Eroticism Unbound

Daniel P. Moloney

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 90 (February1999): 13-15.

Take out your keys and look at your key chain. Are you thinking about sex now?

I ask this question because of something I read on a recent trip up to Yale. To explain the dangers of smoking, the University had put on a "Healthy Lung Fair" where students were shown pictures of diseased lungs and were offered anti–smoking materials. I laughed when I read about the fair in the Yale Daily News—primary education has failed my generation in many respects, but everybody knows that smoking may be hazardous to your health. Smokers have a vice, not a lack of knowledge; as one student told the Daily News, "When I am under a lot of stress, I’m going to smoke anyway." Nevertheless, the organizers of the fair did their best to spread the bad news about cigarettes, even offering little trinkets bearing anti–tobacco messages that might, they hoped, cause some student to think twice before lighting up.

In paragraph three of the story, the reporter lists among the items being given away at the Healthy Lung Fair "paddle balls, condoms on key rings, and frisbees." Clearly neither the reporter nor the event’s organizers saw any significance in the juxtaposition of these items. But let’s reflect for a minute. Condoms are used for things sexual. Key rings usually are not. Neither are frisbees or paddle balls. A condom on a key ring would seem out of place, like a dog with a wristwatch or a tube of toothpaste attached to a coin purse. Let alone a condom on a key ring with anti–smoking messages on it. Yet at Yale, and undoubtedly on campuses everywhere, it is literally unremarkable. Unlock your car, have safe sex, and don’t smoke!

The article continues, "Less popular, however, were the circular rubber jar openers that look like dental dams." A dental dam is a sort of female condom, used for kinky activities. Its very existence might be news to some, but not to Yalies, the reporter assumes. For if we notice the structure of this sentence, we see that the jar opener is described in terms of the dental dam! Dental dams are supposed to be more widely recognizable to students at Yale than are the little pieces of rubber that help one get a better grip on a tightly sealed jar. The jar openers are found in supermarkets and dime stores. Dental dams are not. Yet the reporter, looking for an easy way to describe these items found throughout suburban America, blithely wrote that they "look like dental dams." Open a jar, have kinky sex, don’t smoke, let’s play frisbee!

It was against this background that I first felt sympathy for the Yale Four, the Orthodox Jewish students whose religious objections to living on campus their freshman and sophomore years led them into a legal battle with the University. My original response to their lawsuit was typical among conservatives: broadly sympathetic to their complaints about student immorality, but not at all sympathetic to their lawsuit. Yale is a private university, and has the right to use its property as it desires. The students knew its rules ahead of time, so if they wanted to avoid this "injustice," they could save the $30,000 annual price tag and go someplace else. If Yale wants to stand for something, it ought to be given more latitude than is the State of Connecticut, because people do not have to obey its rules. On this matter, I roughly agreed with Stephen L. Carter, the noted church–state scholar at Yale Law School who argued the students’ case before University officials. Yale had the right to behave as it did, Carter claimed. It was just wrong to do so. "If you are going to have a university and say that everybody can come," Carter told the Yale Herald, "you have to work harder to accommodate students." "Suppose that under your religion, you have certain dietary restrictions and can’t eat in the dining hall. Yale should not charge you for your food. [Similarly,] Yale should not charge them for this service their religion forbids them to use."

I thought justice was served when the United States District Court dismissed the students’ lawsuit last August. As I read about the Healthy Lung Fair, though, I realized that I had framed the case in the wrong terms. This was not about a private university refusing to accommodate a seemingly exotic requirement of certain very pious Jews. It was about large numbers of young people living in one of the most morally confusing situations imaginable. Sex does not belong in every context. It belongs in a very few, well–demarcated contexts in fact. Like many colleges and universities, though, Yale has decontextualized the erotic.

The Yale Four complained inter alia that many of Yale’s residential colleges had coed bathrooms, which necessarily imply the sort of sexual immodesty the students’ religious beliefs require them to avoid. My religion is quiet on this matter, but I agree with the motivation behind this prohibition, the old idea that one should not covet one’s neighbor. If a young man fails to be aroused by a young woman wearing only a towel or showering in the next stall, he must either be dead or deluded.

In her engaging new book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, Wendy Shalit puts her finger on this point. The idea that sex belongs only in restricted contexts occurred to her when she noticed that among certain Orthodox Jews unmarried women and men would not touch each other—no physical contact at all—even when engaged. Despite keeping their distance, they had big smiles and a twinkle in their eyes. This attracted and intrigued Shalit, so she began to ponder the virtues of this tradition. When she looked around at her classmates at Williams, she noticed that not only were they not keeping their distance, they were not happy either. After seeing the positive results of traditional Jewish modesty laws, and the negative results of excessive immodesty, she tried to find a connection between modesty and happiness. Her conclusions led her to question the entire relationship between the sexes at Williams, starting with an eventually successful lobbying effort against coed bathrooms.

