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When policy and intimacy intersect

By Emily Bell

With the lights low, shades drawn, and mood music in the air, certain thoughts are probably not at the forefront of a Yalie's mind. In the heat of a passionate moment, very few students contemplate the policies stated in the Undergraduate Regulations handbook. Few consider whether they are the disadvantaged partner in a power relationship. Some even fail to recognize that they might be putting themselves at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Whether students realize it or not, however, these issues are constantly being debated. Even within the very intimate realm of sexual relationships, the Yale Administration tries to protect students' emotional, psychological, and physical well-being.

Yale faculty, teaching assistants, and freshman counselors are all components of a University-backed student support system. Therefore, the University considers any breach within this system to be a potential threat to students' mental and emotional health. The most direct way that the University enters what appears to be an otherwise `private' realm is by discouraging amorous relations between students and people in positions of power, like teachers and couselors.

But how does the Administration attempt to protect the different facets of students' sexual health beyond explicitly university-affiliated spheres?

When considering traditional student-to-student relationships, Yale can do little more than educate about the risks of sexual interaction and provide resources and couseling to the student body. The rest is up to the student.

Teacher-student sexual tensions

The Administration sets guidelines for interactions between undergraduates and University-employed instructors. Students are strictly forbidden to have romantic relationships with their teaching assistants.

The Teaching Fellow's Handbook advises, "If you find that you are attracted to a student and would like to see that person in a social sense, the only rule is DON'T DO IT. You violate a basic ethic of your entire class by focusing your attention on this student...The best social posture for a teaching fellow is friendly neutrality."

While the Administration prohibits relationships between students and their teaching assistants, amorous relationships between students and their professors are only "discouraged," not banned. Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, BR '68, GRD '72, admits that "indeed it is an anomaly of the current situation that [the former] are banned and others are not." Last winter, Brodhead suggested that a committee be formed to examine the University's policy concerning romantic relationships between students and their teachers.

Brodhead's suggestion came in the aftermath of the sexual harassment case involving mathematics professor Jay Jorgenson and a female freshman. In a Yale Daily News Guest Column on Thurs., Dec. 5, 1996, Brodhead stated there is an "asymmetry of authority between teachers and students that makes it inappropriate for teachers to subject students to sexual attentions however those attentions are received."

Although Yale College has a Grievance Board which enables students to voice complaints of sexual harassment, Brodhead hopes that this most recent policy proposal would prevent certain cases of of sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. The committee investigating the policy submitted its recommendation to Provost Alison Richard on Wed., Nov. 12. The details of the proposal have yet to be released.

Compromising counseling

The University sets stricter guidelines for freshmen counselors: they are banned from having romantic relationships with their own counselees or any other freshmen. "Those [types of relationships] are expressly forbidden," said Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg. Calhoun Master William Sledge explained that when "romance or sex becomes a part of the equation, it's going to raise suspicion about the motives, fairness, and reliability of the counselors."

He added that "whenever a person is dependent on another, that person is vulnerable to being exploited. The institution [Yale College] should make sure that the people who are in a dependent position are being protected." Despite the Administration's rigid policy, rumors of illicit sexual affairs between freshmen and freshmen counselors are widespread.

"During my freshman year, three people I knew pretty well were all involved with freshman counselors -- two with their own counselors," one junior commented. "In those situations, it's hard to tell what's right and what's wrong. Yeah, for two of my friends, by the time it was over, there was a lot of hurt and confusion. As for the other person, well, she's still in the same very healthy relationship."

The naked truth

For the majority of Yalies, though, the thought of having an affair with a teacher or counselor remains, at most, a fantasy. But while traditional relationships between students are the most prevalent on campus, even those are not completely beyond the juridiction of the University. In an age when every one in four college students will have contracted an STD by the time of their graduation and every one in 500 is HIV positive, Yale has become increasingly concerned with students' sexual health.

According to Dr. Joel Greenspan of the Division of STD Prevention at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, for both biological and behavioral reasons, college-aged students are at higher risk, compared to older adults, for acquiring STDs. Younger women have an increased "cervical ectopy," said Greenspan, making them more susceptible to infectious diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea.

The 1996 STD Surveillance Report released by CDC also states that young adults comprise the highest risk group because they are "more likely to have multiple (sequential or concurrent) sexual partners rather than a single, long-term relationship" and "may be more likely to engage in unprotected intercourse" as a result of alcohol and drug consumption and other factors.

Many STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and HIV may be asymptotic, particularly in the early stages of bacterial or viral infection. Recent studies, for example, have revealed that two out of three people who are infected with the increasingly prevalent Herpes Simplex Virus do not know that they are infected and potentially contagious. Though some STDs are incurable, all are treatable. The success of treatment methods does vary, however. Because treatment is easiest and most effective when the infection is detected in its early stages, sexually active men and women are encouraged to be tested for STDs, even if they are not symptomatic.

Yale as `Gomorrah'?

But how prevalent are STDs at Yale? Are Yalies just as vulnerable to STDs as other college students? No one can be certain about the contraction rates for STDs among Yale undergraduates. Yale University Health Services does not keep statistics on the screenings that they conduct.

