Politics & Policy

Sex & the Single College Student

Conservatives engage the culture.

Are the culture wars over? The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank would have his readers think so. After attending an event sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) on Capitol Hill Monday, featuring Dr. Drew Pinsky of Loveline fame, Milbank concludes, “A truce may be imminent [in the culture wars].” But Milbank’s breezy sketch (a “Washington Sketch,” one might say) of the IWF event is an inaccurate portrait of not only the event, but also of the state of the culture wars in general.

For several years now, IWF has brought Pinsky to Capitol Hill for an annual “Sex and Dating Conference.” The event is marketed specifically towards the summer influx of Beltway interns, and what better way to draw the college-aged than “sex” and “Dr. Drew,” the MTV alumnus whom many of today’s interns grew up watching. Sure beats seeing Robert Byrd in the hallway again. But the loosening-conservatives-and-Dr.-Drew brew Dana Milbank thinks he saw wasn’t what was being served Monday.

Make no mistake, the culture wars have changed — in a profound way. Subtlety, for today’s college-aged crowd, is the name of the game. Culturally conservative messages are becoming more prevalent in pop culture from sources that aren’t even necessarily conservative.

Ross Douthat wrote in his review of the objectively raunchy Knocked Up, “[T]his is exactly the sort of social conservatism we need: not a jeremiad against cultural rot or a gooey ode to idealized family values, but a clear-eyed, hopeful, and hilarious celebration of doing the right thing.”

Or take the lyrics of two not-conservative bands, Rilo Kiley and Straylight Run. In Rilo Kiley’s “Portion for Foxes,” singer Jenny Lewis croons:

And the talkin’ leads to touching

And the touching leads to sex

And then there is no mystery left

In the song “It’s For the Best,” by Straylight Run, this anti-Bush band sings:

But I was scared to death of eternity

I was saved by grace,

But destroyed by naivety

And I lied to myself,

And said it was for the best

Dr. Drew’s speech Monday was an episode in this vein. He bemoaned the culture of hookups on college campuses. “For the first time in human history, we’re unhinged from our biology,” he said, “and that’s profound.”

He spoke of how a booze-fueled culture of hooking up on college campuses is unhealthy, for both men and women. The only reason alcohol is involved, Pinsky said, was because the situation was so “unnaturally intense.” Men drink to suppress their anxiety in approaching women, he said, and women drink to abandon their tendency to associate emotions with physical relations.

But Dr. Drew is no Dr. James Dobson. He is a physician, not a politician or pastor, and made that abundantly clear throughout his speech. He repeatedly advised the audience of which points of his speech were expert medical opinions, and which were personal opinions. Milbank, however, makes him out to be a deeply entrenched cultural warrior masquerading as a doctor. Does this sound like “Dr.” Dobson? “Shortcoming or not, I’m careful not to make judgments,” Pinsky told National Review Online after his speech. “I encourage young people to look at things and then make healthy decisions.”

And that’s what IWF was going for for the third year in a row. The first step in abating a culture of hooking up, said Allison Kasic, the director of campus programs for IWF, “is having someone who answers questions, not issues judgments. Young people don’t respond to that.” Additionally, Kasic said, it is important to IWF that issues like the detriment of the hookup culture be discussed from a variety of angles. Pinsky’s is simply the medical angle.

Between Pinsky’s speech, and the dozens — if not hundreds — of other instances of conservative messages being advanced from unconventional sources, there has been a shift in how the cultural wars are fought.

It’s a necessary recognition that the latest generation of young people, even its conservatives, needs to be engaged more on its own terms. By providing a forum that bore out a fact that many college students are loath to admit — that the culture of hookups is an unhealthy and a cause of self-inflicted anguish — the IWF event advanced a cultural agenda in a substantial and important way.

Many young people aren’t responding to traditional sources of moral authority as in previous generations, but are appealing to other sources. In his experiences, Pinsky said, “Young people are interested in listening to authority.” Modern culture can be as much of a source of that, too.

That is where Milbank gets things wrong. The culture wars aren’t at a truce, they’ve simply had a change of venue. If nothing else, the culture wars have generated a profoundly mainstream supplement to its long-standing message. Experts like Dr. Drew Pinsky or the Washington Post’s own Laura Sessions Stepp (in her book Unhooked) talk candidly to young people about sex and culture, and encourage them to back away from the outer bounds of excess. Movies like Knocked Up make subtle, anti-abortion statements in an accessible way, without alienating viewers. And even the most libertine listeners of Rilo Kiley may stop for a moment to contemplate the drawbacks of an entirely sexually permissive culture.

And that’s the difference. Many young people refuse to be simply told what to do. But they are actively interested in being convinced of what to do. Rote pronouncements never change the world overnight, nor are they a winning strategy. That some cultural warriors have shifted their tactics to reflect this new reality does not reflect a “truce.” It’s simply a new, more powerful salvo.

— Michael O’Brien, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor of the Michigan Review.


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