Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, coming to campus this week. In the meantime, Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include a visit to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, an investigation into Columbia’s animal testing practices, and the first part of a discussion on The Columbia School. Here, editor emeritus Mark Hay sheds light on a topic more often left happily in the dark.
In 2010, a little over a week after Valentine’s Day, the lobby of Harmony Hall was populated by a smattering of dildos. Also vibrators, anal beads, remote controlled buzzing eggs, and several small, white, cylindrical containers with a slimy, soft, elas- tic sheath inside, which those in the lobby later learned was a Japanese male masturbation sleeve.
The cache of sex toys were there as part of an RA community building event—a departure from the typical Super Bowl-watching parties or cookies and milk study breaks. At the RAs’ behest, a representative of Babeland—the erotic equivalent of an Apple Store—brought this fun pack of goodies to Columbia for a demo session (not that kind of demo) of their most popular wares. While the Babeland demonstrator stressed that couples can use these toys together, the primary focus of the evening was masturbation. The most heavily marketed item, a DIY kit called the “orgasm in a box,” and a number of self-pleasure products were put up for sale to the dozen or so attendees at the end of the night.
This year, a group of students (including several RAs) got together to plan out a few routine community-building events for the upcoming semester. But the ideas they tossed around were more than clothing drives and free donuts—the email in which they recapped their ideas contained one item entitled “Masturbation.” The concept, as detailed in the discussion, was to create some kind of sex-positive, fun, masturbation-focused event or tutorial (again, not like that) hosted by Residential Life.
As the narrator of the film Magnolia would say, “I am trying to believe that this is all just a coincidence.” “It,” in this case, being the small but recurrent motif of student community builders at Columbia deciding that the late winter—mid-February, let’s say—would be a good time to help students to love themselves in the most literal sense of the phrase.
The surprising part of this recurring coincidence is that it’s not a coordinated effort by some central body of the University. Though both the 2010 event and the prospective (yet unrealized) 2012 event—and likely some in between—involved Residential Life and RAs, these initiatives were generated independently by and for students. Several RAs contacted for this story independently confirmed that Residential Life actually takes a very light hand in determining which events RAs will host. Dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs Theresa Martinez and Director of Alice! Health Promotion Michael McNeil both confirmed that no program- ming changes and no special events are planned through Residential Life or administrative health channels for this Valentine’s Day. Accordingly, it is not Columbia, but our fellow students pushing to grant us all access to resources that will help us better strangle the chicken and/or flick the bean.
That shouldn’t be too surprising either. Columbia is an extremely sex-positive campus, as attested by our top placement on the Trojan Sexual Health Report Card Rankings (issued in conjunction with Sperling’s Best Places). The award isn’t just some pat on the back for Columbia’s massive condom distribution scheme either; it is an honest recognition of the plethora of groups (over 15) working on sexual health issues, such as the accessibility of testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV, the avail- ability of anonymous sexual information, and especially the resource that is Go Ask Alice!—the one- stop-shop for nervous children all around America tentatively exploring the Internet to read more about their guilty pleasure of choice. Masturbation, especially, is an open topic here more so than at other campuses. Each year, the administration signals its friendliness early on with a Health Services Skit dur- ing NSOP chock-a-block with masturbation jokes. If any campus is equipped to make the weeks bracket- ing Valentine’s Day a masturbation-aganza, it is Columbia’s.
That we as students choose to host such events—which a totally unscientific straw poll of students at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, the University of Washington, and Eastern Washington University confirms are quite uncommon in the wider world—says something about Columbians themselves. It especially says something about the way we as a cam-pus feel about sex, relationships, love and Valentine’s Day. That feeling might be described, in large part, as lonely. The sexless Columbian is part of our perpetual zeitgeist. Logically, it makes sense that this is what happens when a sex-positive, masturbation friendly campus meets a self-aware, lonely student culture with active and independent community builders.
And we may see more of these student-led masturbation events in the near future. The one thing RAs do believe is changing within Residential Life is a growing emphasis on encouraging the RAs to produce more programming. Over the coming years, RAs will be producing more events and be motivated to make these events more inventive. With the prec- edent in hand and the spirit in the air, just imagine the events that will spring up around Valentine’s Day in years to come.
And there’s good reason to support that move and these events. In 1990, S.M. Davenport and J. Birtle published an article in the British Medical Journal proving what many of us have long suspected: Valentine’s Day can be such a depressing time that it might have a real impact on the lives and well-being of students—especially the lovelorn. Specifically, and grimly, Davenport and Birtle found a strong correlation between Valentine’s Day, emotional distress related to being alone, and failed suicide attempts. The only other holiday to share the correlation, and to a far weaker extent, was Christmas.
In recognition of the challenges and potential of this most potent, contrived, and at times alienating of holidays, many colleges do make concentrated efforts around Valentine’s Day to put out health- and wellness-oriented programming, says Alice!’s McNeil. This year, he knows, various universities in New York offered events ranging from HIV testing to speed dating, and many health groups are working to make Valentine’s Day synonymous with National Condom Day. Safe sex, relationship building, community building—all are common and more frequently pushed at colleges across America around Valentine’s Day. But a masturbatory emphasis is more uniquely ours.
For many, it is funny to see masturbation-themed events, especially falling in some loose proximity to Valentine’s Day. But to others, it is a sad confirmation and reinforcement of the stereotype and self-created identities of the lonely Columbian. At their best, these events can help to shake off the stigma and the loneliness of a natural human activity and the loneliness of a grim holiday. And at the very least, it’s another unique tradition to mark us as Columbians.