NEW HAVEN, Conn. – In a lecture hall on Yale's storied Old Campus, not long after an afternoon astronomy class has cleared out, a middle-aged sex toy saleswoman demonstrates her technique and hands out free products to an eager crowd.
"I want you to close your eyes," Patty Brisben playfully instructs a young man as she rubs scented lotion into his forearm and, to raucous laughter, reaches for an electric toy and a glove. "Fantasize about having an all-over body massage."
Welcome to Sex Week at Yale, a biennial celebration that has become one of the most provocative campus events in the country.
Organizers say Sex Week gets students talking about sex in a way that's more relevant than middle-school film strips, more honest than movies and television, and more fun than requisite college health lectures.
"To get people's attention, we do have to do things a little risque and a little different than other sex education programs," said junior Dain Lewis, who was inspired to direct Sex Week 2006 after attending the 2004 event.
Yale's event, which ends Saturday, includes lectures from dating specialists, a sex therapist and a discussion of homosexuality with a former Roman Catholic priest. More provocative sessions include a panel of porn stars and stripping lessons from a Playboy Channel hostess.
Critics say Sex Week is just the latest act of debauchery at colleges in recent years: Students started sex columns. Vassar and others created erotica journals. Harvard launched H-Bomb, a magazine featuring suggestive pictures of undergraduates. Washington University in St. Louis offered a sex-themed week with orgasm seminars and condom telegrams.
"I don't see how bringing a Playboy stripper to campus is helping anything," said Travis Kavulla, editor of the Harvard Salient, which joined other conservative newspapers in giving Sex Week the Collegiant Network 2004 Outrage Award. "How are universities trying to educate students in sponsoring activities like this?"
Sex Week is a recognized student organization but Brisben's company, PureRomance.com, sponsors the events, not Yale. Advertising helps pay for marketing and for Sex Week at Yale, the Magazine.
The magazine contains sex advice for men, help for selecting the right condom and suggestions for women trying to satisfy themselves.
Editors say they're promoting sexual awareness, not sex. The magazine includes an article encouraging abstinence until marriage, a guide to healthy relationships and an essay on unrequited love.
The interview with the porn star, organizers said, was just for fun.
"It would seem like we were trying to intellectualize sex if we didn't have something on the other end of the spectrum," said Whitney Seibel, a senior psychology major who posed for the cover wearing only red panties and a strategically placed arm.
About 25,000 copies were distributed at Yale and on other campuses nationwide. The editors are considering a second printing.
While Yale may be giving off a flirty vibe this week, Brisben said she was surprised at how reserved the students were at her seminar. And for all their good grades, Brisben said Yale students seemed less clued in about sex than students elsewhere.
"I have a lot of inhibitions and fears that I'm not sure where they come from. And I don't know how common," said Kaja Wilmanska, a 20-year-old sophomore from Poland. "It opens up the ground to talk about issues people aren't comfortable talking about otherwise. Basically, I want to see what other people are saying."
Students complain that the dating scene is notoriously complicated at Yale, where every grade matters, every extracurricular is essential and everyone is in competition. Last year, author Natalie Krinsky made that awkward scene the star of her novel "Chloe Does Yale."
That's why Lewis says lectures such as Dating 101 are valuable. Lewis wants Yale to help other schools host their own versions.
"In planning it, I'm saying, 'Could I justify the educational value of this to my mom?' If we can, we're in good shape," Lewis said.