This past November, Rolling Stone magazine published an article that told the story of a gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. This report soon became national news. When we first saw the article, we were uncomfortably reminded of Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, about sex on the college scene. We ought to have concluded immediately that what we were reading was fiction, as turned out to be the case. Our experience, however, predisposed us to assume that something like that which had been described may have happened.
There was uproar and a great deal of administrative action taken after the Rolling Stone article was published. But it is not credible that before the piece, the administration was unaware of the sexual chaos in student life. For nearly a decade, Bill Wilson was dean of the Echols Scholars Program at the university. He and others in similar positions reported to the administration what they had heard. Dozens of bright young college women told Wilson that they had been sexually humiliated, assaulted, or raped. Yet the administration’s routine response was, “There are professional programs, codes, procedures, policies, and referrals in place.” Indeed, the psychologists and therapists were already in place, the legal teams assembled, long before the storm over the Rolling Stone article.
Ten years ago in a widely circulated essay, Vigen Guroian portrayed the sexualization of the American college with “its grisly underbelly . . . the deep, dark, hidden secret that many parents suspect is there but would rather not face.” Guroian opened his essay, “Dorm Brothel: The new debauchery and the colleges that let it happen,” by recounting his own arrival as a student at the University of Virginia in 1966 at the dawn of the sexual revolution. He examined how its institutionalization changed student life in our colleges, bringing us to where we are now.
Over the years, we have listened to our students and have received testimonies in written assignments and personal correspondence about the toxic sexual environment that this university and many others have harbored. A recent female graduate of the University of Virginia wrote the following for a class assignment:
Sex pervades almost every aspect of dorm life that I have experienced. I have seen “dorm incest” (the entire floor hooks up with everyone else on the floor), [been] “sexiled,” by my roommate having sex on my dorm bed, and witnessed date rape . . .
Another young alumna describes the dorm life that she encountered when she entered the university.
I arrived at UVA first semester just like many other female University students—wanting to make friends, excited for romance (genuine romance), and getting to know bright and intellectually motivated young men and women. Much to my surprise things were not so. . . . I had been thrown with others carelessly into a long-term hotel.
Most of the people in your dorm were in the “friend zone.” Everyone was a “guy.” But even with sweatpants on we recognized we had different body parts and late at night with a couple of beers things got more intimate. We were not so much male and female as we were xx who logically should give xy what they want and what we have. We were all one mutually using and abusing non-family.
Sexual license was actively encouraged and funded by the university. From “Spring-break fun packs” full of condoms and forms of contraception handed out at the student center with a cute note from a pudgy sunshine face wearing shades saying “Have a Fun Spring Break!” to “Sexual Arts and Crafts” flyers plastered on the dorm halls—the message is clear: college is a parent-funded motel party of casual and impersonal, but, yes, “safe sex.”
Fifty years ago, when the great campaign against single-sex education commenced under the banner of the sexual revolution, it was promised that by bringing the sexes into closer proximity, a healthier environment for relations between young men and women would form. It is possible that this might have happened had our schools not taken down the conventions and institutional arrangements that for generations had brought the sexes together in a more or less orderly and purposeful way.
Back then, we were told that the old order must be abolished because the standards and conventions it embodied favored men. Young women would be sexually liberated and the “playing field” leveled. Therefore, parietal hours were eliminated and mixed-sex dorms, once inconceivable, became the norm. In the process, the new unisex coeducational colleges and universities that are so familiar to us today came into existence. These institutions committed themselves to dismantling the culture of courtship that until then colleges had accepted and in a variety of ways fostered within an educational environment.
The idea was even bandied about that in a coeducational setting, women would be better able to “domesticate” the men. That goal was soon forgotten, once marriage no longer figured as a social value and was replaced by the monolithic aim of success in a career.
In our day, the University of Virginia was an all-men’s college. The young women whose attention we sought also attended single-sex colleges. Contrary to popular myth, however, the girls, not we, held most of the cards. They controlled the availability of dates that we sought in calls from the single pay phone in our dormitory or fraternity house. What is more, we saw these young women almost always at their colleges, not at the university, since their visits to the university were restricted. This was no double standard, at least not one that worked to the disadvantage of females. None of us thought of these arrangements that way. We were on a date, and meeting young women at their dormitories in a common lounge overseen by a house mother was a reasonable extension of dating in high school and picking a girl up at her parents’ home. In other words, before the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, the “yes” and “no,” nowadays promoted as the be-all and end-all of sexual etiquette, were given moral force by a restraining and clarifying ensemble of conventions and threshold spaces that the colleges and universities saw fit to sweep away virtually overnight.
