Sexual Ethics: Princeton’s Peculiar Double Standard

Russell K. Nieli

In polls taken as late as the mid-1960s, eight in ten Americans said they disapproved of premarital sex. One suspects that if surveys of public opinion had been available at the start of the twentieth century—before the effects of the first substantial change in sexual mores that occurred during the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties—the level of condemnation would have been almost unanimous. Sex outside of marriage was something strongly condemned by the prevailing Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religions in America, a view that found reinforcement throughout most American homes, schools, churches, and colleges. Almost all the institutions of society pulled in the same direction. While breaches of the prevailing ethical code were all too common—sexual self-restraint has never been humanity’s strong point—approval and endorsement of such behavior was associated in the minds of previous generations of Americans with “free love” libertines and assorted moral decadents.

The sexual revolution that began in the second half of the 1960s radically changed all this—upending America’s traditional values regarding sex in less than a generation with the sudden wrecking force of a tidal wave. By the mid-1970s, what had previously been the province of marginalized libertines and unconventional bohemians became the common coin of much of mainstream America—a development that those who could remember the older dispensation found utterly astonishing. In polls taken in the mid-1970s, roughly two-thirds of Americans indicated they no longer had any moral problem with premarital sex—a situation that clearly influenced the U.S. Supreme Court, when, in 1972, it expanded the scope of a 1965 holding that had found a constitutional right of married couples to use contraceptive devices, to include a right to such devices for all individuals, whether married or unmarried.

This momentous change in public opinion could be seen in an ever greater tolerance for a host of practices that had previously been seen as inimical to a wholesome and socially responsible marriage, sex, and family life. Recreational sex, illegitimate births, cohabitation, easy divorce, group sex, homosexual activity, mate swapping (“swinging”), and many other practices and developments once almost universally condemned by mainstream society were by the mid-1970s losing much or all of the social disapproval that had previously attached to them.

The cause of these remarkable changes in public attitudes is the subject of controversy. The affluence of the post-war period, birth control pills, Playboy and the pornographers, the hippie culture, career-oriented feminism, the decline in religious observance, greater population mobility, the pervasive influence of Hollywood and the advertising industry, and many other factors have been cited as contributing to the change in public attitudes and practices regarding sex that occurred in the period between 1965 and 1980. Economist George Akerlof has made a strong case for the view that the immediate precipitating factor was the introduction of effective birth control pills in the mid-1960s, a development that enabled unmarried women to engage in sexual activity without fear of pregnancy for the first time in human history.1

According to Akerlof’s account, when a significant number of single women began using the pill recreationally and experimentally, and willingly engaged in sexual relations that aimed neither at marriage nor lifelong commitment, chaste, modest, and more traditional women—who would have preferred to live by the traditional sexual ethic and abstain from sexual intimacy prior to marriage—found themselves at a huge disadvantage in seeking boyfriends and husbands. By the mid-1970s, “put out for me or I’ll find someone else” was the message they all too frequently received from the young men in their lives, young men growing up in a culture that increasingly viewed premarital chastity as old-fashioned and was rapidly losing whatever elements of traditional male chivalry and gallantry had managed to survive the feminist assault of the 1960s. Given such a choice, Akerloff says, many traditional women were pressured into overriding their personal desires.

As more and more single women began having casual sex, within a very brief time older sensibilities were lost, previous moral restraints were overthrown, and a new liberationist ethic regarding sex became the order of the day. Those coming of age at the close of the twentieth century would find the more restrictive sexual ethic of their parents and grandparents thoroughly unrecognizable. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, premarital sex for men and women was the norm not only on college campuses but in most high schools, and increasingly in junior high schools as well. The libertine and bohemian ethic of the past had become the dominant ethic, while “traditional morality”—as the older ethic came to be called—was ever more marginalized and consigned in the minds of many to the dustbin of an oppressive, Victorian-Puritanical past.

While many liberals celebrated the passing of the old order, things looked very different to many conservatives. Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, was among the more fervent public intellectuals who in the face of these seemingly relentless developments stood athwart history and yelled “Stop!” The sexual revolution, Kristol proclaimed, was a male scam: “All men are, to one degree or another, natural predators when it comes to sex.”2 Traditional restraints regarding sex, Kristol argued, were not intended to curtail people’s fun—and certainly not to oppress women—but to channel the otherwise chaotic and predatory nature of male sexuality into socially constructive bonds of love, marriage, and responsible child-rearing. This was the common sense wisdom of the ages, Kristol said, and only a society deeply troubled and confused by liberationist fantasies could fail to grasp it. Since a women’s sexual desire is ordinarily more suffused with a yearning for human connection and long-term love than is a man’s, Kristol explained, the sexual revolution served as a way for predatory men to get what they had always wanted without compromising with female wishes or needs. While both parties were thereby debased, Kristol insisted, since sex even for men can never be a wholly animal act, women were most hurt by such an arrangement—even though, under the pressure of feminist ideology and fear of being ridiculed and spurned by men, they weren’t supposed to say this.

