It would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire.
Take a look at the Sex Week schedule of events (if you have a strong stomach) and you will see just how much of the itinerary is devoted to instruction—how to give the best this, get the most that, and generally become as accomplished at sex as you are at everything else. “Many of us here have never failed at anything, and we don’t want to start now,” explained a rather frank female attendee of a Sex Week event called “Getting What You Really Want,” quoted in the Yale Daily News in 2010...An idea I'm willing to entertain at least as much as Sex Weeks entertain me, and I've written vaguely before about how social technology has emphasized the idea of sex as a technical skill not unlike, say, tennis, which you can play with any partner who has the basics down (and, moreover, playing with many different partners improves your skills). But I don't really know how this particular competition brings a Yalie the public recognition he craves in other arenas. Let's say that diligent Sex Week seminar attendance could you make you amazingly skilled at sex. What does this win you? How will more than a few people ever know about your great attainments? Pornography can at least broadcast your great skills to be evaluated by the discerning sex judge. But most students are not using their Sex Week knowledge to make porn or stage sex competitions, at least as far as I know. And merely boasting about one's prowess hardly requires attendance at Sex Week seminars. The students are still basically serial monogamists, hoping for eventual marriage, and with it, the confinement of their incredible achievements to one paltry recipient. Imagine if you had spent a decade studying physics, sacrificed many smaller pleasures to continuing your climb to the top, completed your PhD, and then shared all your discoveries only with your family, or you spent 10 years working on an amazing novel, but only ever permitted your spouse to read it. I suppose there probably have been people who've done that or something like it, but I doubt that such gestures were motivated by the very publicly-oriented ambition and desire for social recognition that Helen attributes to Yalies. This is, after all, an age when even amateur home cooks are not satisfied with the appreciation of their families, and set up food blogs to publicize their attainments.
Perhaps the prize in this arena is the hand of most desirable spouse, like a modern version of the footrace to marry Atalanta.* But the logistics of organizing a footrace are a lot more straightforward than those of a sex competition. And while it's possible that sexual prowess makes a candidate's resume "stand out from the pack," as career counselors say, given that most people end up interviewing few candidates and testing out the sexual boasts of even fewer, the sexual meritocracy is bound to be plagued by all kinds of injustices, and to require an affirmative action framework of its own to "level the playing field."
So if it's not done for mere hedonism and pleasure in violating decorum, then must we not attribute a certain nobility to the pursuit of sexual prowess as Helen describes it? When its attainment can bring so little public recognition to those who pursue it, it seems almost selfless, as though it is perhaps art for art's sake, or a fervent paean to marriage - vigorous self-improvement undertaken purely for the sake of the comfort and pleasure one's future spouse. It's just like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy becoming better individuals en route to becoming better spouses to one another, only by somewhat different means than those preferred by Austen.
*Behold the one-line synopsis that Wikipedia offers on the subject of Atalanta: "Atalanta is a character in Greek mythology, a virgin huntress who faces misunderstanding for refusing to follow gender norms." You may not be aware of this, but the Greeks were noted scholars of queer theory (ἡ τoῦ ἀλλoκότου φαλλοῦ θεωρία), and "gender norm" is actually an archaic Greek coinage, or 2nd century BC at the latest. It just looks strange because it's one of those arriviste indeclinable noun forms.