Cynics will say it was ever thus, and this time the cynics will be wrong. There are indeed some new things under the sun or—perhaps more accurately, given the nocturnal nature of the beast—under the moon in higher education these days. Welcome to the halls of Toxic U, a school of experiential learning to which parents are never invited. Toxic U is not always visible; many students aren’t even aware of it day to day. It exists in a kind of shadow world, entered itinerantly from one’s dorm room through something like a looking glass—or, more likely, through that first accepted Facebook invitation to what turns out to be the wildest party on a given Saturday night. Often, that’s how the newbies matriculate.
Every autumn, as regularly as bells chime in campus clock towers, some unknown number of the fresh and the young and the promising slip through that modern looking glass onto a different quad. It features things that many have never known before and from which no one in authority can protect them now. At Toxic U there are no authorities; instead, there are predators and prey. By day, its students look like everyone else on their campuses—talented, hopeful, and privileged beneficiaries of the finest universities and colleges in the world. By night, on that other quad, some would be as unrecognizable as werewolves to the people with whom they have hitherto spent their lives.
With the exception of a glimpse via Tom Wolfe’s brilliant, underrated 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons—which paints, in extraordinary detail, the step-by-step descent into just such a world of a naive young girl on scholarship and in search of social status at a prestigious school—this is barely charted terrain. Once in a while, one or another relevant new study pops up, such as the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study reporting that an eye-opening 19 percent of college women said they had experienced “completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college,” or any number of other studies showing that binge drinking and heavy alcohol use are higher among college students, male and female, than in the noncollege population. More often, other such studies don’t make the headlines they should. One 2004 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, for example, shows that either having sex or taking drugs or both significantly raises the risk for suicide and depression in young people and that adolescents who do not have sex or do drugs are at low risk for suicide and depression. Such glimpses behind the facade of Toxic U quickly pass, however. Soon enough, no one’s looking, and the traffic back and forth from the day campus to the nocturnal one goes on as usual.
It’s not as if parents don’t have reasons—sometimes hundreds of thousands of reasons—to look the other way. Everybody’s a little wild in college, we all tell ourselves; it’s part of growing up. Besides, who am I to talk? And, anyway, my Jennifer or Jason is no one to worry about. Clinging to one such consoling monologue or another, many parents will know little or nothing of their children’s extracurricular life after that tearful goodbye in late August at the hugging tree.
Of course many mothers and fathers—fortunate souls—will not have to worry about Toxic U at all. Similarly, many students will thrive in their four years on campus—and how could they not? American colleges and universities, at their best, remain among the most glorious and thrilling places on earth. Plenty will graduate exactly as was promised—as the beneficiaries of expanded intellectual, social, and other horizons, replete with fond memories and enriched understanding—and with dignity and sense of self intact.
This essay is not about those students. It is, instead, about those who, like Charlotte Simmons, arrive naive to Toxic U, have experiences antithetical to those of the students who thrive, and exit four years later exploited and changed for the worse. I Am Charlotte Simmons is fiction at its best—meaning that the existence of real people like Charlotte has become an increasingly well-documented and depressing fact.
Begin with one of Toxic U’s defining pastimes: binge drinking. College students today drink far more heavily than most of their parents will remember—or believe. A 2007 report from the U.S. Surgeon General notes that around 80 percent of students drinks alcohol; no surprise there. But 40 percent of students reports binge drinking, defined by the Centers for Disease Control as at least five or more drinks in under two hours for men and four or more for women. And remember: Those numbers are just the minimum definitions of binge drinking. Furthermore, one in five students engages in “frequent episodic heavy consumption,” which is defined as having binged three or more times over the preceding two weeks. As drinking increases on campus, so do fatalities. According to a 2009 article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, “Alcohol-related deaths among college students ages 18–24 rose from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005,” the last year for which the researchers had data. The problem appears particularly likely to penalize young women, who usually are smaller than men and who metabolize alcohol differently from men. Hence, as most adults know but many students apparently do not, women get drunker than men from the same amount of alcohol—a point to which we will return.
To anyone still doubting that the binge drinking scene at Toxic U really is different, at least in quantity, than most of what came before, consider a quick tour of the campus linguistic scene. Like arrow loops in medieval castles, the slang called into being by binge drinking offers slivers of windows on a world otherwise unseen.
Pre-gaming, for instance, refers to drinking fairly large amounts (usually belts of hard liquor) on the early side of an evening, before going out. Shotcicles—a highly efficient innovation likely untried by Boomer parents—are vodka-infused ice cubes, both potent and easy to hide. The terms beer slut and beer whore are likely self-explanatory; they also reflect the continuing reality that girls are not exactly treated with kid gloves at Toxic U, especially by boys with, say, a six-pack and half a fifth of vodka inside. To be wearing beer goggles means to have had so much to drink that one finds available members of the opposite sex more attractive than one would if one weren’t so drunk. (Example: “When I saw that dog the next day, I knew I must have had my beer goggles on when I picked her up.”) And a safety buzz—an innovative term of almost metaphysical charm—refers to the state of having swallowed just enough of some mind-altering substance to be able to claim deniability or reduced culpability for what happened afterward.
