There’s something happening at Princeton University — something strange and unique and unprecedented. Among the imposing collegiate gothic dormitories and towering elm trees, there’s a student movement blossoming, a countercultural community growing every day in size and notoriety. What cause could be so important that it stirs academically busy, yet politically apathetic Ivy Leaguers from their studies? What is this culture to which so many students are reacting and against which they are fighting?
This culture — this dominant moral ethos on campus, this ideological and intellectual orthodoxy — is perhaps best comprehended by understanding what it has wrought. It is within this culture that a group sex scene exists on campus, that a weekly sex columnist makes recommendations so explicit they cannot be printed here, and that a signature event at one of Princeton’s celebrated and historic eating clubs is designed solely to mock marriage. On the administrative side, it is a culture that has led to and is enabled by such programs as
sex Jeopardy, in which freshmen are quizzed on such issues as the proper cleaning techniques for sex toys, and Valentine’s Day condom distribution. In a phrase, it is the hookup culture — a sexual and social atmosphere marked by impulsive sexual decision-making and casual, uncommitted relationships.
culture is crucial here, as it encompasses the full implications of the relationship decisions of modern college students. The sexual dynamic at Princeton is not merely the sum of students’ personal choices; it is not a collection of parallel
scenes of which casual hookups make up only one aspect. Whether or not informal (and sometimes anonymous) liaisons constitute the majority of sexual encounters on campus, the moral attitude which condones and, more importantly, embraces this activity is the dominant social, intellectual, and cultural trend at Princeton. And to challenge this orthodoxy, to dare to argue in favor of specific moral precepts, particularly in the realm of sexuality, is to invite at best intellectual derision and at worst social ostracization.
How did we get here? How did we get to the point that morality has been largely shunned from the most important decisions we make as college students — those regarding relationships and sex? The orthodox narrative is that we are merely witnessing the emerging realization that sex is a natural human activity subject to no constraints except one’s taste and, of course, consent. This culture, so the story goes, is organic, inexorable progress. But this explanation is deeply unsatisfying and ultimately flawed.
Ideas such as those which dominate the modern hookup culture do not simply emerge out of the ether; they are born, nurtured, and, eventually, disseminated. And the ideological nursery to which we can trace the moral apathy of today’s sexual culture is, of course, the American academy. Ideas about relationships, sexuality, and family that were once dismissed as radical have found a home not only in sociology and gender studies departments, but in the administrative policies of American universities, including Princeton.
College students today are, from the moment they step on campus, steeped in the radicalism-turned-orthodoxy that is the hookup culture. At Princeton freshmen are required to attend a student-run play that, despite its strong anti-sexual assault educational message, goes a long way toward normalizing sexual expectations before classes have even begun. And in those classes, the ideological orthodoxy in favor of sexual libertinism holds. Furthermore, challenging this orthodoxy — presenting arguments for moral responsibility in the realm of sexuality — is a risky proposition. Some students and professors may welcome the dialectic, but others will disdain it. In the end, it is often safer to remain quiet, to let lay the assumptions that are so ingrained in the mindsets of peers and professors alike. But a university where students are afraid to voice their arguments on such important matters is, clearly, failing in its central mission as an educational institution.
It was in this milieu only four years ago that some students at Princeton University, deeply troubled by the culture by which they were engulfed, founded the Anscombe Society. Named for the late Cambridge philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe, the Society was the first of its kind in the nation dedicated to the enduring goods of marriage and family, as well as the traditional sexual ethics on which those institutions are founded. One academic generation later, the Anscombe Society is at the center of a student-led countercultural movement that understands the harms — social, intellectual, emotional — of the hookup culture and is working to correct them. But if any true change is to be affected, it must be done at the University level. It is here where the ideas that have so damaged our college culture were born, and it is here where we must restore intellectual balance if we are to restore a culture that respects the true value and wonder of sex.
To this end, the Anscombe Society is advocating that Princeton University establish a university-sponsored Center for Abstinence and Chastity dedicated to supporting students as they navigate the troubled waters of college sexual culture. This institution, which would be similar to a typical university Women’s or LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Center, would have an office, a library with relevant literature, and a student lounge for socializing and peer-to-peer support. It would likely have a professional counselor to help those students who feel alienated by the hookup culture and a small administrative staff dedicated to organizing social and intellectual events with a level of funding and authority unavailable to a typical student organization. Students already staunchly committed to chastity would of course find support there, but perhaps more importantly the Center would serve as a bulwark against young people falling, often unknowingly, into the social orthodoxy and as a lifeline for those drowning in the culture and looking for a way out.
In founding an LGBT Center and even allowing its director to take active political stances (she has called opposition to same-sex marriage
offensive and homophobic), the University placed a clear seal of approval on certain sexual values, opinions, and lifestyles. We at the Anscombe Society merely ask that that same imprimatur be bestowed on chaste students and the related ethics that define their sexual decision-making. In this way, the current glaring double-standard, by which some ideas and ideologies receive official University sanction and others (such as traditional sexual ethics) do not, is happily eliminated. The removal of the stigma that marks traditional values and those who adhere to them as aberrant would have immediate positive implications for classroom debate, campus social culture, and, most importantly, individual students who are committed to chastity or merely longing for a socially and intellectually viable alternative to the dominant culture.
The Anscombe Society was born out of the excesses of the hookup culture, as students were confronted every day with the clear problems of a destructive sexual culture. But there is only so much that a lone student group can accomplish; if this culture in which so many young people are quietly suffering is to be seriously confronted, the authority of the University administration must be marshaled in the form of a Center for Abstinence and Chastity. It’s time for Princeton University and universities across the country to take a stand for their students and against the hookup culture.
Brandon McGinley is a senior at Princeton University from Pittsburgh, PA. The Anscombe Society can be found online at blogs.princeton.edu/anscombe.
This article can also be read in pdf format: an Introduction to the Campaign for the Center.