X-rated bravado and the Y-fronted truth

Are US students getting it? Not according to a new wave of campus magazines that aim to foster healthy ideas and adult discussion about sex. Jon Marcus gets under the covers

September 4, 2008

A new phrase has entered the lexicon of American academia. But what exactly does "hook-up" mean - having casual sex? Kissing? Or something in between?

For an answer to that weighty question, one need look no further than the new student-run magazine on the campus of Yale University. There, two of its undergraduates seek to demonstrate the act in a tangle of naked legs and sheets in steamy (if posed) photos.

The magazine, called Sex Week at Yale in reference to a biennial series of sex-themed events held on the campus, is one of a number of student-run sex magazines that have popped up at some of America's most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago and Boston University.

They range from earnest to explicit, including photo spreads of students simulating sex acts. Harvard's H Bomb ran a photo of 50 naked students with their bodies intertwined. Boston's Boink ("College sex by the people having it") featured cover pictures of a naked woman holding a sex toy, a woman and a man engaged in oral sex, and a woman fondling another woman. "This is what real life is; we should all be open-minded about it," says Colin Adamo, the 20-year-old Yale junior who posed for the hook-up guide and is the incoming director of Sex Week at Yale.

"We all have sex. We all need to know about sex eventually. Really, you just want people to know what they're doing with their own bodies, how to be healthy and how to have fun with it. All the generations before us have never done that. That's the way I'd like to see these sorts of publications go."

Adamo and his counterparts at other campus sex magazines grew up surrounded by media images of sex. But it is not because they are comfortable with sex that students have launched these publications, they say. It is because they're not.

"I was really confused when I got to college, and no one was talking about those issues except peers who didn't actually know what they were talking about," says Martabel Wasserman, editor-in-chief of H Bomb. "They're having sex, but they're not talking about it. People are in the dark about a lot of things. A lot of my girlfriends learnt about sex from Sex and the City, and that's not reality."

In fact, student sex magazines have proved that American university campuses are more prudish than adventurous. "Do we really want pornography to be granted status as a legitimate academic movement?" sniffed the editor of The Yale Free Press, a conservative student newspaper, which complained about Sex Week's "crude jokes, blatant commercialisation and disdain for those of the non-hedonistic sort".

The Collegiate Network, a coalition of university conservative student groups, gave Yale's Sex Week its "Outrage Award". The conservative newspaper at Harvard has been critical of H Bomb.

And the dean of students at Boston, which until last year banned overnight visitors of the opposite sex from dormitories without a chaperone, proclaimed before Boink's first issue even appeared that "the university does not endorse, nor welcome" the magazine. Boston has subsequently banned campus bookshops from selling it.

"It's kind of crazy to me that there's so much violence and other explicit content in the media, yet sexually explicit content isn't handled very well," says Harvard's Wasserman, a 20-year-old junior. "It's sort of a false prudishness, which is what is sort of scary - that people find it so hard to be open about sex or sexuality."

Yet while some magazines have come under fire for titillating their readers with explicitly sexual images, others have been disparaged for their dullness. "A tad more titillation might have done some good," New York magazine said of what it called Columbia University's "pornless porn mag", Outlet.

Readers "expecting to see Columbia students in various states of undress instead encounter 38 pages of vaguely intellectual undergraduate musings on topics from the faux feminism of the Suicide Girls to the shortcomings of sex education in American schools", the magazine reported. The article reminded the students behind the publication that "sex sells - but only when you show it".

A subsequent issue of Outlet included a comparison of vibrators. But like other campus sex magazines, it veers towards the pedantic. In addition to its Latin name (taken from the university's motto, and translated as "life enriched"), Vita Excolatur at the famously cerebral University of Chicago demonstrates its brainpower with references to Foucault.

"The ramifications of sexuality and gender expand influence on much of how we perceive, and in turn, are perceived in the world," it drones. "We firmly believe that sex is not divorced from intellect, and our magazine strives to prove that point."

Meanwhile, as some students have jumped at the chance to bare all, others have been hesitant. Even Yale's Adamo, who posed for pictures and plans a career in sex education (he spent the summer in London working for Stonewall, the gay, lesbian and bisexual rights campaigning organisation, where he "had to come out as a straight guy"), kept his underwear on. "We're all still trying to get into medical school and law school," he says. "We have to keep the future in mind."

Despite all this, the sex magazines have got people on American university campuses talking about sex. And according to Betsy Crane, director of the graduate programme in human sexuality at Philadelphia's Widener University, this can only be a good thing. "Any individual student can go on the internet and find information about sex," Crane explains. "But if it's in the college magazine, it's accessible to other young people and can become a part of conversation."

And that is a conversation that students generally have not had, she says.

"Young people growing up in the United States to a large extent live in a world where there's official silence about sexuality," Crane says. "In one sense, they're inundated. There are allusions to sexuality all around them. Yet there's official silence. So I see this as an attempt by students to create more openness as a response to all that. College is one of the few free-speech zones that exist for young people."

Of those students who choose to pose nude, she says: "It's like they want to rebel against what they were raised with, which is a lot of guilt and shame about sexuality, and counter that by celebrating it."

And that is exactly what they are trying to do, the sex magazine creators say. "When I was applying to Yale, someone read me a quote in a guidebook that said the students spent 23 hours a day in the library," Adamo says. "We have to prove that we're not the boring bookworms that people assume us to be. We have to come up with clever ways to show that we know how to have fun, even if it's kinky."

In addition to a guide to erogenous zones and instructions for furnishing a love pad, the most recent issue of Sex Week at Yale includes a "College Confessional", for example, in which students keep journals of their sex lives ("I look at myself in the mirror getting out of the shower. I look like a drowned rat. I wonder how anyone would ever want to have sex with me"). "Some are kind of silly, some are not that fantastic, but, come on, we go to Yale," Adamo says. "All this sex that we're talking about, it's still happening behind closed doors. So it's nice to see what's going on."

But that's assuming that anything actually is. Crane says perceptions about university students and sex may be exaggerated. In addition to the stifling effect of having overly protective parents, she says, "there's a concern about males in particular who spent their whole high-school years behind a computer and haven't really been out there very much in terms of relationships. In earlier generations there was a stage of going steady and always having a boyfriend or girlfriend, and I don't think that's true any more."

Other than Boston, the universities have generally acquiesced to the presence of the magazines. H Bomb has even secured a small amount of university funding and is sold in the campus shop. Chicago helped Vita Excolatur to avoid potential legal problems by allowing it to do a photo shoot in the stacks of the university library - as long as the building wasn't recognisable.

Several university feminist groups, too, have weighed in on the magazines' behalf because, they say, men are objectified as much as women. The magazines are certainly popular - so much so that some have branched out. Boink has produced a book of erotic writings and photographs by, and of, students from around the country. Sex Week at Yale has made a film, while H Bomb has organised campus sexuality seminars on topics such as the female orgasm, where sex toys are handed out.

All this will help the magazines to achieve their goal of educating American university students about sex, Adamo maintains. At places such as Yale, he explains, "you have lots of people coming from really conservative backgrounds; you have people from all over the world, all over the country.

"These are people who are supposed to become leaders. You want these people to understand as many things as possible. This is the sort of thing that's so important and so basic, and so much of our country and of the world are so behind in understanding it. There's a huge stigma about it that makes us unable to talk about it."

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