Higher Sex Ed

Peter Wood

Eros is notorious for its power to thwart our better judgment and to baffle the rational mind. It can draw us to destinations we would do better to avoid and can prompt forms of resistance that are themselves out of balance and a little crazy. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure portrays a city under the interim rule of a Puritanical judge, Angelo, who would stamp out unlawful expressions of desire by draconian enforcement of the laws. Not only are his efforts futile, they turn out to be hypocritical, since Angelo himself turns seducer.

We are faced with a Measure for Measure moment in higher education today. On one hand, higher education is Angelo-like attempting to stamp out what it judges to be the wrong kinds of sexual expression. On the other hand, colleges and universities are dallying as never before with all sorts of “transgressive” sexual ideas. The main focus of all this is male students, who are expected to submit to a regime in which the boundary between “sexual harassment” (subject to often extreme penalties) and ordinary masculinity is vaporous; while at the same time inhabiting a campus in which faculty members extol the pleasures of promiscuity, pornography, and license.

Eros confuses, but for real bafflement, consider the mixed messages on campus.

On April 4, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, issued a letter announcing that colleges and universities must employ a new and much lower standard of evidence in reviewing complaints about sexual harassment. The new standard, “preponderance of the evidence,” means that the complainant wins when the university judges that 50.01 percent of the evidence supports the allegation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, almost immediately raised an alarm about this, and has been joined by a number of other organizations, including the National Association of Scholars and most recently the AAUP. The AAUP has sent two letters to OCR opposing the new rule, its second letter to Ms. Ali posted last week. I noted the convergence of dissenting opinions here.

Last fall, Hamilton College in upstate New York caught a moment of unwelcome attention for its inclusion in its freshman orientation program of a mandatory lecture for male students, “She Fears You.” The idea was that the young men arrived on campus with beliefs that made them prone to rape and that a legitimate part of getting them prepared for college consisted of an “emotional and cognitive intervention” to combat this tendency. FIRE protested this too; the Hamilton administration didn’t budge; but after the students assembled, they were told the event was now optional—and many left.

Hamilton College, apparently, hasn’t settled on exactly what it thinks about “rape culture.” It was against it last fall. For this fall, it has appointed Alessandro Porco to a visiting position in the department of English. Mr. Porco is the author of The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), a tribute to a porn star known as “the Anal Queen.” It includes what amounts to rape fantasies such as “Ménage à Bush Twins.” Almost nothing in his book could be quoted here, but those who need to see some prurience first hand will have no trouble finding it.

Of course, to raise an eyebrow at Mr. Porco’s writing is to invite accusations of prudery, so let me say at once that I know perfectly well that English verse has a long history of ribald joking, going back at least to Chaucer; and both Robert Herrick and Lord Rochester excelled in blue poems that aren’t typically featured in college anthologies. Mr. Porco writes in a vein that some will find amusing, and I have no desire to censor him.

Rather, I am struck by what his appointment to a visiting position in the English department of a liberal-arts college means. How does it square with the hyperventilating concern of the college’s administration to sanitize the minds of Hamilton’s male students so that they are free of the wrong kinds of heterosexual desire? How does any of this fit with the Office of Civil Rights’ concern about sexual harassment on campus?

A few weeks ago, another story caught a blip of publicity when Joycelyn Elders, Surgeon General in the Clinton administration, was appointed Chair in Sexual Health Education at the University of Minnesota Medical School, with the help of $50,000 from Adam and Eve, a North Carolina-based “sex toy company.” Adam and Eve clearly made a good marketing move, as Elders is well remembered for her remark at a 1994 UN conference on AIDS where she recommended that children be taught masturbation. “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

