:30 p.m., Slifka Center
By Tuesday, however, things started to look dicey:
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12
4 p.m., LC 102
The Female Orgasm
7:30 p.m., Davies Auditorium
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex (and Sex Toys!)
Pure Romance Product Giveaways!
Girls’ Night Out
9–11 p.m., Center St. Lounge
OPEN BAR w/ Patty Brisben. First 100 Women Get a Free Pure Romance Gift Bag. $5 Cover at the Door.
I suppose Tuesday was intended mainly for the ladies, since the focus seemed to be on their own particular … uh, physiology. I was fairly shocked by the items on the schedule. So I decided to go and see for myself what was about to be peddled within the hallowed halls of Yale University.
One day that week, after class, I attended Ms. Levkoff’s homily on la petite mort. I found Logan Levkoff to be an attractive woman, with long, flowing blond locks. When I arrived, she was dressed in a climate-clashing style, wearing shorts and, below them, Eskimo boots. She introduced herself as a certified sex educator, the author of a dating guide, and, last but not least, an official spokesperson for Trojan® brand condoms.
The chief point of her lecture was that our sexual culture is overly focused on the desires of men, rather than women. She complained, in particular, that when it comes to oral sex, “women are doing most of the servicing.” As a result of the focus on men, she said, women aren’t comfortable enough with their own sexuality and, consequently, often have difficulty achieving orgasm. Ms. Levkoff apparently had less trouble than most. She informed us that she had her first orgasm at the age of seven while watching the Playboy Channel on her parents’ television. It was a touching personal story. But I lost track of her point when she started tossing Trojan® condoms into the audience and one almost hit me in the head. I ducked out and headed to the next event on the schedule.
Snow was falling steadily as I made my way across campus. Steam drifted up from the pavement and I heard church bells calling people in for the evening mass. But I wasn’t on my way to church. I was on my way to see Patty Brisben, the founder and CEO of a company called Pure Romance. Brisben is the world’s leading entrepreneurial purveyor of female sex toys. Her presentation packs a lot of heat. And contrary to what her company name suggests, neither purity nor romance seems to be her primary concern. She brings out all the stuff they never told you about in high school sex-ed class.
The auditorium sits on the lower floor of a building that houses the Engineering Department—not altogether inappropriate considering all the robotic contraptions Brisben brought along to promote. It is a great gray rectangular auditorium with windowless concrete walls, like a bomb shelter with theater-style seating for seven hundred. It feels vaguely Orwellian. I suppose the university administration was glad to have this particular presentation confined to a windowless room, much better to keep it out of public view.
As I entered, there was a long line leading up the front of the room. In front of the chalkboards the Pure Romance people had set up a series of long tables loaded down with the company’s products. There were dildos and vibrators, various lotions, oils and scented candles. They managed to include a couple of euphemistically titled how-to books including Tickle Your Fancy and another, Tickle His Pickle. Brisben once stated in a media interview that Yale students seemed more reserved and less clued-in about sex than students she had encountered elsewhere.2 All those sex toys were, I suppose, her way of trying to loosen us up.
Once we all found seats, they passed out sales catalogs to everyone in the auditorium. The Pure Romance catalog looks much different than you would imagine, considering what’s inside. It features lots of smiling, mostly middle-aged women who seem to be sharing innocent secrets and good laughs with friends. The color palette is not lipstick red, but rather soft pink and pastel blue. It looks more like Better Homes and Gardens than Playgirl. It manages to present a lot of very kinky materials in a format that feels tame, sociable, and normal. It really is an ingenious bit of marketing.
Page 1 contains a dozen “Foreplay & Games” products, ranging from “Spicy Dice” to “Tickle & Whip.” Next comes a host of massage aids and bath lotions. On pages 4 and 5 one can find lubricants, arousal creams, and liquid “Performance Enhancers.” On page 6 are the bondage toys. On page 7, clitoral vibrators. I had received hundreds of paper handouts in college, but never one like this.
