The recent New York Times exploration of the sexual world of the University of Pennsylvania claims that competitiveness and insecurity feed off each other to drive campus sexual culture:
Typical of elite universities today, Penn is filled with driven young women, many of whom aspire to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, bankers or corporate executives like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. Keenly attuned to what might give them a competitive edge, especially in a time of unsure job prospects and a shaky economy, many of them approach college as a race to acquire credentials.
In this careerist atmosphere, both men and women postpone thinking about marriage and family. The reigning sexual orthodoxy on elite campuses assumes that self-expression is an ultimate good and that consent is the only ethical parameter. As Columbia’s New Student Orientation Program tells every fresh arrival on campus, “Consent is Sexy.”
Yet this orthodoxy is not universally practiced. The Times reports: “At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey. Nearly 3 in 10 said that they had never had a hookup in college.” A subset of campus sets the tone for everyone: “20 percent of women and a quarter of men said they had hooked up with 10 or more people.” According to Tracy Lambert and her fellow researchers (“Pluralistic Ignorance and Hooking Up,” 2003), there is a phenomenon of “pluralistic ignorance” surrounding hookup culture, in which “most students believe others [hookup] primarily because they enjoy doing so, while they see themselves engaging in these behaviors primarily due to peer pressure.”
There is also “a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.” Coercion is pervasive. The Department of Justice estimates that between 20 and 25% of female college students will suffer rape before they graduate. Recent statistics at Princeton reported 28% of female undergraduates had been sexually harassed.
Many students, longing for deeper intimacy and dissatisfied with what they see on campus, opt out of the hookup culture altogether. As one of The Times‘ interviewees described her reasons for remaining abstinent, “[Sex] is the way I want to emotionally connect to someone, and I think that only a person who deserves me to be emotionally attached to them should have that opportunity to see me in that way.”
This past weekend, the Love and Fidelity Network assembled the students pictured above to arm us to fight for a humane and holistic vision of sexuality. We came from campuses across the nation—Utah to New Hampshire—from the whole range of student cultures—Franciscan University of Steubenville to Dickinson College—with international representation—China, and Mozambique!—united by a common vision. We heard from an array of fantastic speakers: Ashley Crouch schooled us on social media communication, Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis reminded us what marriage is, and Professor Robert George called us to be heroes, speaking the truth in love for our neighbors on campus.
The Times points out that many young people actually would like to commit to marriage and family, but feel pressure from their parents to prioritize career. “Am I allowed to find the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with when I’m 19?” one asked. Perhaps the individualistic sexual ethic that has been liberal dogma for a half-century is breaking down in the face of anthropological reality. A senior is quoted as musing wistfully, “‘People kind of discount’ how ‘difficult it is to find someone that you even remotely like, let alone really fall for,’ she said. ‘And losing that can be just as impractical and harmful to yourself, if not more so, than missing out on a job or something like that. What else do you really have at the end of your life?’”
We want to give a voice to longings like hers. Join us, and pray for us.