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.
As Wolfe tells the story, Charlotte didn’t come to college looking for booze or hookups. In fact, she wasn’t even aware that the college culture would be one in which drinking and promiscuity featured so centrally. Yet Charlotte, like most of her peers, found herself drawn into it, and who could blame her? After all, culture influences conduct. Students, like other human beings, want to be – and want to appear to be – normal. So it is hardly surprising that most will be swayed by whatever happens to be regarded as the norm.
Like the fictional “DuPont,” Princeton is a wonderful university, but there is a dark side to its social life. Charlotte Simmons resembles many students whom we have taught. They are bright, enthusiastic, and eager to learn. They did not come to Princeton bent on boozing and hooking up. Many of them feel deeply ambivalent about these aspects of campus social life. Yet, they find little support for alternative lifestyles that involve living by traditional moral virtues.
More than a few freshmen of both sexes arrive at Princeton believing that romantic relationships are properly oriented toward marriage and that sex belongs in marriage, not outside it. They do not want hookups; instead, they aspire to what an earlier generation would have called courtship. How hospitable a campus is Princeton to these students? What support does our university offer students who seek a robust dating culture without the pressures of random sex?
The truth is that things begin going badly for them right off the bat. As part of the freshman-orientation program, all 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, suggestive conduct, and the like, 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. We have discussed “Sex on a Saturday Night” with dozens of students, including Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim students, who find it offensive to their religious as well as their moral sensibilities. Recently, some revisions have been made to the play, but it continues to imprint arriving freshmen with the message that vulgarity and promiscuity are the campus norm.
And then there is “Sex Jeopardy” (officially “Safer Sex Jeopardy”), an event that freshmen are “strongly encouraged” by the University to attend. Modeled on the long-running television game show, this residential-advising study break invites students to show off their knowledge of such topics as anal intercourse, flavored condoms, dental dams, sex toys, and sado-masochism. In the words of a freshman woman who regrets accepting the “strong encouragement” she received to attend, “Sex Jeopardy” is “suffused with sexual bravado and conveys the strong impression that only someone with hangups would have a moral problem with hookups.”
Throughout the year, there are additional events that tend to reinforce libertine attitudes towards sexuality and relationships and to marginalize and even stigmatize traditional ideas about virtue, decency, and moral integrity.
For years, the University has done precious little to support students who reject the hookup culture and wish to develop unpressured, chaste, romantic relationships with an eye toward marriage. If the University is truly to be fair to all students, we must not continue to neglect these students’ needs.
What can be done?
The first thing to do is to recognize that we have a problem. It is not a result of bad will on anyone’s part, but we are failing adequately to support a segment of our student population.
We as a community usually do our best to support and guide our students, often by offering aid for particular segments of the student body that face distinctive challenges. Princeton has established a number of non-academic centers that provide educational, social, and counseling support to various groups of students, for example, the Women’s Center, the International Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, and the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. Whether or not one agrees with the ideological bent some of these centers may exhibit in practice, at least they represent the University’s good-faith effort to meet what are perceived as the needs of segments of our student body.
Moreover, the University’s Health Center and Residential Advising programs provide assistance on questions of body-image and eating disorders, binge drinking and alcohol abuse, and sexual health and sexual harassment.
But even the sexual-health programs offer no real support for students who desire to live chastely. Rather, these programs take as a given – and thus reinforce, however subtly – the ideology of the hookup culture. They are in the business of providing technical, “non-judgmental” advice about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections. They are not directed to supporting students who seek to live by high standards of sexual morality and self-discipline. To acknowledge such standards is, some people evidently fear, to cast a negative judgment on those who do not believe in them or seek to live by them.
So while the University is willing to speak out on the dangers of alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and date rape, our programs 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 infection.
But this is not fair to students who dissent. 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 hookup culture, spoke at Princeton in September about her work with young women who abuse alcohol to overcome their reluctance to behave promiscuously. Our students tell us that the link between binge-drinking and the hookup culture reported by Dr. Grossman is no less part of the scene at Princeton. Can’t we all agree that this is a tragedy?
To help to come to terms with these problems, the University would do well to establish a center to support students who seek to lead chaste lives. We are sure that alumni and friends would step forward with financial support to make this center possible. We ourselves would be the first in line to make contributions to it.
It is true that a pro-chastity student society exists, but it is plainly not enough. Students are strapped for time and don’t have the experience or professional skills to provide the level of guidance and support that young men and women need in the realm of sexual choices. And the University knows this – that’s why, in addition to the student Pride Alliance, the Queer Graduate Caucus, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered (LGBT) Task Force, and the LGBT Staff and Faculty Group, there is the University’s LGBT Center, with a full-time 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 chastely in the face of the hookup culture.
The center our University needs would serve three functions: First, like the LGBT Center and other centers, it would sponsor intellectual events featuring scholars from the social sciences, philosophy, psychiatry, medicine, art, religion, history, and literature. Some of these events no doubt would be co-sponsored by other units of the University and would enable students to hear and consider competing perspectives and points of view on matters of sexuality, marriage, and romantic relationships. Second, it 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 the LGBT Center provides similar services for LGBT students, and even the University’s Center for Jewish Life has introduced nights of “speed dating.” Third, the center would support students in their efforts to conduct their lives in line with their beliefs and to live up to the standards of chastity they set for themselves. It would provide literature, sympathetic ears, and appropriate referrals.
There is a major opportunity here. The problem needing to be addressed for the sake of our students is in no way unique to Princeton. Tom Wolfe’s fictional “Dupont University” is in fact every campus. Princeton can, however, be the first to address the problem in a serious way and thus set an example for other colleges and universities around the country. But whether or not other institutions follow, Princeton must open its eyes and its heart to the needs of students who struggle to lead chaste lives in the face of the hookup culture. It’s the right thing to do.
Robert P. George and John B. Londregan are professors in Princeton’s Department of Politics.