Knowledge

Sex, North Korea, and Red Wine: The Night New York Drank Smarter

Fifty professors from NYU, Columbia, and Barnard took to bars across the city to present their research to inquisitive drinkers. Did they find a thirst for knowledge?

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Lizzie Crocker on sexual liberation at the Museum of Sex

Early on Tuesday evening, some 60 people sipped red wine and champagne at the Museum of Sex in New York City, shifting in their seats while sex educator Sari Locker urged women in the room to renounce their waterproof, USB-rechargeable vibrators.

We may think We-Vibes and Rabbits are enhancing our sex lives, but Locker argues that they’re actually impeding intimacy.

And they’re all around us, she warns, advertised on our favorite TV shows (Sex and the City, Girls) and on the shelves at Target.

Why would you furtively venture into a sex shop when you can buy Trojan’s “Triphoria” massager at your local drugstore?

Locker uncrossed her legs and sprang out of her chair. “As if one euphoria isn’t enough!” Remarkably, her pained joke provoked genuine laughter throughout the room.

Curious college students, shy bankers, and middle-aged moms had come to hear Locker deliver an impassioned speech titled “Sexual R/evolution,” one of 50 talks given by a group of city university professors at intimate bars and speakeasies around Manhattan last night.

Locker, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia, lectured about how our sexual choices are too frequently determined by pop culture, the media, and marketers hawking sex life-changing dildos.

The “50 Talks, 50 Bars, 1 Night” event was organized by Raising the Bar, “a worldwide initiative aimed at making education part of a city’s popular culture,” according to its website. And the initiative draws big crowds: More than 6,000 people attended the talks in New York last April.

Last night’s topics ranged from the United States’ misconceptions about North and South Korea, which my colleague Matt attended, to “the impact of universities as progenitors of gentrification” and how that relates to the “Black Lives Matter” campaign.

I opted for lighter subject matter and community engagement. Indeed, at one point in Locker’s hour-long talk, two female grad students demonstrated “the wheelbarrow”—a typically hetero sex position.

The women were fully clothed, but this still proved to be the most entertaining part of the evening.

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Moving on.

Locker, who appears to be in her mid-30s, discussed the Fifty Shades of Grey effect: worthy of praise for destigmatizing sex and BDSM, but worrisome because, according to her anecdotal research, “people are starting to believe that good sex has to be kinky sex.”

A deluge of articles about “how to have more exciting anal sex” have given her pause. “Isn’t anal sex exciting enough as is?” she asked the credulous audience. “Too many people are concerned with their sexual performance, and it’s preventing them from connecting with their partners.”

America is the land of The Quick Fix, and—not surprisingly—people want quick fixes for their less-than-satisfactory sex lives, too.

Call her old-fashioned, but Locker is surprised. She’s also deeply worried. Her research shows that our quick-fix dependence in the bedroom has resulted in “a loss of freedom and sexual diversity.”

“Forcing yourself into a pretzel shape isn’t going to improve your sex life,” she said, pausing in a clear attempt to stress the weight of that message.

To be fair, Locker did offer some aphorisms and vague prescriptions for quality physical intimacy: “Conceptualize your sex life as a great work of art, or a great work of literature. You’re the author. Discover your unique sexuality.”

With that parting wisdom, attendees shuffled out of the Museum of Sex and into the rain, grumbling under their umbrellas about how they’d expected a more nuanced and novel conversation about sex.

“I’ll figure out how to have an orgasm without my vibrator when I’m trapped on a desert island,” one young woman giggled to her friend.

On the island of Manhattan, she’ll stick with her Rabbit.

Matt Kelemen on Korean politics at the Duplex

The Duplex bar in New York’s Greenwich Village seemed brighter than normal, the atmosphere in the brick-walled room slightly subdued.

The cabaret theater, scattered with 30 or so people, had been transformed into a lecture hall as part of Raising the Bar, an event aimed at bringing academics out of the ivory tower as 50 NYU, Columbia, and Barnard professors take to bars across New York City to present on their research.

Theodore Hughes, an associate professor of modern Korean literature at Columbia University, was tasked with presenting on How Korea Was Not Divided to an audience that was a majority Korean.

The mostly young professionals in the audience were—in the main—solo, with a scattering of couples puncturing the group. Professor Hughes’s soft voice, switching interchangeably between Korean and English, quietly addressed the crowd.

Many attending took diligent notes, heads down as if hunched over a desk, looking up only intermittently as if to see if a pop quiz lay ahead.

Though Raising the Bar aims to bring academia to the masses, the talk felt incongruous. Most drank lightly and infrequently, not even finishing a drink before the talk was over, as if not to disrupt the bookish atmosphere.

The professor’s talk was occasionally laden with academic jargon, furthering the feel of a lecture hall.

He began describing his own experiences visiting Korea as a teenager and then later studying literature there, drawing links between Mad Men, the Korean War, and his own scholarship, hoping to show the profound, but mostly forgotten impact of the Korean War on both Western and Eastern scholarship.

Next, he spoke about the Korean representations of the effects of division between North and South Korea on the 38th Parallel, stressing frequently that outsiders divided Korea.

The talk took a unique approach to examining the relationship between North and South Korea, countries which are traditionally viewed as enemies.

Professor Hughes examined the differing Korean representations of the Korean War and its aftermath and the affect of loss and dislocation it had on families who were separated between the two nations.

Professor Hughes spoke on the “delinking of identity with national space,” an application of identity politics that seemed to subvert the lowbrow mission of the event. Hughes desires a narrative where Koreans have agency in how division between the two Koreas is understood and represented.

The talk did well to highlight various Korean writers and filmmakers’ representations of the division between the two Koreas, yet, when Hughes finished, most of the questions centered around geopolitics, with the audience particularly interested in the role of the Soviet Union and United States in the division process.

The academic feel of the talk did not bother Ziv Gidron, the event organizer. He noted that American universities cost upwards of $60,000 a year, and that “Raising the Bar is democratic. The cost is free, which allows people to see professors whom most would not be able to.”

Professor Hughes, making his third appearance at a Raising the Bar event, also extolled the perceived democracy of the event. “We need more activities like this; we need more public lectures where academics can practice speaking without jargon,” he says.

The talk certainly avoided jargon and the dominant narrative around Korean peninsula relations that focus heavily on the nuclear ambitions of the Kim regime.

Edward Chin, who heard about the talk through the Korea Society, was drawn to the topic after serving as a platoon leader for the U.S. Army along the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.

He came hoping to better understand the political and economic relationship between the two nations, but stressed “It is important for people on the peninsula to get aware of what is happening,” and was happy to have heard new Korean perspectives on the division between the two nations.

When asked about recent media coverage on North Korea, Professor Hughes emphasized that “We need to consider Korea from a Korean perspective,” and it is important to understand how and why these images of an irrational, dangerous North Korea are being created.

After Hughes had finished, notebooks were tucked back into knapsacks and those in attendance quietly shuffled away. Class was dismissed, and the Duplex reverted back to just a bar again.