Originally published in the February 2013 issue of First Things.
When Yale first bowed to the spirit of meritocracy and began admitting large numbers of students from outside the New England upper class, it set in motion a nationwide arms race among high-achieving high school students. After fifty years of escalating competition, it is no longer enough to have an SAT score in the top 1 percent and a record of achievement in a single activity. To have a decent chance of being admitted to Yale, a student must be a top all-rounder: an academic star, a varsity athlete, a musical virtuoso, a community-service volunteer, and president of some extracurricular club. To have a better-than-even chance, he must be world-class or nationally ranked in one of these.
As a result, every admitted student believes he must be excellent at anything he tries. In the old Yale, campus culture developed from the upper-class traits that most students shared and the rest hoped to adopt. In the new, more diverse Yale, the only thing students share is ambition, and it determines attitudes toward grades (anything below an A-minus can be disputed with the professor), extracurriculars (hardly anyone spends four years in a club without achieving a leadership position), and even drugs. Instead of marijuana or cocaine, Yale’s pharmaceutical network now traffics mostly in Adderall, the wonder drug that, as one girl told me, “makes you want to work.” Surely this is the first generation of college students in which even the drug users are more interested in working hard than getting high.
This overachiever’s mentality has also determined campus attitudes toward sex. Few notice the connection, because the end result—sexual permissiveness—is the same as it was in the sixties and seventies, when the theme of campus culture was not overachievement but liberation, and the eighties and early nineties, when it was postmodernism and the overthrow of all value judgments. The notorious Yale institution known as Sex Week—a biennial series of sex toy demonstrations, student lingerie shows, and lectures by pornographers—wouldn’t have been out of place in either of these eras. Consequently, Yale’s sexual culture is often mistaken for mere depravity by outside observers who assume that it is just another byproduct of moral relativism.
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. This attitude toward sex is not nearly as dark as the moral relativists’ savage antinomianism, but in a way it is more disturbing.
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Nathan Harden has not picked up on any of this. That is a shame, considering that he has just written a three-hundred-page book on the sexual and moral culture of the university from which we both recently graduated. To hear it from Sex and God at Yale, students have too much sex because they no longer recognize the existence of moral values. Their professors “are afflicted with ethical apathy” and so students have cast themselves lemming-like into relativism and, perforce, sadomasochism and naked parties. After two years on campus (only two because he was a transfer student), Harden says, “I became aware that I was witnessing much more than the decline of a great university. I was witnessing nothing less than a prophetic vision of America’s descent into an abyss of moral aimlessness.” All because Yale as an institution is “plagued by a void of moral purpose.”
I rather think Yale is plagued by an excess of moral purpose—that purpose being the pursuit of perfection, however perversely defined. Its students are not relativists; they are not even radicals. They are ordinary modern liberals, with all the earnestness and all the moral blind spots the term implies. Concepts like social responsibility and public service animate them greatly (not many Gordon Gekkos in this generation), honor and loyalty less so. Their code of sexual ethics is limited—consent, respect, fidelity within a relationship, basic etiquette—but they have one.
Harden believes that Yale students look upon traditional institutions like marriage with contempt or indifference, but he’s wrong there, too. Yale students still value marriage and aspire to it. The problem is the timetable: Most of them don’t envision marrying until their late twenties at the earliest, to give themselves time to establish a dazzling career and to find the perfect partner (though why they think delaying marriage for so long will improve their chances at the latter, I don’t know). All romantic activity up to that point is just study and practice, and if there’s anything Ivy Leaguers know how to throw themselves into, it’s study and practice. Harden spent his years at Yale as a married man—having entered in his mid-twenties after several years of odd jobs in various states—which would have made his reflections on this problem exceptionally valuable. Unfortunately, he does not take it up.
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The first problem with Harden’s book is his credibility, which is undermined by the fact that he makes errors any decent fact-checker should have caught. Recycling the old complaint that today’s postmodern universities are eager to flatter every culture except their own, he accuses Yale’s religious studies department of shutting out Christian instructors while welcoming believers in more exotic faiths. He writes: “Professors who teach about Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam . . . tend to be actual believers of what they teach. It’s as if the university believes that devout faith is a mark of cultural authenticity for those—and only those—who teach about non-Western religions.”
This is false. The department has only two professors specializing in Islam and five in Asian religions, and as a religious studies major I took classes with many of them. The two Islam experts are clean-shaven German men, one of whom is actually a Jesuit, and I am not sure why Harden would impute Eastern authenticity to professors with names like Hugh Flick and Stanley Weinstein. Yale’s experts in Christianity aren’t usually believers themselves (though there are some exceptions), but neither are their experts in other religions.