In February, we might remember, John Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University professor staged an after-class live sex demonstration where more than 100 students watched “as a naked 25-year-old woman was penetrated by a sex toy wielded by her fiancée.” The event occasioned some discomfort for the Northwestern University administration, and the professor later allowed he had showed poor judgment in this particular show-and-tell addition to his “Human Sexuality” course. I have written about this subject once before in an article titled, “The Coarsening,” where I referred to our descent into cruder, more vulgar, more openly sexualized commercial culture—which has found its way into higher education and disrupted older hierarchies of value. It is quite clear that higher education has a cheering section for these developments: members of the professoriate who regard it as liberating to their students to focus their attention on the wonderful variety of libidinous practices that humanity has invented. Of course, students often provide a rapt audience. It isn’t especially difficult to interest 18- to 22-year-olds in their own or other people’s bodies. The question ought to be: Do colleges and universities do this in a manner that adds anything worthy to their education?

The students entering college today arrive from a culture that is already drenched in cheap eroticism. Many probably know via the Internet more about sexual byways than can be found in all of von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. They aren’t, in any case, suffering information deficits, even if the information they possess often adds up to profound misunderstanding. Will Professor Porco’s ditties on the Anal Queen conduce to a more mature grasp of their sexuality? Will Professor Elders’ enlightened views help Minnesota’s medical students become better physicians? Is Professor Bailey’s class a path towards self-respect and proper regard for others? These are, of course, only a handful of instances. The general phenomenon is written across American higher education:  courses, speakers, “sex week” extravaganzas,  workshops, sex columns in student newspapers. We are in an age of relaxed sexual libertinism on campus.

But let’s consider this from the perspective of higher education’s changing place in American society.   Very few colleges and universities these days pay much attention to what used to be called “character education.”  The term resurfaces from time to time. There was a 1992 “Aspen Declaration on Character Education.”  The Sage Colleges run “The Academy for Character Education.” Stevenson University has a Maryland Center for Character Education.   The idea comes up, for example,  in the context of campaigns to stop school bullying.

Yet if we were really serious about helping our students attain good character, we would surely have to find some way to reintroduce into college life some serious interest in concepts like sexual modesty and self-restraint.  To the extent that these ideas currently have any play, they are to be found in sectarian colleges and universities—which tends to make them even less attractive to secular institutions.  But there are solid secular reasons for providing students with some ideas about how and why they might seek alternatives to the ethic of self-gratification as their main guide to sexuality.  Rochelle Gurstein’s The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (1999) is one place to start. Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (2000) is another.

Should we be more or less satisfied with how things are going?  The defenders of the current regime don’t look all that satisfied.  The powers that be at Hamilton College are torn between viewing all males as rapists-in-waiting, their minds colonized by vile desires–and a view of the English department as the right place to install a fun-loving celebrant of porn stars and erotic fantasies.  And the U.S. Office of Civil Rights wants to lower the bar for determining guilt where allegations of sexual harassment on campus have been brought.  The AAUP, though it dislikes the lower evidentiary standard, squarely supports the idea that “educating men and women on our campuses about sexual harassment and sexual violence, and by educating every member of our campus communities—from the Board of Trustees to students—we will create a level playing field for all.”

Maybe so.  Educate about “sexual harassment and sexual violence” on one hand, and promote sexual license and vulgarity on the other hand?  This may not be a complete contradiction, but it is pretty close to one.  License and restraint are awkward partners. Campus culture currently decrees that we should want both:  It decrees that we should strive to liberate students from conventional morality in favor of free-wheeling sexual expression, while at same time we should instill an ethic of male restraint hedged by severe penalties.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is ultimately about moderation.  We do not want to live in a society of either complete license or grim-minded enforcement of rules.  For sure, we don’t want students, or anyone, to be subject to real sexual harassment, but that state won’t be achieved by lowering the standards of evidence or by treating every male student as unknowingly the vehicle of malign intentions.  And if we really want to foster better attitudes towards sexuality, we might begin by being a little less eager to mainstream The Jill Kelly Poems,  or confer a share of a public university’s prestige on the Adam & Eve sex toy company, or offer lewd public performances as part of an academic class.   Eros, who is after all a god, is profaned by such stuff.

This article originally appeared on August 23 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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