There was the “Mr. Big” cock ring on page 8, male stimulators on page 9, followed by five pages full of assorted faux phalluses and battery-powered vibrators, including the “Wave Rider,” the “Humdinger,” and the “Shake & Shimmy” models. There was a page of products toward the end under the category of “Anal Play,” which I prefer not to describe in detail. Finally, an assortment of novelty lingerie (worn by paper-thin models) including the “Midnight Fetish” outfit and, of course, the ubiquitous “French Maid” costume.
As I finished glancing through the catalog, the speaker, Ms. Brisben, neared the table of gizmos and reached down to turn on her wireless microphone. She had barely taken the stage, and already I was struggling to avoid unpleasant visualizations. This woman, I guessed, was in her fifties, and she was about to give a sex toy demonstration to an audience full of eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds—kids young enough, undoubtedly, to be her children, maybe even grandchildren. How is she going to pull this off? I wondered. The age differential was awkward, not to mention a little creepy, a bit like having your mom’s best friend over for a chat about kinky sex.
Patty Brisben’s personal story is a compelling one. She started Pure Romance out of her garage in 1993. Twice divorced, she built the company into a $100-million-a-year business largely on her own wits. Her sales model capitalizes on social connections among women. Customers can become “consultants,” hosting house parties and selling Pure Romance products to other women. It’s like a Tupperware club for desperate housewives. Brisben’s business acumen is admirable, to be sure. But what was she doing at Yale? I wondered.
While I observed, the MC took the stage in order to introduce Brisben, gratefully proclaiming to us all: “Pure Romance makes Sex Week possible!” I later learned that Brisben had paid the organizing committee $30,000 to fund Sex Week at Yale.3 In fact, her money provided almost the entire budget for the week’s proceedings. All of the sudden, the strange and freaky event was beginning to make sense to me.
Funding Sex Week is a shrewd business decision on Brisben’s part. She gets a platform from which to promote her products to Yale students directly, hopefully hooking some long-term customers along the way. She also gets her company’s name in the national news once the media report the juicy details of her visit to a prestigious university, which they inevitably do. That equals a lot more PR than she could buy with such money directly. And she gets to do it all in the name of “educating” the youth of America. Pure Romance conducts this kind of “education” at about fifteen different universities across the country.
The easy compatibility of corporate interests and “education” is a notable feature of Sex Week at Yale. It can be observed not only in the case of Pure Romance, but also with the participation of other official sponsors like Vivid Entertainment, the world’s largest producer of pornographic films, and Trojan brand condoms. All three of these companies hosted events during Sex Week and distributed their products to students for free in Yale classrooms. (Yes, even porn films.) All the while, neither the university administration nor the organizers of Sex Week seemed to worry about whether the goals of these for-profit companies were compatible with the purported educational goals of the university itself. Trojan exists to sell condoms. Vivid Entertainment exists to sell porn. And Pure Romance exists to sell its various kinky bedroom accessories. Why such companies should be given a prominent platform—an entire week, no less—to promote their corporate agendas in Yale classrooms is, I think, a question without a good answer.
* * *
Brisben is a stout yet attractive woman with short bleached blond hair. Once she begins to speak, I am impressed by her charisma and rapport with the twenty-five-and-under crowd. She shows no sign of the awkwardness I feel as a listener. The adult retail industry, she explains, is something about which the public is tragically uninformed. “I want you to have a better understanding of how these products can benefit your life,” she passionately declares. Meanwhile, an entourage of assistants begins to move products out for demonstration.
“How many of you have been in an adult-book store or shopped online?” she asks. Many, many hands go up in the audience. She gestures toward her table of lurid merchandise. “Do you want to see some of these?” she says. “Yes!” my fellow students scream in unison. What follows is like a live QVC program. Brisben pitches one vibrator and arousal cream after the next, tag-teaming with a younger assistant. The program is well choreographed and well rehearsed, with lots of humorous punch lines at just the right moments. Things move along quickly as, one by one, she extols the merits of her favorite products.
