My old friend and long time pen pal Arielle Pardes is becoming quite the topic of conversation in the city of Brotherly Love. A year ago, Arielle wrote an editorial for her column “The Screwtinizer” asking the University of Pennsylvania to host a “Sex Week.” UPenn’s Sex Week is a series of programs and discussions, as well as a film screening and even some yoga. The topics range from sexual health and body positivity to pornography and masturbation. While this may sound shocking to some, colleges such as Brown, Yale, and Harvard have all hosted Sex Weeks in the past. Apparently, this concept shocked many. Whether it’s the Metro or the Philly Post, everyone seems to have something to say about the UPenn’s Sex Week.
I had some questions for Arielle about sexuality, feminism, and Susan Patton (Author of “Advice for the young women of Princeton”).
In your column “The Screwtinizer,” you write very frankly about sexuality, describing a bisexual experience and how, when you were 16, your mother declared that you needed a vibrator. How would you respond to someone who feels that this is too honest? Do you feel everyone should be this comfortable discussing their sexuality?
I don’t believe in the category of “too honest,” especially not in terms of sex. In (my version of) an ideal world, everyone would be this comfortable discussing sexuality — but I recognize all of the ways we’re taught to be hush-hush about it. We’re simultaneously oversexed and sexually repressed, enmeshed in cultural tropes that suggest everyone is having sex, and yet we’re completely forbidden to talk about it. That said, the only way we can reinvent and reclaim the messages about sex is by talking about them. Deconstructing unhealthy messages about sexuality really requires these critical conversation about sex.
Tell us about Sex Week. Why do you think there has been so much press surrounding it?
I’ve been totally floored by the amount of local and national coverage for Penn Sex Week. Because this is the first time Penn is doing this, we’ve really aroused the local Philadelphia community — but because the nature of the week is sex, it’s automatically viewed as provocative and press-worthy. We wouldn’t have this much press if this was called “Penn Love Week.”
Do you feel that we are in the throws of a new sexual revolution?
Not at all.
I absolutely consider myself a feminist! To me, feminism is about deconstructing power structures; stepping out of the birdcage of gender oppression. So there isn’t any required aesthetic in order to be a feminist, but your question is interesting because there’s this constant misconception of feminism as incongruent with femininity. This was, of course, a point of contention during the 1970s when Gloria Steinem — who is conventionally beautiful — spearheaded her own feminist causes. I think she’s an important figure in terms of this question for recognizing her own privilege in terms of beauty, but using that on behalf of much bigger causes. In terms of my own aesthetic, I’ve never been made to feel “not feminist enough” — but I do get a surprising number of comments on my column focusing on my headshot. The remarks are something to effect of: “Arielle looks so sweet and innocent in her headshot, but clearly she’s some kind of sexual deviant.” I’m always amused by the assumptions that people make about my sex life based on the way I look.
I wrote a response to Patton’s letter, and I was invited to write a follow-up for the Huffington Post this month. My main contention with Patton’s advice wasn’t so much her suggestion that women need to focus on marriage during their collegiate years — although I find that seriously troubling — but rather her insistence that this is only women’s problem. I can completely get behind the idea that we should keep our eyes open to potential life partners in college — and in fact, I’ve spent the majority of my time at Penn in a very serious relationship — but Patton’s explicit suggestion that this advice is only relevant to women just made me want to scream. Maybe we do still live in a world where her idea that women devalue with age is true, but the only way to change that kind of gender inequalities is to start giving young women better advice. When I spoke with Patton on HuffPo Live, she defended her argument by saying that this is what women need to do if they want to have traditional marriages and traditional childbearing. But I don’t want to be traditional. [And in fact, the "I don't want to be traditional" point is exactly what my HuffPo piece is going to be about -- so stay tuned!]
What are the common pitfalls of sexual activity in college? How can we avoid them? What advice do you have to college students about having healthy sex?
I think that the big sexuality pitfalls of our generation are related to communication and consent. In many ways, these two go hand-in-hand, because so many betrayals of consent relate to lack of communication. Talking about sex is important in general, but especially so with the person you’re having sex with! If you can’t tell your partner what you like, what you don’t like, and what you want, then how can we expect to have healthy sexual relationships? I subscribe to the idea of “enthusiastic consent,” which basically says that we should be explicitly and enthusiastically saying “yes!” to everything that we want in bed. I like that, because it makes consent very clear but it also encourages communication.
Oh, and faking orgasms — that needs to stop.
You can read Arielle’s column here and follow her on twitter at @pardesoteric.
I ask you Boston University, are we honest enough about sex? Are we ready for a Sex Week?