Sexual Chaos! The New Debauchery! Reactionary Professors Discuss Rape

They say it's about “values.” That's a very easy way of skirting the question.
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They say it's about “values.” That's a very easy way of skirting the question.
(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

It is now very much in vogue for cultural conservatives to soothe themselves by blaming campus rape on the sexual revolution. Wailing about women's liberation and moral decline is the last recourse of any rightist columnist on deadline. George Will and P.J. O'Rourke are masters of the game, but amateurs are always welcome on the turf, and, this month, two of them (both men) published a long, bullish essay in First Things, wherein the authors cite their own scholarship admiringly while attributing 21st-century college sexual assault not to Greek Life or to alcohol or even to some amalgam of contemporary cultural factors but rather to the wide availability of condoms and the legacy of Betty Friedan, or Gloria Steinem, or maybe Mick Jagger.

The authors are Vigen Guroian and William Wilson, both professors at the University of Virginia (Wilson emeritus), and they are, of course, responding to the uproar over Rolling Stone's famously discredited story about a UVA gang rape. Many advocates (let's note in passing how deeply the reactionaries have tarnished that word) have expressed concern that journalistic bungling in one instance might discourage future victims from coming forward; to which our authors say, tush: “All of this misses the mark. The sexual violence that sometimes erupts in college life is, in fact, the symptom of a deep, pervasive sexual chaos that for many years has dominated our campuses.”

“A new debauchery confronts us, brought into existence by the unisex co-educational colleges and universities that the sexual revolution gestated.”

What is this sexual chaos? Guroian and Wilson are coy on a precise definition, whether in their First Things essay or in the condensed version that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this past Saturday. They prefer the calm embrace of a foggy abstraction to more uncomfortable truths. In this respect, and in certain turns of their prose, the authors are not unlike Ignatius C. Reilly, or some drunken demagogue from Greek comedy: “A new debauchery confronts us, brought into existence by the unisex co-educational colleges and universities that the sexual revolution gestated.” You can almost hear them giggling over the verb “gestate,” to the detriment of our shared language. (I'm also uncertain what “unisex co-educational” means as a compound adjective.) Elsewhere, this chaos is expressed as a “sexual free-for-all that envelops [students'] lives,” or “a feckless institutionalization of the sexual revolution in our colleges [that] has resulted in maiming countless young people.” So much for human agency. Apparently the sexual economy of the American campus is a function of pure entropy. How can you blame the so-called aggressors, when everything's just so messy?

Guroian and Wilson sigh in unison: It wasn't always this way!

Back in the ’60s when we were students at U.Va., there were institutional arrangements, conventions and “threshold spaces” that supported purposeful and lasting relations between the sexes, and prevented the worst from happening.

A marvelously rosy and inventive version of history. Universities were, and in some places remain, horribly sexist, and the early days of coeducation in America were rife with premarital sex, sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, and secret abortions. Nor did women always meet chivalrous treatment in public. Santa Clara University—a Jesuit school—went coed in 1961, before nearly all of the Ivies, and even in this bastion of Catholic charity the women had a rough go of it. As SCU's alumni magazine reported in 2008: “Some women had food thrown at them in the cafeteria and had epithets and water balloons hurled at them while walking to class.... Sue Henderson recalls taking a logic class in which her professor said aloud, 'There is no such thing as a logical woman.'”

These indignities were central to the experience of America's first generations of women in college. Suggesting that women had it better in the ’60s, even on campuses, is like calling Mad Men a tribute to “American greatness,” as Senator Marco Rubio did after that show's recent finale.

As for the early feminists whose work Guroian and Wilson dismiss so casually, we can thank them for establishing a proper definition of rape—not expanding the definition, as though it were elastic and they were getting away with something, but defining the act properly for the first time in the history of the world. Before 1962, American law did not recognize male victims, even child male victims. It didn't recognize rape between husbands and wives, nor between unmarried couples sharing a roof. It didn't recognize anal or oral rape, or any kind of sexual abuse that didn't involve vaginal penetration. Men and women alike are now better protected under the law—an important development in which the authors have no interest.

