Let’s face it. It’s not easy to talk about sex at any age. But when young people get to college, navigating that aspect of life takes on a whole new dimension.
Since 2009, students at Colgate have had a forum to discuss the taboo subject in structured, frank — even intellectual — terms.
Yes Means Yes (YMY) is an interdisciplinary, six-week seminar addressing positive relationship skills and behaviors. Jaclyn Berger ’09, a sociology and anthropology major, created it for her senior thesis as a response to her perception of a prevalent “hook-up culture” on campus. She borrowed the name from Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, which is the seminar’s core text. The course began making such a positive impact, it was recently approved for PE credit, and it was featured on NBC News last fall, in the context of the national conversation on “affirmative consent.” And YMY is just one of the many ways in which the issue is being addressed on campus.
Those who have taken part in YMY have gained finely tuned perspectives on the issues of sexual safety and assault. To supplement what we read in the national news, we wanted to get these students’ perspectives on the sexual culture on campus today. So, we invited former student participants to a lunchtime chat. They were joined by faculty/staff advisers Dawn LaFrance, associate director of counseling services; Scott Brown, dean of students; and Meika Loe, sociology professor and director of women’s studies, whose co-authored paper about the program has led to its adoption at several schools around the country.
The conversation revealed that it’s a new day: Many students say they are hungry for open dialogue about relationships, romantic life, and sexuality — and they’re empowering themselves to do just that.
– By Rebecca Costello
Scene: What does healthy sexuality mean to you?
Nick Yap ’15: Whether it’s abstinence, hooking up, or long-term relationships, it has to be your choice. You want to hook up because you get something out of that and you enjoy it, not because there’s peer pressure telling you to hook up. If you are abstinent, you are waiting for a reason, and that reason has to be because you want to, not because you feel pressure from your family or some institution telling you that you have to do that to be a good person.
Katie Williams ’15: I think it’s a combination of action and dialogue. You should be able to, and I feel I can, talk about sex or sexuality with friends, or with a partner in a sexual experience or outside of it.
Elizabeth (Biz) Yoder ’15: It’s important to think about respect. Being honest when you’re talking to a partner about sex, but don’t ‘yuck their yum.’ And also respect in terms of, if you see them [a person you’ve hooked up with] around campus, say hi.
Manny Medina ’17: It has to be something explored within yourself first. It takes a lot of serious thought about what you want at different stages of your life. Once you can be true to yourself, a healthy relationship’s a step from that.
Scott Brown: It goes back to identifying what it means for them [students] to succeed and be comfortable. What choices make sense for you and don’t harm somebody else?
Scene: Some might hear ‘Yes Means Yes’ and think, that sounds like a ‘how-to’ class, advocating sexual activity. How do you respond to that?
Katie: It’s not. It’s giving you the tools and permission to talk about these things. In many ways, it’s about making sex less scary, but it’s really about the conversation that’s going on rather than the act itself. It’s been interesting trying to explain to my parents what YMY is, why it matters. It’s a different type of conversation because it’s amongst peers, and it can be more fun.
Eloise Lahorgue ’15: I think of it in terms of learning your own opinion. Oftentimes, casual conversations with friends have to do more with fitting in than thinking about what’s best for you. Reading the book was a great part of the course for me because it helped me define my own opinion about issues I didn’t even know about.
Salem Hoffman-Sadka ’17: A big part is, you spend six weeks with a group of people. You get close and there’s a lot of sharing. To understand the perspective of a woman about sexual encounters, you begin to empathize. So when you’re actually in the moment or trying to create a dialogue, that can give you a totally different understanding of your partner.
Manny: YMY also challenges standard narratives about sex — roles and expectations and identity. Whether it’s the hook-up culture, or consent, or intersections between race, gender, and sexuality, it’s helping you learn. For example, I didn’t know what it meant when a friend said they were asexual. Hearing these different experiences and thought processes made me understand that sex is very fluid, and it changes from individual to individual.