Other conservative critics saw the sexual revolution not only as harmful to male-female relationships, but destructive to the capacity of those caught up in it to benefit from a traditional liberal arts education or to appreciate the greatest treasures of Western art, literature, and music. Early involvement in sexual activity, the late Allan Bloom proclaimed in The Closing of the American Mind, renders its participants “flat-souled.”3 Early and frequent sexual experimentation, like early experimentation with drugs, renders the inner core of such people so jaded, burnt out, and spiritually dulled, Bloom contended, that they find it very difficult to develop the higher human capacities for romantic love and commitment, or any kind of moral and aesthetic refinement. The effects on students, Bloom held, are much like early involvement with heroin or cocaine:

The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures. (79–80)

As a result of their early sexual experience and the pervasive effect of eroticized music and videos on the generations that came of age in the wake of the sexual revolution, most of his college students, Bloom observed, had lost the capacity for appreciating the greatest art, literature, and music of the world, or making of it a guide to their moral and spiritual uplift and development. Classical music is nearly dead for young people, having been replaced by rock; pornographic and semi-pornographic videos have proven more alluring than Rembrandt or art appreciation classes; and almost no one feels inspired anymore by the greatest books of Western philosophy, religion, or literature. Having “studied and practiced a crippled eros that can no longer take wing,” Bloom wrote, most college students today are deaf and blind to what liberal arts education traditionally had to offer (122). In addition, the sexual revolution, according to Bloom, has had a de-spiritualizing, de-romanticizing, and overall coarsening effect upon male-female relationships. Eros no longer soars—but it often crashes.

This “flattening of the soul” is particularly evident, according to Bloom’s account, in the case of his male students, who are no longer capable of relating to the kinds of romantic experiences and heroic quests that lay at the heart of much of the greatest poetry, music, and art of the Western world. To his male students, Bloom reports, romantic love and the charming rituals of courtship that often surrounded and protected it seem “as alien…as knight-errantry” (116). “What do you expect me to do?” one student asked. “Play a guitar under some girl’s window?” (117). To this young man and his friends, Bloom explained, such courtship rituals seemed as absurd as “swallowing goldfish”—the wacky campus fad of their grandparents’ day.

It was easy for critics to bash Bloom’s claims here. “What can a fifty-year-old conservative academic,” they asked, “possibly understand about male-female relationships among college students?” Yet the enormous popularity of The Closing of the American Mind among the first generation to come of age since their parents ignited the sexual revolution should tell us something. Many of the millions who bought Bloom’s book—including college students and young people—obviously found something within its pages that struck home. Like so many outsider perspectives (think Tocqueville and Myrdal), it was the perspective of this conservative, homosexual, middle-aged college professor that captured what “insiders” often understood obscurely or not at all.4

One post-sexual revolution college student who didn’t need to learn from Bloom was Wendy Shalit, a graduate of Williams College. In her sensitive memoir, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, Shalit described the constant pressure she and other young women felt during their college and high school years to conform to the culturally dominant liberationist ethic that seemed all-pervasive. Shalit decided early on that she wanted to remain chaste until marriage, a decision arrived at, it seems, by a combination of natural modesty, a powerful romantic streak, and the very different and apparently much happier male-female relationships she came to know through studying the courtship and marriage ways of her Orthodox Jewish grandparents.

Remaining a virgin on today’s college campus—or even in many of today’s high schools—is an enormous challenge, Shalit shows, and the pressure to conform during high school and college was so great, she says, that to avoid conflict and confrontation she often lied to others, making up stories of sexual adventures and experiences that never took place. In explanation of these lies, she writes:

I think I sensed there was something I needed to protect—namely, my virginity—even though in public I knew it was something to be ashamed of.