The bigger problem is that Sex and God at Yale contains virtually no quotes from any Yale students besides Harden, and those that do appear are either stray sentences he overheard or things his friends said to him in conversation. I am not sure he conducted a single interview. Harden’s M.O. is to sit at the back of a Sex Week event, write down egregious quotes from the speaker or from the chatter in the audience, and then leave early, secure in the knowledge that everyone else in the audience was in complete agreement with the message on offer. At no point does he pull aside fellow students and ask what they thought of the spectacle they just observed.
If he had, he might have discovered that Yalies are more ambivalent about Sex Week than he assumes—and this is only counting the students who actually attend, which I would bet is less than half of the student body. Some of the Sex Week attendees I knew were motivated by curiosity, some by the hope they might learn something useful, and some were just out for titillation. Moviegoers paid to see Last Tango in Paris in the theater for the same assortment of reasons, and Yalies take Sex Week about as seriously as most people took that movie.
When a professional pick-up artist spoke at Sex Week 2008—a fellow named Matador, who was hawking his “Mystery Method” for seducing women—his lecture was popular, but his ideas emphatically were not. The consensus was that some of his tips might be good for boosting the self-confidence of shy men, but on the whole his philosophy was disrespectful to women. One female student who attended that lecture told the Yale Daily News, “I actually came more for the guys’ reaction in the audience than anything.” I wonder what she concluded from their reaction. If only Harden had spoken to her. The one time his book does quote a fellow student on the subject of Sex Week—she is a personal friend of his—her conclusion is, “It is just pretty degrading.” This in no way shakes his conviction that every other Yale student is an uncritical supporter.
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Most Yale students are content to confine their criticisms of Sex Week to dorm-room bull sessions, but not campus feminists. They write op-eds, blog posts, letters to the editor, and magazine articles about their objections. Yet Harden writes, “I wonder what the feminists at the Women’s Center think about all the porn that is on display around campus. Doesn’t porn degrade women?” I wonder that he wonders—in our day, their opinions on the subject were available to anyone who asked, and often those who didn’t.
“Free Speech Aside, Porn Is Pernicious” was the title of a Yale Daily News op-ed written by the Women’s Center’s “political action coordinator” during my years there. Other YWC officeholders said elsewhere that they saw a direct connection between certain Sex Week events and date rape, the objectification of women, and male sexual opportunism. Apart from the small faction that believes absolute sexual liberation is the key to utopia, Yale feminists don’t need Harden to tell them that a hypersexualized campus is problematic. Sure enough, in the essay from which Sex and God at Yale was expanded, Harden admits, “During my years at Yale, I never once set foot inside the Women’s Center.”
It is true that the feminists’ case against Yale’s sexual culture is self-contradictory, with their praise of autonomy coming into collision with objections to some of the choices that autonomy results in. That is precisely what makes the situation at Yale so tragic. Most students, not just the feminists, know that there is something wrong with pornography, serial hook-ups, and a code of sexual ethics that recognizes no restriction other than consent. They’ve all either seen the dark side of that culture or been burned by it themselves. They just don’t have a moral framework that allows them to explain why such a culture is wrong, and they don’t feel that they have any alternative. So they fall back on their most ingrained habit—setting ambitious goals and then meeting them—while all the time suspecting that there must be a better way.
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Speaking of a better way, I don’t know whether Harden is a Christian. He is silent on the subject in his book, but that may just mean that he didn’t want to be written off by readers with a bias against religion. On the other hand, he does seem to be a bit of a philistine where matters of faith are concerned. He gets bizarrely exercised over a class field trip to a mosque where female students were asked to cover their heads before entering the building. “Would any white professor dare to take his students to visit an organization that actively practices apartheid, and then instruct Yale’s black students to sit in the back of the bus and avoid drinking out of the white man’s water fountain? Just so students could gain a nice multicultural understanding of apartheid society? . . . Why then, when it comes to a field trip to a mosque, is a symbol of women’s political oppression adopted without question?”
It is odd that Harden should be so upset by a perfectly ordinary display of interfaith courtesy. My grandparents were once on vacation and found themselves attending Sunday Mass in a church that, as it turned out, was much more conservative than their parish back home, and my grandmother had no option but to jerry-rig a mantilla out of my grandfather’s handkerchief, into which he had unfortunately just blown his nose. I suppose Harden would call that a capitulation to oppression, too. I hope he never tries to visit the Wailing Wall bareheaded.
