I just got back from a very thought-provoking lunch with a student who is writing a nonfiction piece on the forthcoming HPV vaccine and general sexual health at Yale.
I'm sure many of you have heard that Yale ranked first in a Trojan-sponsored study (yes, that would be the condom company) of sexual health policies at undergraduate institutions. The study praised YUHS for providing contraception, including emergency contraception, to students, and it cited Sex Week at Yale as evidence of general openness and willingness to discuss issues of sexuality in a frank and direct manner. All of these observations are true, but as my fellow senior and I talked, we realized that many undergraduates, especially underclassmen, still feel lost, confused, insecure, and ashamed when it comes to issues of sexual health.
I hesitate to criticize the institution, because Yale does many things right. Condoms are easily accessible, Peer Health Educators and freshmen counselors discuss dating/sex/sexual assault issues with incoming students, and emergency contraception (EC) is free and available at YUHS. Upon returning to campus this semester, I was excited to learn that Yale has formed a rape crisis center in response to student demand for a more concentrated system of assistance for victims of sexual assault. I feel lucky to go to a school where all of these services are easily available.
I feel luckier, however, that I actually know that these services exist. It surprises me that every year when I hand out flyers during EC awareness day that many students don't know what EC is, and even those who do know don't know it's available at YUHS. I've heard horror stories from students who have tried to get EC, or other forms of contraception, and have been interrogated by moralizing doctors and criticized for "risky" sexual behavior, which usually describes any sort of non-monogamy. YUHS has not always been transparent about its services or its policies. At the moment, it appears that students who are trying to get the new HPV vaccine are being turned away, even though YUHS spokespeople say that the vaccine is available. Perhaps such confusion is just part of any bureaucracy, but YUHS could do a lot more to publicize their sexual health services and make sure that all students seeking help receive it.
The administration of Yale College hasn't been much better in terms of communication. I'm happy that they've decided to take the issue of sexual violence at Yale seriously, but it took a lot of persuasion by various student groups to get them to do so. I haven't seen the statistics for the past year, but I wonder if Yale has decided to report the actual number of rapes on campus instead of reporting absurdly low numbers (e.g. 3 rapes in 2003-2004?) that it reported in past years. I wonder how many students know about the rape crisis center and what the administration has done to spread the word. Student groups do a great job publicizing these changes, but it seems the administration could do a bit more to help them.
Of course, the trickiest part of this discussion is the evaluation of attitudes among students themselves. Are we as open about issues of sexuality as outside observers say? Is Sex Week an indication of our comfort with sex and our willingness to talk about it? I have a lot of ambivalence about Sex Week, mostly because I think it provides an excuse to play into sexual dynamics that are demeaning towards women, but perhaps other students feel differently. I wonder whether students would agree with Trojan's laudatory evaluation of Yale, or whether we still have a ways to go in order to deserve our #1 ranking.