When you’re young, you learn to cling eagerly to anything that will give you the appearance of being normal. And having sexual experience, I understood right away, was normal.5

On the Williams College campus and in her high school, says Shalit, people who didn’t have sexual experience were constantly berated and treated as deviants and weirdoes, a view that even extended to some of her very vocal and opinionated college professors. “If in a different age a young woman had to be ashamed of sexual experience, today she is ashamed of her sexual inexperience” (189). The pressure, she suggests, came from everywhere: male and female students, sex-ed instructors, debate coaches, feminist scholars, popular movies and magazines, and many other sources. “[I]t’s the woman who waits who is now treated as a freak,” she writes. “It’s as if wanting to wait for more is taken to be some kind of cultural crime....[I]n this post-sexual revolution era, a young woman may freely cohabit, but she may not choose to wait. If she does, there must be something wrong with her....[I]f you say no to enough guys, word may get around and people may start to think you are really weird” (188, 227).

What Shalit desired most in college was something she never received—minimal support for her commitment to modesty from the surrounding culture and the larger adult world. She pined, she says, for adult “interference”—that is, for adult guidance and reinforcement in the matter of modesty and sexual self-restraint. But it was never to be had. As a teenager and young adult, she writes, she found herself in the strange position of having frequently to lecture older adults “about why they should be lecturing me....I’m always pining for someone to young-lady me. As in, young lady, what are you doing? Where are you going? But no one ever young-lady’s me, so I have to young-lady myself” (196).

In an earlier age, of course, colleges did a good deal of “young-ladying” to their female students, as well as exhorting their young male students to act like “gentlemen.” Meanwhile, both male and female students were subjected to a chastity-encouraging and culture-reinforcing web of parietal rules, chaperoned dances, single-sex dormitory life, curfews and visiting hours at dorms, resident advisor supervision, etc. But all this was swept away during the 1960s, leaving students (often quite literally) naked and unprotected. Raging adolescent hormones and a popular liberationist ethic unmitigated by countervailing voices from the adult world and surrounding media environment produced the contemporary “hook-up” culture on college campuses so brutally—and accurately—depicted in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004).

Which brings us to Princeton University’s decision to deny the request made early in 2010 by the traditional values-oriented Anscombe Society to support a chastity and abstinence center on campus. To many of us who can remember an older, more delicate pattern of male-female relationships—and who recognize the overwhelming struggles faced by young people like Wendy Shalit who want to follow such a pattern—Princeton’s decision seems utterly incomprehensible. Here is a group of decent, conscientious, highly moral young people who seek nothing more than minimal institutional support in their efforts to resist the pressures of the campus hook-up culture. And their only demand is basic fairness.

As the Anscombe Society members have pointed out, Princeton University clearly is not neutral regarding the values of the sexual revolution and the standing of conservative students who reject its liberationist values in the name of an older, often biblically-informed tradition of premarital chastity and sexual self-restraint—a tradition that from its beginnings in 1746 until the late 1960s Princeton itself assiduously upheld. When one considers that Princeton was founded by evangelical Presbyterian ministers during one of the many periods of religious revivalism in America, that all of its presidents into the early twentieth century were ordained Christian ministers, that throughout most of its history and as late as the early 1960s Princeton's students were required to attend regular, on-campus chapel services, and that even today its official motto (emblazoned under its official seal) remains Dei Sub Numine Viget—“Under God’s Power It Flourishes”—one gets a sense of just how radically removed are the liberal sexual ethics Princeton currently endorses from the values and orientation of its biblical past.

Princeton officials would no doubt deny that the university endorses a liberal sexual ethic, but no objective observer of the campus scene today can take such a denial seriously. During orientation week, for instance, all incoming freshmen are required to attend a student performance of “Sex on a Saturday Night,” and strongly encouraged to participate in the university sponsored “Sex Jeopardy” game. The first purports to be a skit endorsing an anti-sexual harassment message, and while it may do this, it does so in a manner that conservative students almost universally say promotes the view that any sexual behavior is normal and morally acceptable as long as it is consensual and conducted “safely.” Within these constraints, these conservative students say, premarital sex on campus is clearly presented as if it is completely moral, expected, healthy, and in no need to be directed towards love, marriage, or even caring commitment. The message of Sex Jeopardy, a sex-ed type of question-and-answer game show, is an even stronger endorsement of the “anything goes” ethic regarding sex, say students, the sole proviso again being that the sex be consensual and practiced safely. As one of the founders of the Anscombe Society put it, “students are educated in sexual liberationist ideals,” and as long as there is safe sex and consent “any sexual behavior is morally innocent and even good.”6

Besides Sex Jeopardy and Sex on a Saturday Night, Princeton at least indirectly supports a weekly column in the Daily Princetonian, “Ask the Sexpert,” where student advisors consult with university medical personnel to give advice on such topics as the dos and don’ts of having a “threesome” or group-sex orgy, the polite way to tell your girlfriend that you find her pubic hair a turnoff, safe oral sex techniques, sharing vibrators with roommates, and many other titillating topics. Traditionalist students clearly have reason to feel that their values on the Princeton campus are widely dishonored—if not under constant attack.