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One doesn’t need to be a Christian to give an accurate picture of Yale’s sexual culture, but to construct a practical plan for creating a moral sexual culture—or more realistically, subculture—that could thrive at the school today, it would be a helpful qualification. Students need a positive moral vision more than they need a fresh set of prohibitions, which is one reason Yale’s campus priests, preachers, and rabbis are in a better position to solve this problem than its rule-makers, the administrators and professors. The other reason is that the administrators and professors consider moral questions to be above their pay grade, and there is not much chance that these pusillanimous figures could be enticed to enter this particular fray. If they do nothing, conservatives may complain; if they do something, liberals will sue. So much for in loco parentis.
In addition to moral leadership, faith leaders could offer something more concrete. The single most helpful contribution that campus religious institutions could make would be to sponsor single-sex dormitories where adult supervision is a reality. The sexual culture of any group tends to adjust itself around the level of misbehavior that members can get away with fairly effortlessly. When young people lived with their parents and didn’t have their own cars, that level was low. At a university where male and female rooms can be on the same floor, with no adults nearby, the level is considerably higher.
Things would be much different if students’ rooming options included places where, for example, rules against visitors of the opposite sex after 10 p.m. were strictly enforced, or a packet of birth-control pills sitting on a girl’s desk raised an eyebrow. If a few more obstacles—or really any obstacles at all—were thrown up between sexual desire and sexual contact, Yalies might find it easier to turn their theoretical objections to the hook-up culture into an actual rejection of it. In 2006, Yale’s Catholic headquarters, the St. Thomas More Center, built a $75 million complex called the Golden Center (after its sponsor, Thomas E. Golden Jr.) that includes a library, a courtyard, and a meditation room. A dormitory might be something for future sponsors to consider.
There is still the problem that most college-educated Americans don’t marry until their late twenties or early thirties. It is much more difficult to ask an average eighteen-year-old to remain celibate for the entirety of his twenties than just the first half of them. But to convince Yale students to start marrying earlier, it is necessary to know their objections to early marriage. One is the fear that a romantic commitment will limit their post-graduation plans by forcing them to factor another person’s needs into their career choices. This is immaturity, and they should be told to get over it. Accommodating another person’s desires is an important part of being an adult, and if people don’t learn that skill before they marry, they are going to get an unpleasant crash course in it when they have kids. It is foolish to think that, with careful planning, one can construct a marriage—or, for that matter, a happy life—that does not involve sacrifices, and the sooner this is learned, the better.
Another objection to early marriage is that twenty-year-olds, by their own admittance, are not mature enough to make such important choices on their own. This is entirely correct, which is why young people considering marriage have traditionally relied as much on the judgment of parents, priests, and communities as on their feelings for each other. The real problem for Yalies isn’t that they are too young to choose but that the adults in their lives are in no position to advise them. A girl’s parents might have met her beau once or twice over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and her other main sources of advice—her girlfriends—are as young and inexperienced as she is.
Students cannot solve this problem on their own. The adults in their lives will have to put in most of the effort. A young woman’s parents will have to make more frequent visits, or a young man’s pastor will have to get to know his potential bride and form a judgment about her character, which he can then share with the young man as well as his parents. In cases where the parents are reluctant to entertain the idea of early marriage and want to pressure the young couple to reconsider, they are more likely to be brought around if a responsible adult can give a well-informed endorsement of the idea. Military recruiters at Yale always make a point of offering to speak to a student’s parents before he enlists, in case they’re the sort who think the armed forces are no place for someone with an Ivy League education. At Yale, early marriage is as countercultural as the military; its advocates should be just as willing to speak in its defense when relevant parties object.
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I believe that there are enough students at Yale committed to virtuous living that, with a little help, they could form a vanguard against the prevailing culture; Harden, I think, is less optimistic. This may have something to do with the differences in our Yale experiences. I threw myself into the conservative underground, which was full of students intent on avoiding the moral and ideological traps of contemporary undergraduate life, though they were not always clear on how to avoid them effectively. Within that tight-knit subculture, there was hardly a club with which I did not have at least a passing acquaintance, yet I did not meet Harden once or even hear his name until after I graduated, when I saw his byline in a magazine. He does not discuss any of Yale’s right-leaning organizations in his book, either.
Perhaps he is one of those conservatives who prefers feeling marginalized and aggrieved. In any case, while Harden may not have found these students, they found each other. Things will start to improve when those adults who bemoan the moral degeneration of the modern campus, including those in the conservative movement and in our churches, succeed in finding them.