Though they both take up space in our collective consciousness, sexual encounters and academic spaces typically reside on opposite ends of the campus spectrum. It’s what makes this 2006 Daily article about how to have sex in the stacks of Hatcher Graduate Library so entertaining. Though the authors say it’s a rite of passage, the article’s guide to “hav(ing) your ‘O.’ Right between the ‘N’ and ‘P’” has seemingly been lost to time.
When we think about sex in college, the last places we’re thinking of are the bustling stairways of Mason Hall or the graffitied bathrooms of Angell. Sex, which for the purposes of this article encompasses physical intimacy and attraction, is not generally associated with the academic experience. Sterile academic buildings and numbing classroom pressures do a fantastic job at squashing our libido.
But for the majority of students, sex is a frequent fold of the social fabric of college life.
We’re used to hearing about the trials and tribulations of hookup culture — a social phenomenon (often associated with college-aged persons) in which sexual intercourse and emotional intimacy aim (and often fail) to be entirely separate entities. It’s the friend who spent a Thursday night glued to their phone, waiting for a text invitation to that North Campus boy’s one-bedroom apartment. It’s the roommate who keeps a sexual partner despite not even finding them pleasant to be around. Or it’s your own realization that your classmate’s dorm bed you’ve landed in every Friday night for the past month will most likely never care to take you on a date.
Hookup culture is pervasive, and it has real-time consequences for those who don’t benefit from it. Past Statement sex surveys show stark disparities in orgasm frequency and sexual satisfaction between men and women/nonbinary respondents, this year as no exception. In every night out, every swipe right or left, every hungover debrief, the collegiate cultural expectations of sexual encounters influence what we do, who we do and how we feel about it.
We know sexual intimacy is often less than positive for Michigan students. We know hookup culture contributes to the ways we sacrifice what we really want to act out the social scripts we’ve been provided with. But we forget to look further than our experiences and those of our social circles. We forget that the heteronormative, rigid culture surrounding sex at this powerful university institution is, in and of itself, also a powerful institution — one that warrants critical study and thinking.
Classes at the University that discuss the social and cultural influences of sex are relatively new. The Women’s and Gender Studies Department was born just about 50 years ago, in 1973. A biology class on human sexuality was first introduced in 1985. NURS/WGS 220: Perspectives in Women’s Health, an introductory course that dedicates significant time to the female orgasm, made its course guide debut in 1991.
The last 50 years show a stark transformation in not only the quantity of sex-oriented classes but the material they cover.
Although 1980s and ’90s students had opportunities to learn about gender disparities in the workplace or the history of lesbian resistance, the idea of sex as a physical, socio-emotional experience did not come to the classroom until a bit later. By 2010, students could learn about the act and impact of sex from vastly different departments, ranging from Anthropology to Comparative Literature. And as we approach Winter 2023, sex continues to get at least some of the academic attention it deserves.
From “Race, Gender, Sexuality and U.S. Culture in Video Games” to “Sex and Sexuality in Jewish History and Culture,” our casual, everyday conversations about sex intertwine with academia on many corners of campus. Whether it’s the weird position a one-night stand asked you to try or the STI going around your favorite fraternity, chances are there’s someone on campus studying the physical and social mechanisms shaping your sex life.
These classes can be much more than the transmission and retention of information — they’re an opportunity for students, myself included, to make sense of our sexual experiences and interests in the context of the world beyond Ann Arbor, beyond damning campus chitchat. Talking about sex in the classroom legitimizes its key role in our social lives and reminds us that the emotions we feel most alone in are more universal than we think.
Professor Rovel Sequeira, who teaches “The Sexual Life of Colonialism and Empire,” said he used history classes and research to come to terms with his own sexuality as a college student. Now, as a professor, he hopes his course will encourage students to interrogate sexual norms and environments in their own lives.
“In a campus climate in which conversations about sex are often far from intellectual or thoughtful, I think courses on sexuality can help students navigate the complex terrain evoked by “sex” today — from sex’s relationship to one’s body, identity and expression to its connections with culture, race and community, and its entanglements with violence,” Sequiera said. “Learning about the politics of sex can empower students to ask difficult questions about the entanglements of sex and power in a safe space and encourage them to use classroom insights in their everyday lives.”
Professor Jessie DeGrado, who will be teaching “Sex and Gender in the Ancient Middle East” next semester, explained that academic spaces allow students to learn to talk about sex in a nuanced, informed way.
“Developing a space where we can talk about these issues and be respected is very important. It’s thinking through, ‘How do we talk about sex?’ and ‘How do we use language that’s respectful?’” DeGrado said. “Because when sex becomes a sort of topic for joking, it’s in part because we don’t have another way of speaking about it. We haven’t practiced.”
In classes like Sequeira and DeGrado’s, sex is treated as the major social influencer it truly is. When we take sexual intimacy and attraction into the context of mature, level-headed academic study, their stigmas become an easier obstacle to tackle.
When taking NURS/WGS 220, LSA junior Emily Feldman said she learned about the interaction of social influences and female pleasure for the first time.
“I just had never been told by anyone in a position of power that my pleasure, and women’s pleasure in general, was important,” Feldman said.
“Learning that sex can be for pleasure for women was so eye opening even because it seems so obvious, but I’ll have conversations with so many women and I rarely hear them say, ‘Yeah, that was an amazing sexual encounter. I felt respected and pleasured,’” Feldman said. “So being exposed to the fact that that shouldn’t be the norm changed the way I view sex and the purpose of sex.”
It’s no secret that the casual hookup formula doesn’t work for everyone. Or that all students that don’t fall in the camp of cisgendered straight male (which is lots of us) are substantially less satisfied in bed. Or that the transactional nature of much of college sex can have dire, even debilitating consequences.
But after the analyses of underwhelming nights out and long-cited statistics about the orgasm gap, we seem stumped as to what to do next. We know there is a problem, but how do we fix it? How do we shift a culture so embedded in the idea of the “college experience?”
Education can be the first step.
We’ve been trained to see sex as antithetical to school — as something silly, uncomplicated and private. Something that doesn’t warrant a second thought or calculated critique.
But classrooms and professors take all of these notions and wholly dispel them. Ignoring the relevance of sex in the study of our world only inhibits us from creating a more inclusive and empowering sexual environment on campus. Learning about the things we’re told not to talk about, and learning why we’re told not to talk about them, can be transformative both individually and culturally.
And with all of these academic resources already available, all it takes is more enrollment and a commitment to paying attention. Though these classes may not be the end all be all solution, understanding sex as a subject of study can be the first step to reshaping how we think about sex on campus.
So that maybe, eventually, our conversations about sex in academic spaces can transcend a step-by-step guide on how to get it on in Hatcher.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.