Are Yalies as promiscuous as students at other universities? During the "Yale Five" controversy, Yale's "steamy" coed dorms were often depicted as havens for students' indulgence in lascivious impulses. A Sept. 22 Time article implied that Yale could be considered an "Ivy League Gomorrah." Many Yale students, however, disagree with this assessment.

"There is less sex here. I think I've come to that conclusion," said Eunice Park, CC '99. Tsali Ricketson, BR '98, agreed. "Most people who come to Yale--to put it nicely--have a little trouble with their social skills," he said. James Ramsey, JE '99 echoed this opinion: "Everyone's too busy studying here to have sex."

Conversely, there are students who argue that Yalies are "right on target," as Mike Kaplan, BK '99, put it. "Promiscuity is the same here as it is anywhere," said Corey Provine, TC '99. "Humans are humans and the fact that you're at Yale doesn't change anything."

Or life in an `Ivy Tower'?

Regardless of the percentage of sexually active students here, many people worry that Yalies buy into the misconception that they are isolated from real world problems like STDs. Although students such as Kaplan believe that Yalies are as sexually active as other college students, he also points out that, "many Yale students feel pretty safe when it comes to STDs--probably more comfortable than they ought to."

"No one thinks of the `geek' having an STD," said Ricketson. Many Yalies falsely believe that STDs would never penetrate the walls of this Ivy Tower. Some students, however, forget that their peers come to Yale from different parts of the world and from a wide range of backgrounds. Their respective experiences and levels of safe sex education are bound to vary.

Student AIDS Educators co-coordinator Cathy Choy, TD '98, noted that this "myth of invincibility" is an obstacle that she and other STD educators are "constantly fighting against." In some ways, she said, "it is a problem unique to campuses like this," where the students often mistake high academic performance for `sex smarts.' As Leora Eisenstadt, MC '99, expressed, "Just because you're at an Ivy League school, it doesn't make a difference--people can be book-smart and still be stupid."

Choy hopes to learn how peer-health educators from other Ivy League schools are addressing this issue at a conference she has organized for February. She plans to incorporate the information she takes away from the conference into the Yale Student AIDS Educators (SAE), a branch of Yale University Health Services. This organization is, in fact, the main mechanism used by the University to educate students about safe sex. Sally Rinaldi, the University Health Educator, organized SAE in 1987. Four years ago, the Administration decided to make safe sex workshops a mandatory part of freshmen orientation.

"It really reflects well on the Administration that they feel the need to support us. It shows that they care about their students and that they're being realistic [about sex practices at Yale]," said Elizabeth Arleo, TC '99, who co-coordinates SAE with Choy. Freshman counselor Daniel Schwartz, JE '98, agreed, "It proves that the University is willing to look out for the [freshmen's] safety."

The Student AIDS Educators are aware that many freshmen are now entering Yale with a greater basic knowledge about safe sex. Nevertheless, Trachtenberg stressed that "[this issue] is still something that we have to bring to the attention of the students."

Sex Education 101

The freshmen safe sex workshops aim to breach the gap between knowledge and practice, Arleo explained. Sometimes, however, in the midst of that hectic week of freshman orientation, Yale's newcomers may miss this crucial information regarding sexual health. There's the possibility that some frosh are too busy looking at their blue books during the one-hour session. Others may think that they already know everything there is to know about safe sex. Some may not even consider the information applicable (not everyone is sexually active when they arrive on campus (or even by the time they leave). Eisenstadt noted one reason for informing everyone, despite their diverse sexual backgrounds. "A good number of people that I know have made serious changes in their sexual practices since they arrived here," she commented.

Safe sex educators occasionally target upperclassmen through workshops held in smaller groups. Sigma Chi President Farng-Yang Foo, ES '98, invited the Student AIDS Educators to the fraternity house this past Wednesday. "We thought that it would be a way of starting a conversation about sex," Foo explained. "I think that [an STD] is something that people should be concerned about. If you can take precautions to alleviate that risk, then it would be stupid not to," he said. Similar workshops are also hosted periodically by sororities, athletic teams, and campus organizations.

In addition to encouraging safe sex workshops, the Administration suggests that students utilize the counseling services and resources available at YUHS. Students may receive free confidential STD testing at Undergraduate Student Medicine, even if they have waived Yale's major medical health plan. There are also numerous groups, like Walden and Consent, which aim to assist students who have concerns about their romantic relationships.

Beyond national statistics and University standards

As with any other area that concerns the University, policies regarding students' sexual health are constantly undergoing a reevaluation process. The Jorgensen case, for example. highlighted the need for a more explicit policy regarding student-teacher relationships so that Yale could better protect the emotional, psychological, and physical health students. Similarly, the Administration has been reexamining its approach to sexual education as national programs and health trends are changing.

In the end, though, when the lights are dimmed, shades are drawn, and mood music is playing, the Administration can only hope that its efforts have suffiently educated Yalies about how to handle intimate situations safely. The final responsibility, however, is in the student's hands.

Graphic by Karen Rosenberg.

Are Yale's policies on student-instructor relationships prohibitive enough? Do they go too far? View comments regarding this article and submit your own ideas in Speak Your Mind.

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