First, she instructs us on various methods of foreplay. She calls for volunteers. Two students, one girl and one guy, come forward. As they stand before her, she initiates a kind of role-playing game. “You’re going to go home and get your guy butt naked,” she tells the girl. Brisben then puts a blindfold on the male student, puts some scented oil on the back of his hand, and begins to rub him with the “Hot Heart Massager” ($13 not including shipping and handling).
After returning the volunteers to their seats, she begins to demonstrate the ins and outs of personal lubricants. You’ve got your water-based lubricants, which “do not stain.” You’ve got your silicon lubricants, which, she adds, are “great for anal play.” Finally, you’ve got your playful lubricants, which feature various scents and heating actions.
She calls for more volunteers. Another guy and girl come forward, this time even younger looking than the first pair. I squirm in my seat as Brisben rubs lubricant onto a plastic penis, puts it up to her mouth, then starts breathing heavily onto it in order to initiate the heating action—all of this while flanked by a guy and a girl who may well be teenagers.
“I really feel that we are a nation of low libido,” Brisben declares ruefully. In order to fix this problem, she recommends various arousal creams, including one called “Ex-T-Cee” that she jokes “pretty much does everything that the street drug does.” If all else fails, there is the mega-powered “X-Scream.” “Please don’t purchase this for your first time,” she warns slyly. “You will be running around butt-naked, sitting in the snow, screaming your own name.” By the way, she adds, there will be free samples of “X-Scream” awaiting us when we exit the auditorium.
Next come the sound effects. She puts a microphone up against a clitoral vibrator known as “the silver bullet.” Amplified buzzing and pulsing noises fill the room. It sounds like a mule in heat. Then she turns the device up until it’s roaring like a Harley-Davidson. There are laughs all over the room. You have to hand it to her. She knows how to work a crowd.
“Girls, do you ever get tired of doing this?” She begins to move her fist up and down in a furious pantomime, simulating manual stimulation of the male member. There are more laughs all over the room. Luckily, she has a fix for those times when a hand just won’t do the job. She asks a male student to hold out his middle and index fingers. Showing no limit to her brazenness, she begins to slide a flexible silicon tube up and down his fingers, which serve, in this case, as a stand-in for the phallus. She is simulating sex with the guy.
I am amazed that this simulated sexual activity with a young student gives her no pause. I doubt that a male of her age could get away with working such hands-on demonstrations on a young female. The next day a picture of this very incident appeared in the national news.4 Not the most tasteful image for a school like Yale to project. However, it seems speaker-to-student simulated sexual activity has become just another part of the Yale education.
Admittedly, students themselves appear, for the most part, quite comfortable with Brisben’s hands-on style. She begins to give away various dildos and vibrators. Girls publicly clamor for the handouts. One particular model is called the “B.O.B.” (short for battery-operated boyfriend). Brisben claims to have designed it herself, naming it, so she says, after an ex-husband.
She pauses briefly to pitch her “Come Clean” sanitation gel. I feel that I may need some even though I haven’t actually touched any of her products directly. She finishes with an extended demonstration of how to use anal beads during intercourse, promising that they will produce “an unbelievable orgasm for the male.” They’re not for everybody, she warns us.
In general, her tone is one of good cheer and calm assurance. Her presentation is punctuated by statements about the relativity of human sexual experience (it’s all about what works for you). She also speaks frequently of her products in terms of self-empowerment (they offer variety, choices, self-knowledge, etc.). But probably the only real empowerment that came out of it was the eventual boost to Ms. Brisben’s bank account.
A special six-digit code appears on the PowerPoint screen as Brisben closes her presentation. Students are told they may use the code to obtain a discount on their next purchase from the company’s Web site. Her presentation is to be followed by a “Girls’ Night Out” party at a local nightclub. Female students who attend are promised an open bar and a gift bag full of Pure Romance products.