When the Rolling Stone article first broke, we received this correspondence from a young woman whom both of us had taught. After emphasizing that “the sexes have never enjoyed a state of peace” and that “misogyny and rape are as old as humans,” she continues:
Does university life make things worse? Of course. First-year dorms are meant to create a community, and sometimes they do, but dropping teenagers into this teeming isolation brings no guarantee that anyone in the multitude will care for them. Place a group of barely post-adolescent young men in an environment with little external regulation and you end up with the lowest common denominator of behavior. A university offers professors and administrators and RAs and hotlines and whatnot, but the students aren’t living in a context that teaches wisdom and cooperation and compassion. It’s a strange isolation from everyone not of the 18–22 [age] range, from children and adults who might teach you about humanity just by living in some form of community.
The environment of the new coeducational college is for many young men and women a “strange” and lonely place, a place that is disconnected from the ordinary familial, religious, and social ties that in one fashion or other continue to lend a measure of order, direction, and purpose to relations between the sexes (as well as to other aspects of their lives). As another young woman observed in a class assignment, “Students, in essence, are not touched by regulated social sanctions because,” at the university, “there is an expectation to break rather than uphold normal codes of conduct.”
When arriving at college, seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young men and women are invited into a jungle, for some, and a carnival, for others, of formless sex with no particular purpose other than recreational pursuits or momentary impulses. Relationships, when formed, are entered into and broken off as though they have been picked up at the bazaar and can be traded when the novelty or initial excitement has worn off. There is little or no promise of permanence and endurable belonging in any of this, and young women suffer the most for it. A recent alumna cited above writes:
The story is a common one at UVA. Beautiful, intelligent, accomplished young woman, like one of my sorority sisters whose one-night stand “partner” could not be bothered to pay for her taxi ride home the morning after, or a friend of a close family friend whom I saw passed out on the floor at a fraternity house at 2 am with nothing on but her underwear, or a housemate of mine who was dumped passed-out drunk on our front porch one Saturday night by a group of male students with no knock, no doorbell, just a resounding “thud.”
This account is one of the many things we have heard and seen that remind us also of the damage we do to young men by our neglect of them, by our failure to give them positive ideals of manhood, manners, and values that might draw out the best from them.
Let’s be clear: The unisex university of today is a very different animal from either the single-sex or coeducational schools that preceded it. Both of us were students at the University of Virginia at the beginning of the sexual revolution. We were here when it was an all-male institution. And with a deep sense of betrayal we have listened to some colleagues preposterously assert that the sexual anarchy and sexual violence to which our own students testify originated in the “primitive history” of our youth at the university, when boys were supposed to be gentlemen and the girls at the women’s schools ladies.
The truth is that never did we feel the ideal of being a Virginia gentleman licensed us to treat young women as inferiors with whom we could do whatever we pleased. Just the opposite. The ideal of a gentleman had the moral power to put the brakes on our most tawdry and aggressive male proclivities and to make us take pride in our manhood. Some of us took seriously one line of a poem titled “The Honor Men,” which we hung in our rooms. It said “pursue no woman to her tears.” A beautifully framed print of this poem hangs in Guroian’s university office, a gift from his students.
Certainly, both of us saw and experienced some of the immoral and destructive things that happened when, in past days, young women from Randolph Macon Woman’s College, Sweet Briar, or Mary Washington College visited the university for football games or parties on “big weekends.” Nonetheless, college life in the sixties was a very different world. This bears recalling not as an indulgence in sentimentality but rather so that we might make an honest appraisal of precisely whence we came to arrive at where we are now. Perhaps there is something to be learned from the past in order to better judge the nature of what we have wrought in the present.
