The NYT Mag, and Sex at Harvard

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Mar 31, 2008 3:50 PM
Of course, one would have to believe in the tooth fairy to think that a writer for Mother Jones is going to cover the pro-chastity movement among Harvard undergrads with complete fairness (I'll come back to this point at the end of the post).  After reading the big story on Harvard's True Love Revolution in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, four major points in general leaped out at me.

First:  It's impossible, from the piece, to tell whether someone who openly exercises sexual restraint is treated as a complete oddity on college campuses -- or whether they're simply covered that way in the article.  What is fair to point out, however, is the systemic difficulty of talking about traditionalist sexual mores without running the risk of sounding hopelessly dorky and strange.  It's almost impossible to sound "hip" and "cynical" and "cool" and "edgy" -- and to strike the kinds of poses that win adoring coverage from left-wing journalists -- while defending "old-fashioned" virtues like sexual restraint.  On the whole, it seemed to me that the young woman primarily featured in the story, Janie Fredell, came off very well.

Fredell's stated reluctance to "join" the chastity movement at Harvard suggested to me that the licentiousness condoned (and even celebrated) in much of the culture puts people like her in a bind.  They end up as unwilling "activists" when obviously, they'd be much happier simply being able to live their lives without having to discuss sex all the time -- if, that is, there were an environment where sexual activity on everyone's part wasn't simply treated as a given, by everyone from Harvard's administration on down.

Second:  It was disheartening to read of the disrespect that characterizes the treatment of abstinence advocates on a campus that is supposedly dedicated to "diversity" of all kinds (and I suspect Harvard is hardly unique in this regard).  It's another manifestation of elite culture's contempt for religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular.  That's because, uniquely in the constellation of virtues, chastity has somehow been defined as a matter of interest or relevance only to "religious" people.  And too often, among elites, when something has been denominated as the exclusive purview of the "religious" -- and particularly the conservative "religious" -- it becomes A-OK to treat it with disdain.  

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Third: Fredell is admirable in her willingness to take on what I've termed "do me feminism" (I discussed it here on National Review Online in the context of my book).  But according to the piece's author, she believes that "If men are commonly  more promiscuous than women, it is only because the culture allows it . ..."  In other words, in her view (assuming it's being correctly reported), sexual behavior is simply socially constructed.

Given what happened to Harvard's former president, Larry Summers, I can understand Fredell's reluctance to assert that any innate differences between the sexes exist.  But evolutionary biology itself -- deriving especially from the production of sperm versus eggs -- suggests that there is something more than simply the unjust treatment of women by a phallocentric-hegemonic-white-male culture behind the "double standard" that often attaches to male and female promiscuity.  Perhaps, even (without justifying or condoning male promiscuity), it's part of  a common sense acknowledgement that sexual promiscuity carries with it the potential for more life-changing consequences for a woman than for a man. 

Even so, again, it's worth remembering that the major problem isn't a gender-based difference in the way promiscuity is treated -- it's the fact that rampant sexual promiscuity on everyone's part -- male and female -- is treated as a universal given, and morally neutral.

Fourth and finally (finally!):  Please keep in mind that the piece's author has not approached this piece without bias.  Perhaps the best example of this fact is the following: He cites prominent academics Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner in order to work in the de rigueur condemnation of "abstinence education."  What he doesn't mention is that the duo also wrote that

 "In general, if adolescents do say no thank you [to sex], they are better off.  They have fwer health risks, and they feel better about themselves.  Programs that work to delay first intercourse make a contribution to adolescent health.  Even if we did otherwise, and even if some adolescents feel that they ought to do otherwise, they are better off waiting.  This is especially true for girls . . ."

(
American Journal of Sociology 106, no. 4 (2001) pp.  859-912 at 900).

Too bad Harvard isn't teaching its students that.