Something else new under the moon at Toxic U—and well documented of late—is the change in what might laughably be called romantic mores. What most parents knew as “dating” has been replaced at Toxic U by what some of their sons and daughters know as the hookup culture. This culture is defined, primarily, as involving one or another kind of sex act at any given time between people who may or may not know each other, with the understood proviso that the act leaves no strings attached. No, the hookup culture does not describe what all the college students of the land are up to every night of the week. But for certain students—those in the habit of slipping, here or there, into Toxic U—it is one more part of a world that their parents almost certainly would not recognize.
In 2006, a particularly informative (if also exquisitely depressing) contribution to understanding hookups was made by Unprotected, a book first published anonymously. The author was subsequently revealed to be Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist who treated more than 2000 students at UCLA and grew alarmed by what she saw. In her book she cites numbers suggesting that psychiatric-consultation hours doubled in a few years and notes that 90 percent of campus counseling centers nationwide reported an upsurge in students with serious psychiatric problems. She also describes some of her own mental-health cases and their common denominators: drinking to oblivion, drugging, one-night sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and all the rest of the hookup-culture trappings. In 2007, Washington Post journalist Laura Sessions Stepp published the widely discussed Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. Stepp’s book was based on interviews with many high-school and college girls. In it, the author argued that hooking up actually had become the “primary” sexual interaction of the young.
One particularly insightful look at the intersection of the bingeing and hookup cultures is Koren Zaickas’ book Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2006), in which she details her activities at Syracuse University and elsewhere. As that and several other confessional accounts show, skeptics who say it was ever thus miss the boat. It isn’t only that dating has turned, for some, into no-strings hookups. It isn’t only that drinking, or even heavy drinking, has turned, for certain others, into drinking to oblivion. It is at the intersection of those two trends that one finds the core curriculum of Toxic U.
The link between binge drinking and the likelihood of sexual aggression for both men and women is clear. For example, the authors of a 1993 book, Sexual Assault on Campus: The Problem and the Solution, used figures from the studies then available to estimate that in cases that fell under the rubric of “acquaintance rape,” some three-quarters of the men and half of the women were drinking at the time of the assault. Such figures track with more recent ones. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) mentioned earlier was prepared for the Department of Justice and based on surveys of more than 6800 students. It likewise noted several substance-related traits that significantly raised the risk for assault. Among these were how often the women reported getting drunk, how often they had sex when drunk, and how often they attended fraternity parties. The CSA report also specifies that freshman and sophomore girls are at far greater risk than are older students—a fact not widely known and likely to be of keen interest to those with daughters in their first or second year of college.
Fraternity membership also pops up in a meaningful way in these studies. More than a quarter of the women who reported cases of “incapacitated sexual assault,” for example—that is, women who admitted to having been too drunk or stoned or date-drugged to give “meaningful consent”—also reported that a fraternity member was the assailant. (According to various other sources, by the way, many college men are unaware that sex acts without “meaningful consent” are, by definition, illegal.) Similarly, just being a sorority member also significantly raises the risk of sexual assault, both because sorority members, as a group, drink more than other young women on campus and because they associate more frequently with men from fraternities.
One more confirmation of the connection between binge drinking and sexual aggression comes from the intriguing work of Thomas Johnson, a psychologist at Indiana State University. Johnson has studied drinking games by polling hundreds of students about their reasons for engaging in them. He found that 44 percent of the men—surely an astonishingly high percentage—reported “sexual manipulation” as their motivation for playing. Another astonishing fraction of the men—20 percent—said they had done things after playing drinking games that would qualify as sexual assault. These games, too, experts and nonexperts agree, are disproportionately to be found in the Greek system—a fact that does not mean all fraternity brothers are also pledges at Toxic U but does mean that Greek life obviously is sending a reliable supply of recruits there.
One final feature that separates students attending Toxic U from those who have gone before is the unprecedented public attention that pornography and related sexual displays garner on some quads. Much of this public display is orchestrated by students themselves, to little apparent controversy. Consider the development of pornographic or otherwise explicit student magazines, among them H Bomb at Harvard (“a literary arts magazine about sex and sexual issues”), Vita Excolator (life enriched) at the University of Chicago, Outlet at Columbia, Boink at Boston University, and more.
