Sex, God, and ‘Raunch Feminism’

by Nathan Harden

In her stimulating review of Sex & God at Yale in The New Criterion, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that, in my critique of the college hookup culture, I don’t place enough blame on women:

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.

Uh oh, it’s the dreaded P-word. Critics on the left have also accused me of “paternalism,” although for different reasons. In this case, I think Smith misses my point. I agree with her that, as individuals, young women (and men) are responsible for their own choices. But the overall tone of the sexual culture has a profound influence on those choices — that’s the point I’m making.

We can’t adequately address individual moral choices without also looking at the influence of culture. Actually, Smith seems to agree with this premise when she writes, “Young women today, influenced by Sex Week-style programming, have lost track of how the sexual marketplace really works.”

Ultimately, Smith’s argument boils down to this: She thinks I haven’t been hard enough on women. In an odd sort of way, she thinks I have done women a disservice in the process. In her defense, it is easy to go too far in blaming “society” for the poor choices individuals make. Liberals have demonstrated that error for decades by blaming every social problem under the sun on institutionalized racism, sexism, etc., while completely ignoring the issue of individual responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that things like racism and sexism don’t exist, or aren’t important.

My focus with Sex & God at Yale is on the university and what goes on in the classroom. If my blows land on the institutional side of the problem, then it’s for good reason. My main target with this book, after all, is an institution.

Someone else — preferably a young woman like Smith — would be better suited than I am to write a book focusing on women and their individual choices. How about “Raunch Feminism”? That would make a good title.

(You can check out Smith’s full review here.)

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