Biz: We try to break down stereotypes. We use gender-neutral pronouns — hir and zir — which a lot of people haven’t heard before. Changing the language is important to get more respect and be more comfortable on campus.
Emily Hawkins ’15: And it gives people whose gender identities and sexual identities aren’t often represented space to talk about those things with people of the ‘normative culture.’ YMY is a launching point for a lot of people’s entry into this conversation. Several of us also now do sex-positive work on campus.
We’re trying to change a cultural narrative that says women need to protect themselves from predators.
Eloise: What’s really interesting about YMY is, I knew half of the group and I didn’t know half of them, and that led to really open, honest communication. This goes beyond sex education in that it’s very relevant. I think what happens on this campus will stay with people for the rest of their lives. So if we can change the dialogue and make it more positive, that will lead to better things later on.
Scene: Back to Nick’s comment, what defines a hookup?
Emily: So, this is the definition agreed upon by YMY participants in the spring of 2010: ‘a casual, noncommittal sexual experience ranging from making out to sexual intercourse with a potential lack of mutual commitment, affection, attachment, emotion as well as a potential imbalance of power.’
Scene: How prevalent is the hook-up culture on campus?
Emily: That is a hard question because we try not to talk about it in that way. It makes an assumption that everybody is participating. Also, with the hook-up culture, we’re often talking about male-female sexual interactions, and we try to stay away from those kinds of heteronormative conversations. And, the hook-up culture assumes that people aren’t looking for relationships, or that if you’re upset with the hook-up culture, you are looking for a relationship. When we talk about hooking up during the first session, the feedback is, that’s the first time people are thinking about it as something you decide to participate in, as opposed to this green slime that lives over us.
Salem: Personally, I don’t have an issue with the idea of a hook-up culture. A lot of people don’t have time for a relationship. The big problem for me is the other things that are tied in. For example, I felt that I almost have to fill a quota, or that if I have a great two weeks but there’s not a hookup, somehow I’m not being male on campus. Or that female friends have said they feel guilty for hooking up.
Meika Loe: We know from the 2005 sexual climate survey that the hook-up culture was highly exaggerated. When we asked people how often they hooked up, it was zero to one partner in a year. I get a sense from visiting YMY once a semester that there’s a lot of diversity in the room: people who opt out, people who are very sexual, some who try it, some who have exclusive relationships, people who date.
Scene: Also, someone referred to the hook-up culture as scary. Why?
Eloise: What’s scary is, I felt it was thrust upon me when I set foot on this campus, not necessarily about what went on. It was something that I immediately bought into, and I didn’t even know how I felt about it yet. I’m a senior, so it’s been great for me to reflect on how far I’ve come. I learned it’s not my thing.
Meika: And then, once you decided it wasn’t for you, did you feel you could find others like you?
Eloise: There is a whole session on losing your virginity. I was with friends who were virgins and felt very much bothered by the conversation. A lot of my friends, and I will include myself, do not have a lot of sex. People are proud to make good judgment calls. It’s not necessarily seen as something to be proud of if you’re always making random hookups.
Asabi Rawlins ’16: I didn’t realize how conservative my background was until I came to Colgate. I believed in abstinence until marriage, and then there was all this pressure to not only be a part of not just the hook-up culture, but also to identify with beliefs I didn’t ascribe to. YMY didn’t just empower me in terms of my views on sex, but also in terms of standing up for myself in any relationship.
Dawn LaFrance: We try to help students claim what they need in relationships with a wide range of possibilities. That encompasses everybody, because people feel pleasure in lots of ways.
NBC.com covers Colgate’s Yes Means Yes positive-sexuality program
Scene: The definition of a hookup mentioned imbalance of power. Speak more about that.
Emily: In my mind, sexual assault prevention and positive sexuality are intrinsically linked, and we’re inverting the narrative. In talking about desires and pleasures, you are opening up a place for dialogue that limits the situations where people are on different pages.
Scene: It sounds like you are talking about self-management of individual behavior, and then how that trickles out to the broader culture. What is your take on the sexual culture here? What concerns do you feel you’re addressing?
