Using Extra Protection

"Safer Sex Night" at Oberlin College has garnered a reputation for debauchery, but organizers are trying to tone it down and promote education.
October 15, 2009

First they closed the “Tent of Consent.”

Then they took away the porno and booze.

This year, Oberlin College is poised yet again to tone down “Safer Sex Night,” a notorious annual event where scantily clad students gather to party in the name of good, clean lovin’.

Amid increasing concern that the educational component of “Safer Sex Night” is an afterthought for students, organizers may require participants to attend one purely educational session before they gain admittance to the often risqué dance party. The added emphasis on sex education is the latest in a series of moves in recent years to clean up the image of Safer Sex Night, which has become a lightning rod for conservative pundits and stressed town and gown relations. Several years ago, the college banned the infamous “Tent of Consent,” which encouraged students to get frisky with one another so long as they kept within mutually agreed upon limits. Soon to follow were bans on showing pornographic films and a prohibition on alcohol sales at the ‘Sco, an on-campus dance club where the event is held.

Despite efforts to rein in Safer Sex Night, last year’s event was by many accounts an exercise in debauchery. Several intoxicated students vomited, and party-goers booed when organizers tried to perform educational skits, the campus’s student newspaper reported.

“Last year was a complete mess, probably Safer Sex Night at its worst,” Olimpia Lee, a co-chair of this year’s event, told the Oberlin Review.

Photo: Oberlin College Sexual Information Center

Safer Sex Night is promoted as an educational event, but its risqué dance party and off-color logo (seen here) are a big part of the draw for students.

Lee declined interview requests from Inside Higher Ed.

Safer Sex Night is sponsored by the Sexual Information Center, a nonprofit student organization that draws much of its budget from the popular event. The group’s stated mission is to provide “nonjudgmental and unbiased comprehensive sexuality and sexual health education,” but Safer Sex Night hasn’t always been the best forum for serving that important function, according to Linda Gates, Oberlin’s dean of students.

“The organizers of this event really do want to emphasize the educational piece of it, and that’s what they’re trying to do by toning it down a bit and making sure that people that come to the party have also participated in some kind of educational event,” Gates said.

The educational requirement for the event, which takes place in November, is just an idea at this point, Gates said. She plans to meet with organizers today to discuss options, but adds that any changes to the program will be mutually agreed upon – not dictated from on high.

“That may sound like the party line, but that’s absolutely the truth,” she said.

There is talk of limiting attendance to the event as well. While it typically draws as many as 900 students, Gates says she expects Safer Sex Night to be limited to 680 students this year because the venue is really not designed to accommodate more than that. In recent years, Oberlin has also introduced alternative activities, including a carnival, for students who may be uncomfortable with Safer Sex Night. But even additions like the carnival have been opposed by some Safer Sex Night organizers, who said administrators were trying to lure students away from the controversial event.

The challenge for Oberlin is one faced by numerous institutions that have attempted to blend sex education with activities students are likely to enjoy. The Queer Bash at Williams College, which still allows displays of pornography, was designed to promote tolerance, according to organizers. Some students have complained, however, that the event draws a drunken crowd and sometimes fails to deliver its intended message.

Vassar College’s “HomoHop,” which was similar in nature and purpose to Queer Bash, was canceled about 10 years ago in response to concerns that alcohol abuse had detracted from the event’s original goals.

There is a reasonable worry, however, that ending a longstanding tradition like Safer Sex Night merely assures it will be driven underground where it's less easily monitored. Gates says she shares that concern, and sees some appeal in keeping “the Devil you know.”

Asked if she thought Safer Sex Night would be around at Oberlin in 10 years, Gates said “some iteration will be, because sex is not going to go away, and the need for safe sex is not going to go away.”


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