Back then, everything possible was in place to prevent a rape or any other form of sexual violence from being committed in a fraternity house or university housing. Women were not permitted in dormitory rooms or fraternity bedrooms. Those notorious University of Virginia gentlemen at the “Playboy School of the South” enforced their own parietal rules, and housemothers could be found at fraternity parties until 1968. Young women who visited for an overnight stay were assigned to “approved housing” that their institutions selected, rooms more often than not in the homes of widows who had space to let. If a young woman was uncomfortable with her date, a refuge was available, and there was a curfew. “No” had the force of strong conventions and in loco parentis. There wasn’t the need for draconian rules and punishments, because the university and women’s colleges represented real standards that were reflected in the arrangements they had put in place to bring the sexes together in an orderly fashion.
In reality, the schools, whether or not they understood themselves in that role, supported habits of courtship. Today’s regime discourages dating and courtship. Dating and courtship require a private space from which each sex can depart at appointed times to meet in public. There needs to be a threshold, a space of transition that communicates to a man and a woman that “Yes, I’m going out especially to see you, to be with you.” To hang out with a guy in his room in the dorm is very different from leaving an all-girls’ dorm to meet him at the library, to say nothing of a guy going to an entirely different campus where a chaperone waits along with a date. This difference is not one of license, and it is more than a matter of chastity. It is a mark of deeper intention and purposefulness in our most intimate relations.
Our unisex colleges and universities have abolished those spaces. What remains, what they have gone about creating, are spaces that invite and accommodate hook-ups and casual cohabitation—and open opportunities for forms of sexual violence that were not likely to happen on campus grounds in the past.
Since a fraternity event was the contrived setting for the Rolling Stone article, it is instructive to compare the fraternity party of our day with the fraternity party of today at the University of Virginia. In the sixties and well into the seventies, parties at fraternities did not lure young women with the promise of liquor and a hook-up. These were not “stag” parties, to use an old expression. These were dating events. The nearest thing to today’s fraternity parties were the mixers that the university and the sister colleges sponsored. The young women arrived and departed in buses. Boys and girls came together in the grand ballroom of Newcomb Hall: There were no alcoholic beverages or bedrooms to which to slip away. Neither the dormitories nor the fraternity houses were available for bedroom sex. And there were chaperones at the mixers. These mixers were the brunt of many jokes. The same cannot possibly be said about fraternity parties today. They have become dangerous activities.
But who is at fault? Fraternities at the university have traditionally hosted parties. Today’s parties reflect the university’s change of mind, or rather mindlessness, about sex. They evolved into what they are now because the university let it happen. The same moronic judgment that assigns twenty-year-olds as resident advisors for university housing let come into existence a laissez-faire economy of sex and the accompanying debauchery. But this economy is not “sex blind.” It devalues womanhood and undermines possibilities for lasting relationships. One young woman laments:
Call me old-fashioned, but is the notion of a guy calling a girl and asking her out to dinner so preposterous? And that is just the problem: we have been conditioned to think that even a single gesture such as this is beyond the scope of expectation. It is an outright riot in my sorority house when someone actually gets asked on a date, and I hear things like, “He must really like you,” “Oh gosh, are you guys dating? Is it official now?” And the classic “Guys never do this!”
The problem is not new. Our colleges and universities have not fessed up to the sexual anarchy and formless sex that they helped bring into existence when they sponsored and institutionalized the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies. Even as the evidence has mounted to undeniable proportions that something has gone horribly wrong with relations between the sexes on our campuses, colleges will not admit culpability for the ugly scene. Most important, they will not admit that the great experiment of institutionalizing the sexual revolution has failed at the cost of many, many ruined lives.
In the wake of the Rolling Stone scandal, one might have expected the university to commence a conscientious self-examination into the underlying reasons for the present scene. Not so. The newly named President’s Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture has created work groups that will do no more than address the obvious symptoms of the sexual malaise, such as alcohol consumption, and rehash tired methods to prevent sexual violence. Meanwhile, the university turns a blind eye to the pervasive sexual chaos that our students describe. Under these circumstances, the culture certainly will not change, and as for the climate, it will be characterized increasingly by intrusive administrative procedures and policing activities.
In this regard, let’s not lose sight of the fact that a falsified report of a gang rape became the occasion for a university-wide crusade to put a stop to sexual violence of every kind. When for administrative purposes we categorize rape as one specimen among many of sexual misconduct, we lose a vital sense of the full scale of sexual disorder that afflicts college life. When we become incapable of responding to rape as what it is, an act just one step short of murder, then all else that has gone awry with sex in the university takes on the look of normality.
