I find it difficult to believe that anybody who expresses any genuine surprise over what has been referred to as an epidemic of incidents of sexual assault on college campuses is at all in touch with what college culture is actually like. Speaking even from my own experience at the University of Chicago, where the sort of debauchery that is practiced is unbelievably tame compared to most anywhere else, I am must say that I am incredibly unsurprised. For the culture that has become, for many, the cornerstone of the American College experience, is a culture, so low, so vile, so objectifying of other people, particularly of women, that it almost willfully ignorant to suppose that sexual crimes do inevitably result from all of this.
To be sure, I do not pretend to say that profligate drunkenness and casual sexuality are at all new aspects of campus, and particularly, fraternity culture. But there is nonetheless a vast gulf between the sort of stupid things people did at college in my father’s generation, the late 1950s, when respectable people still joined fraternities, and today. There is even, I fear, I great gulf between the campus culture of today and even twenty or thirty years ago, due partly from the fact that more and more people are going to college not because they are intellectually curious but because that is what our culture and our economy expect them to do.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s was, I am convinced, very well intentioned. Let us break apart the meaningless social bonds that constrained us for so long! Let us live, and let live, especially now that we have the pill! I will not deny there is something in it. But perhaps too many people did not foresee see the serious possibility of a connection between sexual freedom, and the sexual violence we now witness.
My argument is very simple. The more sexual relations are treated as a recreational activity, the less seriously we uphold a mode of conduct for engaging in them. When placed in conjunction with excess drinking, not merely for the sake of sociability (what we used to call conviviality), but only for the sake of getting drunk, the mix is toxic. It should not be surprising that very harmful and even criminal activity can then arise. To anyone who doubts this I will recall a story about the most notorious fraternity on the Chicago campus, which was known as Alpha Del. You may perhaps know that it is the habit of many college aged males these days to rank eligible females on a “hotness” scale of one to ten, ten being the most attractive, and one being the least. But it gets worse. It Alpha Del, it was related to me, by someone I supposed to be a reliable source, that the ranking scale was only one to two. A score of two meant, “I will screw her”, and a score of one meant “I will not screw her”.
My plea is not for abstinence before marriage, or a set of Victorian values that heaps shame on anybody who has sexual relations outside of marriage. But of acceptance of a “hook-up” culture, in which people often treat each other as commodities fit to be enjoyed, are in no way the same. We can accept the former as progress, while condemning the latter as vile, and degenerate.
The important thing, however, is to explain why I feel justified in describing such a culture as vile and degenerate. It stems not from an opposition to casual sex per se, but to the terrible consequences of what a culture that embraces causal sex, and extreme drunkenness, for its own sake, can produce. I also do not in anyway excuse the many alleged perpetrators of these horrible crimes by saying that they are, in many cases, the inevitable result of a vile and disgusting side to college culture. But even as we do not excuse the criminal, it is necessary to understand the culture out of which such horrible things happen.