In Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel, the beautiful 18-year-old Charlotte Simmons leaves her home in the South to attend prestigious “DuPont University.” There she finds brilliant professors, gifted fellow students, extraordinary athletes, impressive gothic towers, impeccable lawns—and, of course, flowing kegs and plenty of utterly meaningless sex.
Charlotte didn’t go to college looking for booze or hook ups. Yet, like most of her peers, she found herself drawn into it—and who could blame her? Culture influences conduct. Students want to be—and want to appear to be—normal. So it is hardly surprising that many will be swayed by whatever happens to be regarded as the norm.
Like the fictional “DuPont,” Princeton, where we teach, is a wonderful university; but like other colleges and universities there is a dark side to its social life. Our students are bright, enthusiastic, and eager to learn. Most did not come to college bent on boozing and hooking up. Many feel deeply ambivalent about these aspects of campus life. Yet, they find little support on campus for the “alternative lifestyle” of living by traditional moral virtues.
More than a few freshmen of both sexes arrive believing that romantic relationships are properly oriented toward marriage and that sex belongs in marriage, not outside it. They do not want hook ups; instead, they aspire to what an earlier generation would have called courtship. How hospitable are colleges and universities to these students?
Whether it is a private institution such as Yale or a public one such as the University of Delaware, the truth is that things begin going badly for them right off the bat. Princeton is all-too-typical. As part of the freshman orientation program, students are required to attend an event entitled “Sex on a Saturday Night.” It consists of a series of skits ostensibly designed to discourage “date rape.” For years, critics have contended that the play, which features vulgarity and suggestive conduct, does nothing to serve this laudable goal; rather, it reinforces the campus culture of sexual permissiveness, primarily by shaping students’ expectations to include sexual license as normal.
And then there is “Sex Jeopardy” (officially “Safer Sex Jeopardy”), an event that Princeton freshmen are “strongly encouraged” by the University to attend. Modeled on the long running television game show, this activity invites students to show off their knowledge of such topics as anal intercourse, flavored condoms, dental dams, sex toys, and sado-masochism. As described by one female student, Sex Jeopardy is “suffused with sexual bravado and conveys the strong impression that only someone with hang ups would have a moral problem with hook ups.”
Colleges and universities across the country sponsor countless events and programs such as these that, however well-intentioned, tend to reinforce libertine attitudes towards sexuality and relationships and to marginalize and even stigmatize traditional ideas about virtue, decency, and moral integrity. Just think about “Sex Week” at Yale, which these days scarcely raises eyebrows.
What can be done?
Most universities have established non-academic centers of various kinds that provide educational, social, and counseling support. Princeton is again typical. We have the Women’s Center, the International Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Center, and the Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. Whether or not one agrees with the ideological bent of some of these centers, at least they represent the University’s effort to meet what are perceived as the needs of certain segments of our student body.
Moreover, university health centers and residential advising programs typically provide assistance on body-image and eating disorders, binge drinking and alcohol abuse, and sexual health and sexual harassment.
Conspicuously absent, however, are centers or programs offering meaningful support for students who desire to live chastely. “Sexual health” offices do not supply the need because staff members see their roles, not as promoting self-discipline and high moral standards, but as providing “non-judgmental” advice about how to have sex while avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.
So while universities are willing to speak out on the dangers of alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and date-rape, they sometimes treat as privileged—in practice, if not in theory—the moral view that any sexual conduct someone happens to desire is good, healthy, and acceptable, so long as it is consensual and “safe” from the risks of pregnancy and disease.
But this is not fair to students who see things differently. Nor is it fair to students, especially women, who experience pressure to make themselves sexually available as the price of being treated as normal and feeling accepted. Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist formerly at the UCLA Health Center and an important writer on the collegiate hook up culture, notes the widespread phenomenon of young women who abuse alcohol to overcome their reluctance to behave promiscuously. Our own students tell us that the link between binge-drinking and the hook-up culture reported by Dr. Grossman is all-too-real. Can we not all agree that this is a tragedy?
To help to come to terms with these problems, some thoughtful and concerned students at Princeton and other universities have proposed the establishment of centers on campus to support students who seek to lead lives of moral integrity and decency. We are sure that alumni and friends would step forward with financial support to make such “Love and Fidelity Centers” possible. A single generous alumni donor could make an enormous difference at his or her alma mater by contributing a sum far smaller than what would be required to establish an endowed chair or renovate a building.
Some universities, including Princeton, have student-run societies for students who oppose the hook up culture and wish to support each other in resisting it. The emergence of these societies is encouraging, but they are only part of the solution. Students are strapped for time and don’t have the experience or professional skills to provide the level of guidance and support that their peers need when it comes to important questions of sexuality and morality. Universities know this—that’s why at Princeton, for example, in addition to the student gay Pride Alliance, the Queer Graduate Caucus, LGBT Task Force, and the LGBT Staff and Faculty Group, there is the University’s LGBT Center, with a full-time paid University staff member committed to LGBT support and activities. For the same reasons, there needs to be university support for students who want to live and conduct their relationships honorably in the face of the hook-up culture.
The needed centers would serve three functions: First, they would sponsor intellectual events featuring scholars from the social sciences, philosophy, psychiatry, medicine, art, religion, history, and literature. Some of these events would no doubt be co-sponsored by LGBT centers and other units that would enable students to consider competing points of view on matters of sexual morality, marriage, and romantic relationships. Second, they would provide alternative social venues and special events for those like-minded in their commitment to chastity and those who simply seek a night out without the pressures of sexual expectations. This is by no means a foreign idea, as LGBT centers provide similar services for students whom they seek to serve. Third, centers would support students in their efforts to conduct their lives in line with their beliefs and to live up to the standards of morality they set for themselves. They would provide literature, sympathetic ears, and appropriate referrals.
Tom Wolfe’s “Dupont University” is in fact every campus. Colleges and universities need to open their eyes, and then their minds and hearts, to the needs of students who struggle to lead chaste lives despite their immersion in the culture of promiscuity that Wolfe so vividly describes. Which institution of higher learning will be the one bold—and compassionate—enough to lead the way?
Robert P. George and John B. Londregan are professors in Princeton’s Department of Politics. A version of this article originally appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.