Manny: Most conversations teach you what not to do. You can tell people when something does not constitute consent. But when you ask, ‘What are ways you see consent?’ you hit a wall very quickly. YMY forces you to explore those ways, not only with yourself but with other people, too. It’s the greatest way, I think, to challenge sexual assault on campus.
Sarah Rende ’15: I don’t think you can talk about the hook-up culture without factoring alcohol in. Liquid courage is real, but it sucks the next day when you don’t remember what happened. And so, how you can balance the inevitability of alcohol, but also integrating respect into that. We talked a lot about how you can have consent while you’re intoxicated but, (A) do you really want to, and (B) where is that line?
Katie: YMY pairs sexual assault and positive sexuality in the right way, I think. It teaches you, if you don’t like the culture, here are ways that you can change it as an individual. Or, if you do like it — that’s also affirmed. That has been good because change in the culture is so often looked at — at all levels, in conversation, in actuality, in policy — from a negative approach.
Dawn: One session of YMY is dedicated to critically analyzing power and how that plays out on campus. We talk about oppression, sexism, racism, heteronormativity, and think about how people live in those different dynamics here on campus.
Emily: Geography comes up every time. It’s a huge issue in general — where a party can or can’t be thrown, the places where people have to go in order to have a certain social experience. That a frat can throw a party and a sorority can’t. Also, issues of socioeconomic status, the downtown scene, like what happens at The Jug.
Asabi: I think real estate on Broad Street plays into it, so place and space are important parts of the hook-up culture. The things leading up to someone in bed seem dictated by where you met up earlier in the night. I think the institutions of power are overwhelmingly Greek, so our conversations often steer in that direction. And, whether we want to admit it or not, race and socioeconomics factor into it.
Eloise: The obvious one is gender. Especially if you’re looking at it from the male versus female side, it’s interesting to have men in the class and hear their side. There were six men in my YMY class, so it was easy for the blame game to be directed at the men. In that last conversation about power, people realize that it can go both ways.
Salem: The biggest eye-opener for me was involving a relationship. There are two readings that I found most interesting, one about your first time having sex and one about enthusiastically engaging in sexual activity. We were talking about men as pioneers in sexual relationships, always the initiators. That’s how I unconsciously dealt with my last relationship. I had never felt like I was an aggressor, but I’d never considered what the ideal sexual interaction should be.
Emily: The conversations about power are also rooted in Colgate’s history, being all male for so long, the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. The last session points to Colgate’s history, in order to talk about its current climate. We end with, what is your ideal Colgate, and what are the tangible steps we can take to make that happen? A lot of them have to do with personal [behaviors].
Scene: At the open forum a few weeks ago, someone said you can’t walk holding hands on this campus. What was that was about?
Eloise: There’s a monologue in This is Not a Play About Sex about how there’s a reversal of the ‘bases’ here. Sex is first base, holding hands second base — or breakfast is — I don’t remember which. I’ve seen the play twice and everyone always laughs at that, but I think it’s a laugh of being, like, wow.
Scene: Can you name specific examples of change you’ve seen on campus?
Sarah: In our group, we agreed that there’s not a lot of spaces at Colgate where you can put your feelings out there. Everyone’s honesty helped make me feel more empowered in my own experiences. Hearing from someone who isn’t sexually active because X, Y, and Z, or someone who is because of X, Y, and Z, made me feel much more comfortable with what I want and being able to vocalize that.
Eloise: I feel like the conversation’s really shifting here. A lot of other organizations are talking about this stuff in a greater way.
Biz: Salem, Manny, and I are now Bystander Intervention facilitators. It’s a two-hour training program, so if you’re out at night and you see a situation where two people are drunk and you think it could lead to something bad, you can recognize those signs and learn how to act.
Salem: Yeah, whether it was through the readings or hearing stories of students, once the course was done, I immediately signed up for the bystander class and then applied to be a facilitator. It’s a natural reaction. You feel obligated toward the community to add a positive dynamic.
