Feminism is in disarray, and its unresolved issues are slowly percolating to the surface of our culture. Naomi Wolf is currently having a meltdown in the public square. Cosmopolitan magazine, once at the vanguard of the women’s movement, has become a monthly manual in how teenaged girls can get intimate with their boyfriends. And on our college campuses, many young women are, in the name of female empowerment, having casual sexual encounters that they, by their own admission, do not want to have—the hook-up culture.
Television shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls, articles like Kate Bolick’s blockbuster Atlantic essay “All the Single Ladies,” and books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men are all attempts to navigate the choppy waters of our post-feminist world. Where do we go from here? Add Nathan Harden’s voice to the mix. His Sex and God at Yale tackles these womanly issues from a decidedly unique perspective: that of a conservative young man. The book is less about God than it is about sex, but maybe that’s the point. Ladies, be warned: his traditional ideas about women and propriety have already left some feminists pretty upset.
For Harden, the culture of sexual permissiveness on campus is one that is now institutionalized by the university. Pornography is screened at the law school, porn stars stand in as professors, and the most read article in the history of the Yale Daily News’ website is about oral sex. This is not only demoralizing, it is absurd. How could the same school that gave this country five U.S. presidents, nineteen Supreme Court justices, and Nathan Hale host the burlesque performer “Darlinda” to speak about her “pleasure-seekers Bill of Rights”?
In a way, it’s a familiar story. Harden’s polemical memoir of his time as an undergraduate at Yale is part of a long conservative tradition. Sixty years ago, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale first diagnosed the metastasizing relativism and proto-political correctness that was robbing elite colleges of their intellectual and moral backbone. Add Benjamin Hart’s Poisoned Ivy (about Dartmouth in the Eighties) and Ross Douthat’s Privilege (about Harvard at the turn of the millennium) to the list, and it practically seems that writing such a book is a rite of passage into the world of conservative opinion-making.
What makes the book unique is Harden himself. Harden, a homeschool dropout, is not your typical undergraduate. He worked as a luggage handler for United Airlines before college, got into Yale after being rejected twice, and arrived on campus with a wife by his side. He has an interesting story, and when he’s telling it, he tells it well. But when he’s not telling it, he’s leading the reader through one long and brutal description of Yale’s Sex Week, which makes up most of the book.
Sex Week, a biennial event held at Yale since 2002 and supported by the college, is what happens when you leave sex to the fringe feminists. It’s also what happens when the sexual revolution meets the culture of the politically correct. Jeffrey Hart, a professor emeritus at Dartmouth, described the charade perfectly when he wrote, in The Dartmouth Review, that it is characterized by “crushing banality and asphyxiating bad taste.” Colleges around the country now sponsor some version of Sex Week on their campuses, usually coordinating its date with Valentine’s Day. At Dartmouth College, my alma mater, the week of Valentine’s Day has been rechristened as “V-Week”—that is, Vagina Week.
Sex Week at Yale describes itself as “a biennial series of events and workshops on sexuality, intimacy, and relationships organized by and for Yale students. We believe these discussions are vital for young adults developing self-understanding and responsibility within a liberal arts education.” Said programming includes a litany of events whose descriptions are not appropriate for this magazine, but here’s a taste: Yale invited the founder of Vivid Entertainment Steven Hirsch onto its campus in 2008 to talk to students about “The Business of Pornography: How Vivid Made It Mainstream.” At the event, after admitting that he has been intimately involved with “thousands” of women, Hirsch was asked by one female student, “What would you do if one of your own children wanted to appear in one of your films?” His response: “Uhhhh . . . I’m going to support my kids in whatever they choose to do.”
The good news is that Sex Week is only around every two years. In 2008, the Harvard Crimson quipped: “Sex at Harvard is a year-round activity. At Yale, it lasts a week.” It’s a funny line, but not exactly true, which brings up the bad news: There is another part of the social-sexual landscape of Yale and other schools that is more lasting and endemic: the hook-up culture. In the hook-up culture, which is primarily driven by women, college students prefer to have sex with “no strings attached”—that is, they seek to have meaningless, casual sex outside of the context of a relationship. Some women consider this “empowering,” as Harden finds out by eavesdropping on a conversation between two female students, one of whom has this to say about her hook-up conquests, who are football players on campus: “If you go up to them at a party and just get them drinking, and start dancing with them, and kissing them, they will totally end up sleeping with you. They don’t even know they’re being played. They have no clue.”
Cue reality: “Could it be possible,” Harden writes, “That these girls don’t understand a fundamental fact about the human male? You normally don’t have to trick a man into having sex.” Young women today, influenced by Sex Week-style programming, have lost track of how the sexual marketplace really works.
They have also lost track of basic biology and psychology, as the feminist dissenter Camille Paglia recently pointed out at Yale. In September, Paglia denounced traditional feminism at the Yale Political Union, saying, “Those who espouse the idea that the model for human life should be gender-neutral—that we have been born blank slates and society prescribes upon us gender roles—have never made the slightest inquiry into science, history, or anthropology,” she said. “Girls have been trained how to be nice,” Paglia told Yale. “They have to learn how to say no.”
When it comes to sex, a major source of a woman’s power is the control she exercises over her own body. It is only if she gives this up and conforms to a typical college existence, consisting of endless hookups with men she barely knows, that a woman really loses power in relationships.
At Yale, Harden continues, a guy “only has to show up at a random party and talk to some girl for a few minutes—and make sure she has a few drinks” to essentially guarantee that he will have sex with her that night. It’s all so easy and effortless for men. There is no dating, no calling, and barely any taking to the girl. “This is why,” Harden writes, “sexual liberation never really empowered women in the way it was supposed to.”
Therein lies the irony with sexual liberation—with Sex Week, the hook-up culture, and the rest. Raunch feminism has given rise to a man’s world, which leads the alumnus Christopher Buckley to ask, in his foreword to the book, “Why wasn’t this going on while I was there?”
I’m just surprised that Harden gives the women of Yale a free pass. “I don’t blame Yale women. I blame the culture they are a part of,” he writes. His paternalism is unhelpful. These women, as he elsewhere admits, drive the culture. That means that they, too, can change it—if they want.