Already, during orientation sessions, prior and subsequent to matriculation, deans and counselors admonish newly arriving seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds to make “good decisions” as they reconnoiter a new terrain of sexual freedom out of the purview of family, church, and neighborhood. It can seem to a young mind as if college is about sex and the bedroom first, and education and the classroom second. In these sessions, nothing is indicated, nor is advice given, as to what the “good choice” is. None of the administrators are free to speak their minds on the matter. The students are left to infer that the university has no firm belief on the subject and that, so long as partners assent to sex, anything is possible and permissible.
Consequently, when an act of sexual misconduct, violent or otherwise, is alleged, an avoidance of moral standards under the pretense of extending freedom to young adults quickly and perversely turns to finding guilt in any party conveniently at hand. Thus, the false accusation against one fraternity immediately implicated all fraternities, and all of the young men belonging to them became suspects. This was a dreadful thing to watch. In our classes, we witnessed confusion, humiliation, and anger in the faces of these young men. A male student in one of Guroian’s classes lamented:
Being a ‘fraternity man,’ I have felt like I have a huge target on my back since this thing came out, and it’s tough. . . . Going beyond male-female sexuality, male sexuality in particular has fallen to a despairing place. . . . Males have been so subverted in culture sexually that there seems to be no place to exercise a healthy male pride or exhibit the wildness and chest-pumping that is part of manhood.
The university’s transference of fault reflects its claim to moral innocence. Someone or something other than the college or university is to blame. Those who cultivate moral innocence avert their eyes from the fact that evil resides in the world. This is what is implicit in the initial counsel of “good choices.” Faced with sexual violence, the allegedly “innocent” university pleads that it is not responsible, morally or legally, for the anarchic and destructive sex that happens. “It is all the fraternities’ fault. It is the fault of the benighted heritage of a Southern male institution. It is the fault of flawed policies that state and federal governments have mandated.”
Another strategy available to a self-complimentary moral innocence, confident in its purity, locates fault in some other object—a deck of cards, a bottle of whisky, the curves of a person’s body, an unpopular race, a fraternity. Regulate, remove, or hide these factors and the undesirable behavior will go away.
Dartmouth proclaims that hard liquor will be banished from campus and intensifies its war on the Greek system. It will institutionalize sex training for its students over the entire duration of their college stay and beef up security, but it will not admit that the college itself created the environment it blames others for. The University of Virginia is training unarmed security officers named Ambassadors, garbed in “neon-green vests,” to be on the lookout for students “in vulnerable states and guide them to safety.” Why not also position cameras in all dormitory rooms and suites?
Meanwhile, not a thought is given to the possibility that the new coeducational college that was brought into existence forty years ago is the “sick man” in our midst that invites American youth into the new debauchery.
There are many ironies in the proposed remedies of surveillance and reeducation. One irony in particular stands out. The same persons who in their youth supported the liberation of the sexes from so-called Victorian inhibitions and morals are now rushing to impose at colleges complex codes of sexual conduct that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. These codes reveal well the dilemma they face. When equality of the sexes became the epicenter of the sexual revolution, activists removed all of the conventions and arrangements that shielded females from aggressive male behavior. They had to do so, or else they would have appeared still to respect differences between men and women. But now, faced with rising numbers of damaged students, they must produce rules of sexual engagement that will stop the abuses and traumas. The dilemma is this: How do you acknowledge the special vulnerability of women to men while disallowing distinct codes of conduct for men and women? The current solution is to adopt a formal and abstract language that maintains the unisex ideal and keeps silent about male–female differences.
Perusing the new college “sex manuals” is like studying instructions for the operation of machinery. In this hyper-bureaucratic vision, mind and will are described to exist in a macabre, disembodied state: a Cartesian dualism gone positively mad. The University of Virginia document on sexual violence reads as follows: “A person who has given Effective Consent to engage in Sexual Contact or Sexual Intercourse may withdraw Effective Consent at any time. It is the responsibility of the person withdrawing Effective Consent to communicate, through clear words or actions, that he or she no longer wishes to engage in the sexual activity.” Sexual contact is “any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object, performed by a person upon another person.” Now who believes that sex happens this way, where persons rule over their bodies like technicians operating a robot?