Student entrepreneurship aside, making the campus safe for smut appears to have become something of a cottage industry among those in charge too. Certain academic departments, for example, include courses in which pornography is “studied” as an art form or for its purported social meaning. There is extracurricular stuff too, including movies shown at parties attended by girls as well as boys—another illustration of how times have changed. Sometimes, in the name of the First Amendment, more ambitious projects flower. In 2009, for example, several campuses across the country screened Pirates II, which was billed as the most expensive pornographic film ever made. When the University of Maryland refused to do so because of political pressure from a congressman, student outrage was one visible result.
Then there’s the apparently booming business of Sex Week. Founded by a Yale student in 2002, the event—which has since spread to many other campuses—is an extended experiment in ideological doublespeak. Sex Week purports piously to “push students to think about sex, love, intimacy, and relationships in ways they never have before.” To translate, the event brings professional sadists and masochists, pornographic movie stars, and other specialists in sexual esoterica to campus to instruct students in every imaginable form of sex. (For a detailed report, see former Yalie Nathan Harden’s “Bawd and Man at Yale” in National Review, April 5, 2010.) It’s enough to know that at one movie screening last year, even the presumably jaded participating students halted a featured film because the sound of a woman screaming in pain—part of their instruction in how to enjoy sadomasochism—grew unbearable.
Those who defend Sex Week and its like with earnest appeals to free speech seem never to have considered just who benefits most from pushing more “sexual awareness” onto the most sexualized generation yet to walk the earth. One of Sex Week’s sponsors is Pure Romance, a company that describes itself, primly, as “the nation’s fastest growing in-home direct sales company specializing in romance and relationship enhancement products.” In addition to spreading its wares all over campus during Sex Week, the company also stands to benefit financially in yet one more way, and from its access to young women in particular. Apparently patterning its sales method on the Avon and Tupperware models of in-home sales, it invites women over eighteen to join the ranks of its purported 40,000 consultants and hawk sex products to their neighbors and friends. American Apparel is also a sponsor of Sex Week, a fact the company mentions as it pitches its underwear to college girls.
The good news—and, yes, there is good news for anyone who has managed to read this far—is that the bad news about Toxic U has at least gotten serious, well-meaning people to consider how to improve matters.
The binge-drinking epidemic has led many colleges to tighten their rules. At Cornell University, to take one of numerous examples, administrators have been working to reform the system. The university no longer allows freshman to attend Greek parties where alcohol is served, for example. (Such parties currently are part of the recruiting process, as they are at fraternities and sororities everywhere). Similarly, since the headline murder of a young woman by her estranged boyfriend, both lacrosse players, at the University of Virginia in May 2010, UVA has been looking for new ways to flag potentially dangerous students. One thing the school has done, for example, is to establish a rule that any student involved in an encounter with the police has to report that fact to campus authorities or stand in violation of the honor code.
One interesting—albeit, perhaps, counterintuitive—effort to detoxify the American college campus began in 2008 under the auspices of the Amethyst Initiative. Started by a group of current and former university and college presidents and chancellors frustrated by present levels of alcohol-driven deaths and related tragedies, the Amethyst Initiative argues that the federal law maintaining the drinking age at twenty-one—a law in place since 1984—is not only an enforcement failure but also indirectly responsible for the “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking” itself. Allow students to drink more openly and legally, the argument runs, and “pre-gaming” and the rest of the furtive and fast imbibing of hard spirits will become less attractive. It is an argument that resonates with many, including this author, who went to college when the drinking age was eighteen and whose experience of drinking alcohol consisted of going out for pizza and beer on Saturday night rather than blacking out and getting one’s stomach pumped. For what it is worth, in the course of writing this essay, I also asked a number of current college students of my acquaintance, scattered on campuses across the country, what they think the solution to binge drinking might be. One said spiritual renewal. The rest said the same thing as the Amethyst Initiative: Lower the drinking age.
The problem with this otherwise congenial argument can be summarized in two words, however: cars and boys. Data on traffic fatalities since 1984 confirm that death rates went down when the drinking age went up. And although the causal connection may not be quite as ironclad as most people assume—some researchers question whether enforcing seat-belt laws might have done the trick instead—almost everyone finds it intuitively obvious that keeping at least some alcohol out of the bloodstreams of at least some young men has made it harder for at least some of those young men to kill someone with a car. Faced with the imposing monolith of safety groups led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which was and remains a relentless scourge of the Amethyst Initiative, the 135 presidents and chancellors who believe otherwise seem stuck at a stalemate.
What else, then, to do about Toxic U? One possible answer: Opt out. Cynics, of course, will say once more that Toxic U can be accessed at any school, regardless of that school’s creed—that bingeing and date rape are distributed evenly all over. But, here again, the cynics are wrong, and obviously so. To take just one uncontroversial example, binge drinking is significantly lower in California schools than in schools in the Northeast. Many other differences can be measured via crime statistics and related information about given campuses. As for the benefits of attending some religious schools, especially, the most compelling testimony often comes not from administrators or statistics monkeys but rather from students themselves.