Manny: Maybe this semester I got too involved in positive sexuality! But I felt it affected every aspect of my involvement, so doing This is Not a Play About Sex, I can engage in the conversation more because I know the terms. I created a brown bag discussion about the hook-up culture. At an all-male brown bag panel on sexual assault, I pulled out quotes from the book that I thought were helpful.
Biz: One of my good friends and I had been talking about consent a year ago. It didn’t occur to him that if a girl didn’t say no, that did not mean yes. But after taking YMY, he told me about a sexual experience and he said, ‘I asked her explicitly for different steps.’ That’s a great transformation.
Katie: Emily and I have a Thought Into Action project founded on positive sexuality. Hearing the immenseresponse from all corners of campus has been awesome. Explaining positive sexuality and why it’s important has been rewarding. I feel so much confidence that we can reach out to anybody with our idea and have there be a personally invested response.
Especially because I’m picturing the audience of the Scene and who’s gonna be reading this (like my grandpa), I don’t want people to see ‘Yes Means Yes’ and think it’s horny college students talking about sex. It’s so much bigger — it’s a movement. To see how it’s expanded at Colgate, in tandem with all the different movements that are happening on other college campuses, it’s been interesting. What I’ve seen in the media is, the conversations are geared more toward sexual assault. Coming out of YMY on the positive sexuality side is a really beneficial addition to what’s already going on amongst our peers.
People are always like, ‘Oh, your generation doesn’t care about anything.’ This is a big one that we do care about.
Salem: One of the best things I saw was a get-together of everyone who had taken YMY that year. It was one of the best nights I’ve had at Colgate. The dynamic between genders was what I thought it should be all across Colgate. Not the way you see at The Jug, which is purely physical. People were talking to people they hadn’t met before.
Asabi: I took it sophomore year, and the great thing was the guys in the suite next door to me were taking it, too. We would talk about this stuff, like the articles. We weren’t talking about schoolwork, but we also weren’t talking about what party are you going to.
Katie: Sarah was saying earlier how a friend told her, ‘I took YMY before it was cool!’
Scene: So, if you could meet your first-year self, what would you tell that person?
Sarah: In terms of sexuality and every other aspect of life, (A) calm down, and (B) have a sense of confidence. I think I’ve grown exponentially, so I wish I could instill that in my first-year self.
Nick: Find spaces and people on campus that you’re comfortable with. In your first year, you’re somewhat pressured because that’s what people are talking about — going downtown, hooking up — because that’s perceived as cool or the status quo. But when you get older, you find groups of friends where you can talk about what you wanna talk about. You’re more comfortable, and that social pressure goes away.
Manny: I don’t think I would tell my first-year self much because those experiences really shaped my outlook right now. I guess in an ideal world, I would like to tell myself, be more conscious of what you’re doing and ask other people, how do they feel about it?
Katie: I actually had this experience two weeks ago. I was talking to a first-year. I was telling her, put yourself first. If you want to kiss more people, do that. If you don’t want to, don’t. You should feel comfortable having a conversation with someone about whether you want to pursue a relationship.
Salem: If you wanna hook up, go for it, but make sure you really want to, not to prove something or fulfill those weird long-term notions that your memory of college will be the X number of times you hooked up. I already know the memories that are so much stronger for me are going to a Frisbee tournament or camping out with outdoor education.
Biz: First year, I cared a lot about what other people thought of me. As a senior, I don’t care if I don’t hook up with anyone for a while, or if I hook up with someone my friends don’t think is cute. If it’s what I’m comfortable with, then I like it.
Emily: There are so many people who have come and gone from Colgate to credit with our current state of sex-positive love. Now it’s unreasonable to ignore these types of conversations; people are talking about it everywhere. It’s fine if you choose not to participate, but in changing the conversation and giving respectful language and entrance to dialogue, there’s just no excuse anymore.
Read more about Yes Means Yes and other positive sexuality initiatives at colgate.edu/healthysexuality.