Codes of sexual conduct, like these we have cited from the University of Virginia, are not what they seem. They are not preventive measures in the real world. The young women who visited Wilson when he was dean of the Echols Scholars Program and revealed to him that they had been raped or assaulted sexually were not complaining that university rules about sexual conduct had been violated or their autonomy compromised. They came to him deeply wounded; the only thing left for them to salvage was their pride in themselves as young scholars. They needed to be heard in a personal way, by someone they perceived as having moral authority capable of helping them determine how to live their lives.
Administrative and juridical rules supported by sanctions cannot make a humane culture. Only moral convictions about right and wrong ensconced in manners and customary restraints can ensure a healthy culture of relations between the sexes. Consent does not suffice for a sexual morality, not even in deciding right from wrong. Bad and harmful sex can happen even when there is consent. Human beings often consent to being acted upon in ways that will do them harm. Does consent alone make it right for me to do something with or to someone to which she has agreed but that I know will harm her?
Statements such as the following in the University of Virginia’s document on sexual violence are not neutral in content. “The University urges students to exercise extreme caution before engaging in sexual activity when either or both parties have been consuming alcohol.” This is a morally bankrupt and aseptic admonition. It gives the approval, if only with a nod, to the sexual free-for-all that wreaks such havoc on the lives of young men and women. And we should add, it has little or no influence over its audience. Youths do not heed voices that lack moral conviction.
Coming to grips with what we, the university, have done to our students, and are doing to them even now, calls for a full recognition of the irresponsibility of our current and past posturing of moral innocence, as well as for a critique of an ideology of consent that leaves very little moral ground on which to stand.
Much of what we have discussed is intramural, as we speak from fifty years of experience at a particular educational institution. Yet we are confident that what we describe is familiar to others. We have not rehearsed the history in order to go back to what was. There is no returning to the past. A culture of courtship in which sex was given form and meaning was taken down and replaced by a rudderless, sexualized campus. We do not expect that a healthy culture good for both sexes will emerge anytime soon. That will take leadership that seems nowhere on the horizon.
And the problem isn’t just the leadership at our colleges. In this fog of formless sex, students remain reticent or become defensive when they perceive that their freedom is threatened. In January of this year, the National Panhellenic Conference, an association of national sororities, instructed sorority women at the University of Virginia for their own safety not to attend the annual Boys Bid Night fraternity parties. This prompted an immediate counterreaction that has not yet played out entirely. Female students protested that this directive contradicted the gains women have made to stand on equal ground with men in social and sexual matters.
One reason the effort offends is that it comes off solely as a restriction. The conference’s directive lacked the positive social or moral context that it might well have had forty years ago. Thus, we are not surprised that young women at the university object. Nor are we surprised that the young women, many of whom attend our classes, do not see that they remain on a dangerous and uneven playing field in sexual matters at fraternity parties, or most anywhere at the university. At fraternity parties and many other places of undergraduate life outside of the classroom, the boys hold the stronger cards. This is perilous for young women. The hook-up culture that has replaced dating is all to the male’s advantage, and it threatens to turn him into a lout.
In the past century, Walker Percy observed that contemporary men and women are so used to the ragged and rapacious character of sex in their time that nothing really shocks them anymore. What used to jolt people out of the innocent’s dream life is now a thing of passive “interest” at best. Genital sex, Percy concluded, has become our last contact with reality. Cells on cells, skin on skin, has become the last evidence of being and sign of metaphysical import. But this cannot satisfy the human quest for meaning and community. Something of this order is the only possible explanation for the halo, breastplate, and sword we have extended to sex among our students, and for the furious outrage of our pathetic pretense to innocence when of late we “discovered” what has been going on around us for forty years.
A year ago, Guroian sat back and quietly listened to a vigorous exchange among thirty students in a seminar he teaches on sexuality. This was at the close of a section on the contemporary state of courtship. After a quarter-hour of intense discussion, as the classroom finally quieted, Guroian asked, “Do I hear you rightly? Are you saying that the whole thing has unraveled?” He was answered with silence. He looked around for at least one dissenting face. There was none.
Vigen Guroian is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. William Wilson is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Jefferson Fellowship at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.
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