The idea behind coed bathrooms is the same as the idea behind coed colleges, only taken much further. Young men and women, we are told, can work, eat, and live in close proximity with nary an erotic thought. Shalit collects a number of tremendously funny quotations from people who claim they are not aroused by the most intimate encounters with someone of the opposite sex. Boy and girl sharing a sleeping bag? Nudist colonies? Coed wrestling? "This is not sexual for me at all," they keep claiming, which makes Shalit wonder about her own mind. "Somehow, for assuming that there was anything sexual about a nice young man and a nice young woman just rolling around together on the floor and pinning each other down for sport, I was made to feel that I had the dirty mind. Here they were just trying to get some good clean exercise, and I had to go and . . . make it into something perverted." Shalit’s point, with its own ingenuous twinkle, is that if we ignore the protests that "this is not sexual," we’ll see that it probably is.

Yale students don’t blink at the ubiquitous sexualization of their environment because they truly believe that it isn’t sexual for them at all. By removing all the restraints on the erotic lives of students, the administration has turned Yale into a place where everything is eroticized yet nothing is really sexy. Male and female students shower in neighboring stalls, carry condoms on key rings, and allude to kinky sex without realizing it. Women dress in men’s boxers and V–neck undershirts, at once revealing and slovenly. Why dress up for class when everybody has seen you before you showered? Nobody goes out on dates, yet nobody is a virgin either. Girls develop eating disorders, while guys complain that the girls are unattractive. Both worry about date rape, because nobody knows what is permitted and what is not. Sex has become like a football field without any lines; sure, you can’t step out of bounds, but it is not clear how to play the game anymore.

The pervasive eroticism at Yale and other campuses forces the students to detach themselves from their natural inclinations. Shalit notes of her Williams classmates that "for all their experience, in some fundamental way they were prudes, because they were blind to the power of sex." "They were ‘mature,’ which is to say, emotionally detached, but that meant they were essentially clinical about things that to me would seem extremely intriguing and occupy my imagination for hours."

If the students reacted normally to their eroticized environment, their imaginations would be occupied for hours by thoughts of Suzy showering in the next stall or what the literature professor thought Lady Macbeth was really doing. So instead they tune out the sexual dimension to their surroundings. This survival reflex, though, confuses them when they try to begin a romantic relationship. They want all the natural impulses to kick in, but those impulses cannot be allowed to overcome the clinical detachment that gets them through the day. So they engage in oddly disengaged relationships, usually with a significant sexual component. Instead of going on dates, for example, students hang out in each other’s rooms; a bit of alcohol in that setting and you have the beginning of the typical relationship. When the new couple fight, they stop sleeping together; when they break up, they still hang out in each other’s rooms. In thirty years we have gone from single–sex colleges to coed bathrooms, and frequently (though unofficially) to coed dorm rooms. Perhaps the Yale Four are on to something.

Whenever men and women meet, they need to put their erotic relationships in some sort of context. In an earlier era, society divided unmarried men and women into substantially different spheres, so that a woman remained in her father’s home until she moved into her husband’s home (the principle goes back as far as Genesis). Anyone who saw Michael Corleone court his Sicilian bride in The Godfather knows that as late as this century in the more traditional parts of Europe an unmarried man and woman were not permitted to be alone with each other. Such radical social separation between men and women is impossible today, a casualty of (appropriate) feminist consciousness raising. Except for the fumbling legalisms of sexual harassment codes, however, the old erotic boundaries have not been replaced by new ones. While the more conservative business world is just beginning to feel uncomfortable about the resulting confusion, our colleges have been living for years with eroticism unbound.

Even conservative religious colleges with single-sex dormitories and rules about fraternization—Thomas Aquinas College in California, for example—cannot keep students from sleeping together. Purely external restraints cannot altogether eliminate eroticism from every encounter between men and women (nor would that be desirable). On the other hand, we cannot rely simply on internal disciplines such as guarding the eyes, suppressing the imagination, or remembering that "No means No." Young men will notice a nearby attractive and scantily clad woman no matter how hard they try to look elsewhere. Indeed, the more they struggle internally against it, the more they will notice the eroticism of the environment and allow it "to occupy their imagination for hours." Internal discipline, though necessary, requires some amount of social restraint on sexuality, beginning with modesty in dress and manners, discretion in conversation, and an absolute rejection of pornography. But first we need to recognize that the culture wars are not about whether sex is good or bad, but about whether it has its proper time and place.

A condom on a key ring makes even sex banal, just one gloomy consequence of eroticism without bounds.

Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.