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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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