What is most galling to the Anscombe Society is the fact that when the Gay Pride Alliance made a similar request for a university sponsored student center a few years back the administration readily acceded to their demands. Today, on the second floor of the Frist Student Center—the hub of the campus—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students have an attractive LGBT center, complete with meeting room, specialty library, and a university provided director to cater to their individualized needs and concerns. The Anscombe Society has asked only for equal consideration.

The Anscombe Society is clearly not asking Princeton’s administration to withdraw recognition and support for the LGBT center, nor asking the university to renounce the multiple ways in which it accommodates and upholds the values of contemporary sexual liberalism. Rather, the society is merely asking—in good, tolerant, liberal-pluralistic fashion—for an equal place at the table, and for administrative support for their efforts to lead a sexually chaste life within the context of an unsupportive campus and media-saturated environment that is often hostile to their aims. Anscombe has even offered to raise all the necessary funding for a chastity center from sympathetic alumni and other outside donors, thus sparing the university from incurring any additional expense.

In turning down Anscombe’s request, Princeton president Shirley Tilghman said that while “women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students” and sexually traditionalist students may both experience alienation, marginalization, and discrimination, the suffering “LGBT individuals and women” undergo is much greater and often backed by legal sanctions in many parts of the world. For this reason, Tilghman said, such students have a greater need for a student center where they can feel welcome and supported.7 But President Tilghman, decent and humane human being though she is, clearly has it backwards here. As the Anscombe Society explained in its response to her denial of its request, whatever the situation may be outside of the Princeton campus, on the campus itself traditionalist students who struggle to remain chaste until marriage surely have greater reason to feel marginalized and alienated than LGBT students.

If one conducted a survey of Princeton students, faculty, and administrators, one would almost surely find overwhelmingly greater support for the liberal attitude regarding homosexual conduct than for the conservative view regarding premarital chastity and sexual abstinence. Indeed, the conservative view is subject to open ridicule and contempt, while intense condemnation meets any criticism of the liberal view. (To be called a “homophobe” or “heterosexist” carries roughly the same condemnatory force at Princeton and on many other college campuses today as being called a racist or bigot.) As Princeton politics professor Robert P. George, an informal Anscombe Society advisor, has remarked: “The reality is that if you are a student trying to lead a chaste life at Princeton, you’re going to have bigger challenges than being an active homosexual.”8

As if to confirm Anscombe’s claim of a general hostility to traditional sexual ethics among many of their campus peers, the proposal for a university supported chastity center provoked a large number of hostile student emails, including several of the venomous and vulgar “what you people really need is a good f---” variety. With the exception of Prof. George and political economist John Londregan (Anscombe’s other informal faculty advisor), not a single Princeton administrator, faculty member, or dean rallied on behalf of the Anscombe Society in its request for a university center.

There was, however, support from one unexpected quarter. Dr. Brian Zack, M.D., a retired Princeton alumnus and former director of sexual health services at Princeton’s student health center, publicly supported Anscombe’s request in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Dr. Zack’s support was particularly noteworthy, since he is by no means a sexual conservative—indeed, he believes that any form of sexual activity between consenting adults, as long as it employs safe sex and does not involve deceit, deception, or the exploitation of differing power relationships, is morally acceptable. And he surely has no hidden religious agenda; though raised as an observant Jew and bar mitzvahed, Dr. Zack is an outspoken religious skeptic and great fan of Peter Singer’s secular utilitarian ethics. Dr. Zack’s support for the Anscombe petition seems based on a combination of simple compassion for the needs of marginalized traditionalist students and his belief in the importance of expanding student options. He also may have been swayed by the basic claim for fair and equal treatment Anscombe has made. Whatever the reasons, Dr. Zack’s support was sincerely welcomed.

It is hard to dispute what the Anscombe Society proclaims here, and loyal Princeton supporters can only wish that wiser and more compassionate counsel will eventually prevail and that the university administration will reconsider its current stance against Anscombe’s eminently reasonable request. As Professors George and Londregan have said, for years Princeton University “has done precious little to support students who reject the hook-up culture and wish to develop unpressured, chaste, romantic relationships with an eye toward marriage.”9

All Princeton well-wishers must hope that in the future this situation will change.

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