The Safety Dance

At Oberlin, even sex fests are conducted by the book.

Monica Schneider, a 20-year-old student with a mop of curly brown hair, owns the distinction of being the only woman at the Oberlin library wearing a miniskirt and bra made from one long strip of pink tape. She's wrapped so tightly that she can't sit down, let alone use the bathroom.

Schneider, who works here as a writing tutor, initially felt a little timid about walking in so scantily clad, but she has a party tonight, and there's no time to go home and change. "I was just kind of hoping not a lot of people would come by today," she says, as a woman meanders by without even a backward glance.

It's November 8, and the campus throbs in anticipation of Oberlin's Safer Sex Night, or as Schneider calls it, "Naked Christmas." The annual event was initiated by a student organization in 1991 as a reaction to the college's timid handling of the AIDS issue. But over the years, it has turned into a celebration of sex for sex's sake.

There's a table in the student center with free condoms and information about STDs, and every hour, organizers offer a demonstration on safer-sex techniques, but the atmosphere is more fetish ball than sex ed.

At 11 p.m., a pimped-out guy takes the stage with a woman in a white corset to demonstrate the proper use of a dental dam. A science-video voiceover provides directions as they pantomime oral sex. Her faux climax brings hoots of approval from the crowd.

Then the music kicks back in. "I love it when you call me Big Poppa," Notorious B.I.G. croons as the crowd grooves. Two women dance seductively, casting their shadows on a screen showing lesbian porn. A man in bunny ears grinds with a boyfriend in a tied-off T-shirt, who apes Britney Spears circa ". . . Baby One More Time."

It's all in the name of a good time, says Patrick Richardson, a psych major dressed in leopard briefs, an oxygen mask, and handcuffs. "Usually I feel pretty timid, but it's Safer Sex Night. It's the Mardi Gras. It's the exception to the rule."

But is it educational?

"The only thing Safer Sex Night is good for is: 'I've always wondered what he or she looks like naked,'" says Dan Harsha, a junior who edits a campus alternative newspaper. He skipped this year's party, scoffing, "I outgrew that."

On the morning of the party, one student scolded an organizer hanging posters advertising the event. "This isn't promoting safe sex," the student complained. "This is just promoting sex."

It's an easy charge to make, what with all the hardcore porn and half-naked revelers, but one of the organizers, Lee McKeever, sloughs off the criticism. "Yes, if they really, really try, they can leave here without learning anything," she says of attendees. "But there's a lot of good information here."

Maybe she's referring to a video presentation of the movie Bend Over Boyfriend, in which women strap on dildos and use them on their men. A poster on the TV reads, "This is very informative and highlights the many uses of lube."

Nothing on this ultraliberal campus happens without politics, debate, and protest, and sex is no exception. In past years, organizers caught heat for advertising with pornographic posters in places where underage townies might catch a glimpse. Last year, alcohol was banned because the combo of booze and bondage gear caused too much unwelcome groping.

This year, for the first time, men were required to cover their nipples. Women can't go topless because of Ohio indecency laws, and allowing men to do so was deemed sexist.

In line to get into the party, a male student asks, "Do you have tape?"

"Yes, for nipples," answers a gruff woman minding the door.

"Can I have some?"

"For what?"

"Nipples," the student deadpans.

"Just bring back my tape."

If nipples are banned, little else is. Men wear boxers, spandex, lipstick. Women wear bras, bikinis, or corsets. A young woman leads her boyfriend around by a leash. ("Ew! Ew!" her friends squeal. "Can I get a hug?" the boy asks.) One guy wears a dishrag over his butt, a hat over his penis, and a bra for good measure.

In a room down the hall from the dance floor, two women guard a tent. "Tent of Consent!" shouts Christina McNamee, like a carnal carnival barker. "Someone must want to go to the tent for a consensual good time."

The tent provides a private place to release the urges built up from all the dirty dancing. But this den of sexual freedom comes with a set of rules governing access:

1) Present yourself with partners to tent staff.

2) Request to perform a specific act.

3) All parties must agree to specified act.

4) All parties must agree on a "safe word."

5) The tent staff will not admit anyone who is too intoxicated to give or receive consent.

6) You have 1.5 minutes in the tent.

"So you can have sex in there?" someone asks.

"If you can have sex in a minute and a half," says Sara Ris, the other tent guard.

"We don't want people to go and actually have sex in the Tent of Consent," McNamee explains, "because we don't want to clean up that mess."

The tent is designed to be a teaching tool. Students are supposed to follow the posted rules in the tent -- and their own bedrooms. "It's just so everybody understands what consent is and so that everything is explicit and agreed upon," McNamee says.

But even McNamee admits she doesn't follow the rules at home. "There are other ways of checking for consent," she says. "There's implied consent."

A woman in fishnets, a thong, and tuxedo shirt decides to try the tent. She is accompanied by her boyfriend, who wears jeans and a leather jacket with no shirt.

"What are you guys going to consent to?" McNamee asks.

"I'm going to fuck her mouth," the boy says.

Taken aback, McNamee stammers, "Do you consent?"

"I consent," the girl says.

"Use protection," McNamee advises, then points them toward a condom bowl.

The girl picks out a vanilla one wrapped like a lollipop.

Inside the tent are a few couch cushions and an old blanket -- all the charm and titillation of a stolen moment with your high school sweetheart in your parents' basement. McNamee waits outside, staring at her watch. Exactly one and a half minutes later, she yells, "Time!"

The girl comes out looking frazzled, with tuxedo shirt half-open. Her boyfriend follows, his jacket slung over his shoulder like a conquering hero. Neither seems to mind that their makeout session turned into a game of Beat the Clock.

As the night winds down, Patrick Richardson -- the young man in leopard briefs and oxygen mask -- is led in his handcuffs by his girlfriend, Madeleine Solomon. She wears a black fishnet dress that shows off her underwear. Together, they look primed for a romp in a sexual dungeon.

But, like so much of Safer Sex Night, it is merely the illusion of hedonism, carried out within carefully delineated boundaries, with all the authenticity of a '70s theme party.

"Are you going to have sex?" someone asks.

"I have a paper to write," Solomon says ruefully.

"Home to study for a psych exam," Richardson sighs.