Too conservative?
On a recent to visit Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, I picked up a copy of the student newspaper and read with interest an op-ed by Michelle Hope, "Is Rhodes too sexually conservative?" What prompted Michelle's article was a conference she attended the prior weekend for college editors. The topic? Sex and relationships on college campuses. The host? Trojan, the condom manufacturer.

 

Little surprise, then, at Michelle's embarrassment to learn that her small liberal arts school in the buckle of the Bible Belt was the only college (among Princeton, UNC, Harvard, Duke, Rutgers, and others) without condom machines in the dorms. Rhodes also had the distinction of being one of only two schools without a sex column in their student publications.

 

Upon reflection, Michelle felt this explained the "shallow culture" in which many of her peers found it "hard to meet new friends" and had difficulty reaching "closure on failed relationships."    "Huh?" you twitch. More in a moment.

 

More liberal approaches

While Rhodes students may feel deprived of condom machines and sex columns, students at other schools have had the "benefits" of both for some time now. On a growing number of campuses, student-run magazines, like H Bomb (Harvard) and Boink (Boston U), include nude photography interlaced with sex news, forums, and polls to help students "learn from others who are on the same journey," according to Boink editor-in-chief, Alecia Oleyourryk.

 

On some cutting-edge campuses, students also get the bonus of live demonstrations and hands-on learning. At Yale, students organize a week-long program featuring sex toys, porn stars, sex therapists, and Playboy strippers. The program, called Sex Week, is underwritten by PureRomance, a company specializing in "relationship enhancement products."

 

It is ironic and sad that a generation steeped in postmodern cynicism, hangs on the insights of sex merchants as prior generations might have a papal address spoken ex cathedra.

 

One attendee, 20-year old Kaja Wilmanska, fretted "I have a lot of inhibitions and fears that I'm not sure where they come from." Not, mind you, that the sponsors aim to answer the question at the heart of Kaja’s fears. Rather, organizers hope that by presenting sex in a "more relevant" and "more fun" manner, students will begin talking about it. (As if that’s ever been a problem.)

 

When asked why porn stars and strippers, a female psyche major offered, "It would seem like we were trying to intellectualize sex if we didn't have something on the other end of the spectrum." Yeah, intellectualizing sex could be a real bummer. It might spark a modicum of critical thinking and cause students, like poor Kaja, to question the value of advice given by "bedroom accessories" peddlers and equally-confused peers.

 

College relations

In her article, Michelle connected the deep unhappiness of her female colleagues with the relationship options available to them: The “hook-up”--a casual, one-time sexual encounter; "joined at the hip" --an exclusive relationship with a significant other; or "friends with benefits" --buddies who occasionally have sex together without further expectation.

 

Strangely missing from the list is courtship and dating; you know, the time-honored custom in which two people determine compatibility and, over time, learn about things like respect, communication, conflict resolution, commitment, sacrifice, and the control of sexual impulse for the well-being of the other. It seems, for modern coeds, dating is either too demanding or unhealthy.

 

As one female Swarthmore student explained to the Christian Science Monitor: "No time, no money, and no need."   For career-minded women, dating has become an expensive, time-consuming activity. Another Princeton coed put it this way: "Getting involved in a relationship is like taking on two extra courses." For others, like Michelle, exclusive relationships are "ultimately co-dependent."

 

Those attitudes remind me of an article about author Gail Sheehy in UTNE magazine a while back. Sheehy beamed that increased longevity had increased the time available for three different careers and…"three different partners." This is great news. We no longer have to expend unnecessary energy, or lose our identity, in an unsatisfying relationship. We can either trade-up as our needs evolve or cash-in if it becomes too taxing. (I bet you’re feeling giddy with the possibilities.)

 

Sheehy applauded the recent decision of a sixty year-old acquaintance to leave her second husband; not because he was neglectful or abusive, but because his goals didn’t track with hers.  In short, joy over silver anniversaries should give way to praise for "heroic" decisions to disengage and move on.

 

Filtered down to today’s coed yearning for intimacy, the message is: "Dating and exclusive relationships, bad; hook-up, good" --much to the delight of college males.

 

In a bygone time, a guy had to risk rejection by asking a girl out. Today it is the girl who becomes vulnerable by asking the guy out and, if she develops feelings, initiating discussions about the future of their relationship. On campuses where women outnumber men, girls even reverse the roles of predator and prey. The competition for male attention is so great, one Columbia coed told the Chicago Sun-Times, that "A lot of girls [hit on each other] to get men going."

 

However, a dark question awaits the successful coed the next morning: How to slink back to her dorm in a "walk of shame," while her conquest struts in his "stride of pride." Sadly, many college women have settled for a subculture that serves the interests of men, making guys "players" and girls "sluts."

 

Some choice, huh?

So what’s a desperate coed to do? "Get drunk first, and don’t bring a condom," says a Stanford educator. Sure, you might contract herpes or get pregnant and need an abortion, but your "reputation will be fine." Some choice, huh?

 

In her article, Michelle also mentions the alcohol use among young women who want to "fit in" and have their emotional needs met. She rightly acknowledges the self-perpetuating aspect of the "hook-up" culture, noting that "men no longer have to work for their conquests" nor "feel pressure to form committed relationships." And she decries the tragic unhappiness this has created for many of her classmates.

 

But surprisingly, Michelle thinks there’s nothing "wrong with the hook-up" --in theory that is.  As to what the ideal hook-up would look like, Michelle doesn’t say. She merely concludes with a call for open communication using campus forums and newspaper columns. While that may seem a reasonable strategy, history tells another story.

 

A quick lesson from history

C.S. Lewis once remarked that the problem of old: conforming man's desires to age-old virtues had become: conforming age-old virtues to man’s desires. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ideals of Sigmund Freud and Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.

 

Believing that man's greatest happiness was in sexual satisfaction, Freud argued that traditional morality created inhibitions that led to neuroses. Sanger felt similarly, calling the morality of self-denial, "cruel," and advocating a "salvation by sex."

 

In Pivots of Civilization, Sanger wrote, "Through sex, mankind will attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform the world, and light up the only path to an earthly paradise." Sanger believed that open communication about sex and birth control would help deliver us from the yoke of conscience and usher in the utopian age.

 

Thanks to Sanger, and the Sexual Revolution she helped spawn, there has been more education about sex and contraception than in any other era.   Yet, forty years after the revolution, we are not experiencing Sanger's utopia but, reeling in a dystopia of burgeoning divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, single parent homes, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases with all of the concomitant problems of abuse, poverty, and emotional trauma.

 

At the same time, a new generation of young people has emerged with more access to information and freedom for experimentation than ever before. But as the personal stories of students reveal, freedom without any moral pegs is paralyzing and frightening. Unable to "look up," in desperation, they look around to what their peers are doing and feeling, seeking advice from each other in campus forums and columns, or from sex product marketeers and, in the end, left to wonder why they can’t get their social lives together.

 

Maybe if they "looked up," they would discover they were not designed for a string of unencumbered encounters, but for an enduring relationship--one foreshadowed in a time-honored institution.

 

   “’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”St. Paul

 

For Further Reading:

Is Rhodes too sexually conservative? by Michelle Hope, The Sou'wester, April 19, 2006

Boston University to Launch 'Boink' Magazine October 2004

Porn Stars, Sex Toys Part of Yale Program  ABC News

Is dating dated on college campuses? Christian Science Monitor

Girls just as bad as boys    Chicago Sun-Times

Pivots of Civilization by Margaret Sanger

Scripture Reference: Ephesians 5:31-32 (New International Version).

 

 Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: centurion51@aol.com.