While Sex Week at Yale (SWAY) and its counter-part, True Love Week, received national media attention this past February from the O’Reilly Factor, US News , USA Today , and NBC, another Ivy League multi-day event on sexuality slipped by somewhat under the radar.
The IvyQ conference at Brown on February 16-19 attracted about 420 students from all eight Ivy League campuses, both those who identify as LGBT and their allies.
According to its website, the IvyQ conference, which was first held at UPenn in 2010 and then at Columbia in 2011, aims to “create a pan-Ivy community of LGBTQ students and allies equipped with the skills to examine their identities, value those of others, and understand intersectionality.” To accomplish this goal the conference strives to “creat[e] experiences which foster meaningful and productive social networks; educat[e] students about the history and multiplicity of voices in the LGBTQ movement and the possible trajectories of its future; and empow[er] all students to feel confident in their identities and their potential to instill positive change in their own lives and the communities they inhabit.”
Students could choose to attend six out of thirty-six offered breakout sessions at the conference, all of which fell into one of six pre-defined categories: Health and Sexual Assault, Identity, Internationality and Culture, Practical Applications, Queer History, and Sex and Body Positivity.
It is reasonable to assume that these categories were chosen in order to meet the expressed interests of the participating students as well as the goals of the organizers. Certainly, in the case of the first five topics, one can easily see how these themes would be generally fitting areas of discussion and inquiry for the participants of such a conference. However, the sixth session category – Sex and Body Positivity – should give us some pause.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “sex positivity” refers to the ideology that all consensual sexual activities are healthy, and that all types of sexual pleasure and experimentation are good.1
On the one hand, that the IvyQ conference would prioritize a whole series of lectures to this single category seems fitting. The LGBT movement is, by all appearances, one that prides itself on accepting the sexual identities and expressions of all persons. Therefore, it would seem logical that the popular ideology of the LGBT movement, broadly speaking, would be one that similarly accepts the diverse sexual preferences and sexual activities of all persons, making no moral distinctions between them.
And yet, a closer look at the IvyQ Sex and Body Positivity sessions reveals little real diversity of sexual choice and expression, not to mention little consideration of sexual health. With sessions such as “Negotiating the Kinky Culture of Consent”, “Designing Your Open Relationship”, and “Queering the Toybox”, there is no consideration of the choice or desire of some members of the LGBT community for monogamous, chaste friendships. And while “Health and Sexual Assault” is given a category unto itself, there is a disturbing absence of sessions covering the health repercussions of the sex positive lifestyle advocated by the conference.
That this conference should overlook chastity and sexual health in these ways is discouraging and unjust on multiple accounts.
To take the latter issue first, one has to wonder what the organizers’ understanding of sexual health is when one browses the lecture topics in this category: “Queering Reproductive Justice”, “Intersections of LGBTQ Identities and Healthcare”, “What ‘Yes Means Yes’ Means: The Whys and Hows of Enthusiastic Consent”, “The Ethics of Lust: A Panel on the Politicization of Desire”, and “Working Towards Queer Love”. Nowhere are the physical and emotional risks of certain sexual behaviors given consideration. And yet, minimizing risk of sexual infection and understanding the importance of consent are the two issues in collegiate sexual health education that are regularly deemed most important to communicate to young men and women. That the conference failed to meet even this low standard is deeply problematic.
However, had the health risks of the sex positive lifestyle been addressed, the attendees would have been in for a dour message indeed. According to the CDC, men who have sex with men (“MSM”) and women who have sex with women (“WSW”) may be at higher risk for various sexual infections than other populations.2 Additionally, one’s risk of sexual infection dramatically increases with the number of sexual partners3 one has over a lifetime, and multiple studies link a higher incidence of depression with higher numbers of sexual partners4 as well. Men and women who have engaged in anal sex or who have had one-night stands are also far more likely to report an STD than those who avoid such behaviors.5
It is an injustice to the students who attended the IvyQ conference to encourage and teach risky sexual behavior without addressing the serious consequences of those choices. In this way, the IvyQ conference is objectionable for the same reason many students, alumni, and parents of students at Yale University took issue with Sex Week at Yale. It is misleading to young men and women to use the term “sexual health” in such a loose and inaccurate way. In such a context, “sexual health” means nothing of physical and emotional health, and is instead reduced to the subjective opinion that it is freeing and better for one’s personal confidence to indulge one’s sexual desires. The suffering young men and women experience as a result of risky of sexual behaviors is very real. There is no excuse for calling those behaviors that substantially increase risk, “healthy”.
Nor is there an excuse for those who boast respect for different sexual identities and expressions to repeatedly ignore the needs, concerns, and questions of those who experience same-sex attractions, or who identify as LGBTQ, but who desire to be chaste. The student leaders affiliated with the Love and Fidelity Network are becoming more aware of classmates who feel uncomfortable with and alienated by the assumption that all LGBTQ and same-sex attracted persons do and should practice their sexuality in a sex positive manner. Initiatives are currently being organized by some student leaders to collaborate with LGBT centers, groups, and individuals to foster more open discussion of abstinence as a positive sexual choice and to identify resources for students who desire to make this choice6.
Although the chairs of the conference offer the caveat “that not everybody will necessarily feel like their identity niche is supported by this conference,” one must wonder what the organizers would do with the proposal to host sessions in the future that relate abstinence and chastity to the needs of LGBTQ and same-sex attracted students. Regardless, one can be assured of our own growing commitment to this end, and our continued effort to bring accurate and intellectually honest sexual health information to college men and women.
1 Unfortunately, the only places to reference besides Wikipedia for this definition are sexually offensive sources. Hence the following citation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-positive_movement
2 The CDC reports that “[s]ubgroups of MSM are at high risk for HIV infection and other viral and bacterial STDs”. It also reports that recent studies indicate that some WSW, particularly adolescents, young women, and women with both male and female partners, might be at increased risk for STDs and HIV as a result of certain reported risk behaviors”. See http://www.cdc.gov/std/treatment/2010/specialpops.htm. Also see, http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/pdf/hiv_factsheet_ymsm.pdf .
4 http://sti.bmj.com/content/88/1/40.full.pdf; http://www.everydayhealth.com/longevity/can-promiscuity-threaten-longevity.aspx; http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2003/06/sexually-active-teenagers-are-more-likely-to-be-depressed