After last spring’s murder at the University of Virginia, a senior at Patrick Henry College, a conservative, Christian school, penned a brief reflection on the differences between certain campuses. The past four years, he observed, had seen no murders or violent crimes at Patrick Henry. He concluded:
Critics mock us for our strict rules like no dancing or drinking on campus, no members of the opposite sex permitted in your dorm room, nightly curfew hours—and the lack of a social atmosphere it creates. We have been the subject of books (God’s Harvard), television shows, op-eds, and countless blogs who rant against our brand of overbearing right-wing Christianity that poisons society’s freedom. Yet, what is the cost of students being able to “express” themselves? Is that freedom worth the cost of drunk driving deaths, drug related violence, and love affairs turned fatal?
In September 2008, reflecting in the Wall Street Journal about the differences between her own experience at super-secular Tufts University and her sister’s at Michigan’s Christian Hillsdale College, journalist Ashley Samelson made similar observations:
The posters on the walls in my all-female freshman dorm at Tufts offered information about eating disorders, what to do if you think you have been sexually assaulted, and suicide and depression hotlines. The Hillsdale walls that I saw were covered with advertisements for quilting clubs, charity opportunities and a listing of local churches.
Despite such testimonies, there remain other and, often, compelling reasons why religious schools don’t fit the bill for many. One reason is that some families aren’t religious themselves or are too divided to find the option attractive. Another, doubtless more influential reason is that most parents share a goal of sending their high-school senior to the best and most prestigious school they can—because they trust their child, rightly or wrongly, to stay out of Toxic U; because their child has academic or athletic gifts that are better served at some schools than others; because statistics show their child will get a better job coming out of a prestigious college; or because, like Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons, their son or daughter wins a scholarship. What can those people do?
This brings us to a second approach: Support the counterculture. Here, too, and partly, if perversely, thanks to Toxic U itself, good news abounds. During the past several decades what were isolated malignancies in the sixties metastasized into today’s binge and hookup cultures. Yet, by now, these same decades also have seen the raising up and radicalizing in reverse of a number of institutions and people—a small but growing counterculture—that would not have come into existence except in reaction to Toxic U.
These countercultural institutions include the nondenominational Love and Fidelity Network, which had its start at Princeton University and now has representatives on numerous other campuses. There is also the Christian Union, formed with nothing less than a mission to “reclaim the campus for Christ,” and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where growth has been particularly dramatic. Founded in 1998 explicitly to resist the combined heft of “binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, and moral relativism” on campuses, in a dozen years FOCUS has expanded to more than fifty colleges and universities and more than 4000 students.
One more way to push back against Toxic U: Bring back early marriage. The most compelling reason for the existence of the hookup culture is not a change in human nature. It is not even a caving in to peer pressure. It is, rather (and perversely), efficiency. Students who do not expect to marry anyone they meet in college have no reason to “invest” in their romantic partners. This is one reason why yesteryear’s boyfriend has become this year’s one-night stand. What’s needed is to change this “efficiency” expectation according to which young people will not “get serious” about anyone else until years later. The fact that this efficiency explanation comes at least as much from tuition-paying parents as from students themselves makes this recommendation an especially challenging one for mothers and fathers.
As Tom Wolfe so presciently understood, the biggest story on many campuses today is one that goes beyond the binge and hookup cultures alone. Similarly does it transcend policy quarrels over the drinking age, or scholastic ruminations about what, exactly, constitutes sexual aggression when neither party even remembers what day of the week it is.
In the end, a tour of Toxic U reveals something more profound. We have, on its grounds, in our time, the best petri dish for observing the workings of the sexual revolution. And the evidence in this petri dish testifies to one overriding and widely overlooked truth: Contrary to the liberation it has promised (and still promises), the sexual revolution instead empowers the strong and penalizes the weak. Yet it continues to reach into every dorm room with the false messages that women and men want the same sexual things and stand at the same sexual starting line. Those lies are what makes the world of Toxic U go round.
This is what all the latest social science about nocturnal doings on the quad really shows us. As strong as they are, as educated as they have become, as successful in the workforce as they obviously are, young women nevertheless are also the bearers of a nature that is being ignored at great peril to them. They are weaker in their tolerance for alcohol and willing to go farther to please the opposite sex. They are weaker constitutionally in the sense that the very behaviors that define Toxic U—binge drinking and hooking up—are documented and said by all, including remorseful girls themselves, to be more likely to damage girls than to damage boys.
The kids are all right, we keep being assured. The kids are all right. And a great many of them really are. But Charlotte Simmons wasn’t all right, and, given the latest round of updates about Toxic U, we now know that she’s far from alone. The question of what to do about that looms large for all those readers who would have saved Charlotte Simmons if they could.
Mary Eberstadt is a contributing writer to First Things, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and consulting editor to Policy Review. Her most recent book is The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (Ignatius).