“If you’ve taught your children what you believe to be the right morals in life, I don’t think that just having a Sex Week is going to corrupt them,” Brisben later told a reporter.5
* * *
After leaving the Pure Romance event, I crossed the street and passed through Woolsey Hall, a colossal neoclassical building with a large rotunda and massive limestone columns. I have always found it to be one of the most impressive sights on campus. It was erected in 1902 and dedicated to the numerous Yale veterans who have died in America’s wars. Their names, ranks, and class years are carved by the thousands onto the building’s marble walls. The dates range across the entire breadth of American history, all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Each name testifies to the long-established commitment of the university and its students to public service. I had just spent an hour with the bawdy Ms. Brisben; and, as I passed by all those hallowed names, I began to think about how much the school had changed in the course of the last century.
I thought about how, back in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, Yale’s faculty voted to revoke credit for military ROTC courses. The ban stood for more than forty years. During that time, Yale students were forced to drive an hour and a half to the University of Connecticut in order to attend required ROTC classes. The ban was implemented, largely, as a reaction against the Vietnam War. However, over the last two decades, the university cited the military’s discrimination against gays and lesbians through its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a reason to continue the ban. Yet, tellingly, Yale never had any problem accepting money from the military on behalf of students who held ROTC scholarships.
Now that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been revoked, the ROTC is finally returning to Yale. It is a welcome change. But I am struck by a nagging question: Why, for so many years, did the ROTC fall below clitoral stimulators on the list of things worthy of the university’s sanction?
Most political liberals have long since abandoned the reflexive antimilitarism of the late 1960s. Americans have learned that one can oppose war and still support the troops. But the folks who run Yale remain stuck in 1969. In reality, I doubt the ROTC ban at Yale ever had much to do with the military’s policy on gays in the first place. Instead, I think “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a convenient excuse for Yale to stick its nose up at the military.
Regardless of one’s personal political views, military men and women are worthy of admiration and support. Often, ROTC students put their lives on the line for us all by becoming active-duty military officers after graduation. You would think that the university administrators would have gone out of their way to accommodate these young men and women. But for more than forty years they chose to play the hypocrite in their quest to keep the military at arm’s length. They took ROTC students’ scholarship money, then shoved them out the back door—forcing them to do their actual military training at another university sixty miles away.
Yale banned the military on the pretext of its moral objections to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But, in view of Yale’s collaboration with the for-profit sex industry, I find such moral posturing disingenuous. Why should university administrators allow a dildo peddler into Yale’s classrooms when for forty years they forbade the ROTC the same privilege? Yale’s leaders made space in the classroom for Patty Brisben and her traveling sex toy pageant, but no room for those who risk their lives in service of our country.
Today Yale would never build a military memorial like Woolsey Hall. As I passed through the building, I noticed a faded inscription on the marble floor beneath my feet. It was some sort of poetic tribute to Yale’s fallen soldiers. The gold letters had been worn away by a hundred years and by tens of thousands of footsteps. Now those letters are almost indecipherable. I am sure there are many at Yale who wouldn’t mind if they disappeared altogether. The university continues to enjoy the prestige of an intellectual and spiritual legacy it long ago abandoned. The grand old buildings remain, but all too often, there is nothing grand going on within them. Through architecture, Yale’s past testifies against its present.
At a fundamental level, there is a connection between Patty Brisben and the ROTC ban. It centers on the question of purpose. Yale was once animated by a sense of service to the nation. Now it is plagued by a void of moral purpose. And where no clear purpose is evident, hosting a sex toy exhibition may serve as well as any other reason for a university’s existence. The public-spiritedness that, for most of its history, infused Yale with a sense of purpose, and gave it its greatness, is now all but gone. What remains is a how-to lecture on the Hot Heart Massager and the “battery-operated boyfriend.”
Copyright © 2012 by Nathan Harden
Foreword copyright © by Christopher Buckley