“Under the pressure of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, our universities and colleges abolished the rules, manners and conventions of courtship that they for so long encouraged,” Guroian and Wilson continue. Presumably their next collaboration will be a reboot of Stover at Yale. These dewy-eyed sentiments about forgotten “conventions of courtship” are almost pathologically ahistorical. We might expect this from Susan Patton, the notorious “Princeton Mom” (author of Marry Smart), but from scholars we deserve better than soft-brained generalities with little empiricism and such frantic unwillingness to discuss social movements, or “the ’60s,” with any degree of nuance. The demographic and economic strata of our campuses, like those of our country, have changed so much in the last half-century that any logistical comparison is an impossibility—unless you choose to ignore those changes altogether in favor of an obsolete totalitarian philosophy.

“There was no need to take down wholesale a system that lent form and order to relations between the sexes,” our authors keen, as though observing a dispute between tribes. To frame the argument more honestly, replace “lent” with “imposed.” This puts us on the right track. Guroian and Wilson's main objection is that universities are dismantling the old systems of hierarchical regulation, that the dissolution of “courtship conventions” has in turn dissolved social order; such is the sexual chaos, the devastating power of the female libido once unleashed. This same paranoiac reasoning has been used to exclude gays from the military, and to establish separate-but-equal lavatories, and to maintain the colonial order that Churchill described as beneficent and necessary: “Indians are not fit to rule, they are fit to be ruled” (a sentiment not unlike “There is no such thing as a logical woman”).

Without form and order, the savages will tear each other apart, the gays will recruit, and the women will engender a swirl of “sexual chaos.”

Before 1962, American law did not recognize male victims, even child male victims. It didn't recognize rape between husbands and wives, nor between unmarried couples sharing a roof.

Let's look at this last point a little more closely. Are Guroian and Wilson really blaming women? Not precisely, and that's the artful dodge. “The laissez-faire sexual economy,” they write, “which the university lets happen, puts young women at risk and threatens to turn young men into louts.” This is remarkable sleight of hand, a figuration in which men are not responsible but helpless, co-victims with women in the fall from grace and loss of soul. There is a hideous conflation here between men who are merely promiscuous and those who are predatory; “lout” is a very generous euphemism for “rapist.” Elsewhere, the authors say, quite rightly, that “only the morally obtuse blame others when the blame resides with them.” Frustrating, then, that Guroian and Wilson take such pains to absolve men from any active complicity in a culture of rape that, in their own way, both authors acknowledge is real.

The sexual chaos, they say, is bigger than any of us. It is a totalizing absolution of personal responsibility, enabled by a decadent and permissive university apparatus. Professors Guroian and Wilson want us to return to established modes of courtship and all-male and all-female dormitories. Curiously, they have nothing to say about homosexuality, nor about the difficulty of placing trans students in single-sex dormitories. It's true that the question of sexual assault cannot be fixed by alcohol regulations and fraternity oversight alone. Yet to dismiss such vital elements from the equation and reduce the whole thing to a calculus of Eisenhower-era “values” is a disservice to every student on campus, and a signal of intellectual torpor.

As for long-term patterns of coupling: Among my own students, I haven't noticed any slackening in marital aspirations. Men and women alike speak chirpily about “when I have kids” or “when my wife and I can afford to buy a house”—and they mean it. (My only fear is that they will weep once they understand the housing market.) Will it take them a few more years, a few more sexual partners, before they're ready to buy a house and sire or bear children? In some cases, probably yes. “The world must be peopled,” as the poet says, and so it shall be. But the old divisions no longer hold, while the new definitions have complicated (and, for many people, enriched) courtship. In the meantime, a lot of things need to happen. We need to encourage young women and men to black out less frequently from drinking. We need fraternities to police themselves better—a process already beginning at private and public institutions across the country. We need fewer people raping other people. We also need to keep giving out condoms. What we don't need is a reversion to the social architecture of the last century, with single-sex dormitories and overt policing of gender roles—the fascism of the cloisters and the terror of the closet.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.

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