The scene was Princeton University's annual health fair. Students milled about, taking advantage of the free dental screenings and flu shots. One table with sexual health information offered prizes for the winner of a raffle. To participate, a student must pick a question from a fishbowl, and answer it correctly.
One young man decided to take a chance. He handed the question to a woman behind the table and waited. "What's BDSM?" she asked.
"B.D.S.M?" He shook his head. This hadn't been in his SAT review course. He was stumped.
"Bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism," she explained with a smile.
Too bad. Now he wouldn't be taking home any of the cute plush toys displayed, each one representing a different STD: the bright yellow Herpes, the pink Pox (Syphilis), the blue-grey Clap (Gonorrhea), and my favorite-an adorable, Kelly green Chlamydia. These "Giant Microbes" were the raffle prizes. But he could help himself to the free condoms, of course.: those were for everybody.
"What does BDSM have to do with health?" I asked.
"Well," I was told, "it's just good to be aware. Just so you'll know what it means if it comes up in conversation."
Princeton students seeking further "awareness" may turn to another Ivy League resource. Columbia University's popular GoAskAlice.com is staffed by health educators. Their stated mission is "to provide readers with reliable, accurate, accessible, culturally competent information and a range of thoughtful perspectives so that they can make responsible decisions concerning their health and well-being." You'll find queries here from outside the Columbia's community as well, including high school students.
Alice, the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, indeed provides excellent guidance on all sorts of health issues. But some might wonder about that portion of the site called "sexual permutations," which offers guidance to readers interested in a menage a trois (check out the personal ads in local alternative newspapers, advises Alice), and swing clubs ("If partner(s) are changed or added," we learn, "precautions such as condoms and other safer sex strategies can help keep all involved healthier.")
It's here that young people can also find the phone number for the Eulenspiegal Society. In case that comes up in conversation while you're doing your holiday shopping, you should know that it's "the oldest BDSM support group in the US." But there's no need for Columbia students curious about sadomasochism to leave school grounds: they can attend a weekly meeting of a student organization Conversio Virium, "dedicated to discussion, education, and peer support concerning BDSM issues."
From their website, it sounds like there is more happening here than discussion. One of the organization's rules: "demonstrations must not produce permanent, long term, or graphic physical injury."
Some of the Fall semester's events:
Bondage 101: "get the basics of beautiful and functional rope-work . a very hands-on workshop . bring four lengths of 30-foot rope ."
The art of piercing: "if you like the idea of playing with needles, this meeting is one not to be missed."
Caning 101: "the cane can be a very frightening device . but with skill and finesse, the cane can be used sensually and lovingly."
Dominance and Near-Death Experiences with Jeff: "A practical guide with demonstrations."
All this takes place at Columbia University's Hamilton Hall, whose entrance is graced with a statue of Alexander Hamilton, an alumnus. And in case you're wondering what it takes for this esteemed institution to draw the line on campus activities, fear not: smoking is strictly forbidden on university premises.
Some Ivy League students are calling for awareness of another sort. In a September column in The Daily Princetonian, Kyle Smith (Class of '09) urged campus health officials to provide students with hard data about the prevalence among his peers of STIs-the real kind, not the stuffed raffle prizes.
There is "a false sense of security," he wrote. Students believe that "higher SAT scores guarantee safe sexual activity." A campus nurse informed him that this is not the case, but that warts, herpes, and chlamydia are significant problems on campus. Kyle wants to see the hard numbers available during Freshman Week, "so that all our choices can be informed."
Lets hear a round of applause for Mr. Smith.
But a word of caution too: in the event that campus health officials provide those hard data, be aware that they represent the number of diagnosed infections, not the true number of cases. HPV, herpes, and chlamydia are silent epidemics; for each person with symptoms, there's at least one without.
Just so you're aware. In case it comes up in conversation.