Politics & Policy

“Sex on a Saturday Night”

Campus life at Princeton.

Christian Sahner, a 2007 graduate of Princeton University, recently took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to criticize his university’s handling of sex. The university administration, he pointed out, sponsors lectures with titles like “The Religious Right’s Obsession with Gay Sex” and has residential advising sessions of “Sex Jeopardy.” But what he found most appalling was “Sex on a Saturday Night,” a mandatory event for freshmen in their first week on campus. Since attendance is compulsory and only one point of view is expressed, some (including not only students, but also parents of new freshmen, and even several members of Princeton’s faculty) have described the program as “coercive,” “indoctrination,” “sensitivity training,” or worse.

In the official university response, the vice president of student life, Janet Dickerson, astonishingly argued that “Sex on a Saturday Night” has nothing to do with sex, only “crime prevention” (sexual assault). She then rebuked Sahner because she claimed he “mischaracterized” the event and “misrepresented” an administrator.

Despite the intense criticism that the event has received on campus, not only for its unremittingly liberal content but also for its compulsory nature, Dickerson refused to acknowledge any problems at all with how the administration addresses sexual issues. Her letter gives the impression that Sahner is way off base and that his concerns are simply groundless. He has made an elementary mistake in supposing that “Sex on a Saturday Night” is about, well, sex.

Sahner, however, is not the sort who makes elementary mistakes. He is a brilliant young man who compiled an extraordinary academic record at Princeton and was the University’s only 2007 Rhodes Scholar. He has brought enormous credit on the University and it is odd, to say the least, to see his concerns dismissed so cavalierly by a high official of the institution. If you suspect that the university is trying to sweep a dirty little secret under the rug, you’re right: “Sex on a Saturday Night” amounts to little more than mandated indoctrination in liberal sexual ideology.

One wishes that this were an isolated incident, but it’s not. The Princeton administration practices a double standard so pervasive it doesn’t even notice it. It is extraordinarily sensitive to every minority under the sun — except for traditionalists.

Consider the reaction to the Daily Princetonian’s annual joke issue. The student newspaper set off a firestorm of controversy by running a distasteful parody. It began with this:

Hi Princeton! Remember me? I so good at math and science. Perfect 2400 SAT score. Ring bells? Just in cases, let me refresh your memories. I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me. I get angry and file a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for rejecting my application for admission.

Needless to say, reaction was prompt and vigorous. The paper’s next several issues ran letters to the editor denouncing the piece as racist. The AP and a Boston Globe blog, among others, picked up on the story. And, of course, the paper excused itself by issuing a non-apology apology. The official university response, written by Vice President Dickerson and the Dean of Undergraduate Students, rebuked the paper for having “undermined Princeton’s ongoing and determined efforts to be a more inclusive and diverse community.”

April Chou, writing on behalf of the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton’s Board of Governors, asked us to “imagine similar content directed at another ethnic group or based on sexual orientation or religion — such stereotypes would not have passed the ‘litmus’ test of what is acceptable, nor should it in this case.”

We don’t have to imagine. Similar content routinely passes the “litmus” test of acceptability. Had she only read the rest of the paper she would have discovered that her “imagined” content was real: The same joke issue of the Daily Princetonian carried even cruder pieces defaming conservatives on campus: namely, Professor Robert George “George Caught with Gay Hooker” (entirely fictional, of course), and the pro-chastity student group the Anscombe Society “‘I like boobies as much as the next guy. . . . But with bodies like theirs, I understand why they’re chaste.’”

The administration, needless to say, passed over these jokes in silence. One Princeton professor, Lee Silver, even wrote a letter to the Prince piling on George: “Professor George is the straightest man I have ever met. . . . Please give Professor George the respect he deserves for working tirelessly to impose his extremist views on all other Americans.”

This is commonplace on America’s campuses, but I don’t think it stems exclusively from ill-will toward religious and social conservatives. I know firsthand that Princeton administrators are fair-minded and honorable people. But this is what makes Dickerson’s response to Sahner so infuriating: Why does she keep overlooking the concerns of students who dissent from liberal orthodoxies?

Sahner wasn’t asking for special treatment. It’s not as if he wants to force the incoming freshmen to attend a production of “Chastity on a Saturday Night.” Nor was he asking for censorship. He was only asking for equal treatment: either stop making attendance at the blatantly partisan “Sex on a Saturday Night” production mandatory or stop making “Sex on a Saturday Night” partisan. You can tell incoming freshmen that date-rape and other sexual assaults are illegal without subjecting them to an hour of sexual skits, innuendo, “coming-out” scenes, gay kisses, and other nonsense that some students don’t want to be forced to sit through.

It’s all a matter of optics. University administrators, professors, and broad swaths of students are simply blind to the ways in which students with traditional religious and social views are treated on college campuses. And because of the ideological homogeneity of college administrations and faculties, they lack colleagues alert to these concerns. Even when they are pointed out to them, their impulsive reaction is to say the student is overreacting, mischaracterizing, and misrepresenting. The irony is that many people who pride themselves on being the champions of the oppressed, on opposing discrimination, and on working to honor equality and diversity become enablers of oppression, discrimination, inequality of treatment, and conformism.

And yet, mere oversight isn’t the whole story. While I’d like to believe that there really isn’t any open hostility towards social or moral conservatives, the facts point in a different direction. When I was a student at Princeton, the university hosted the anti-Catholic art exhibit, “Shackles of the AIDS Virus.” Sponsored by and housed in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, this was a shockingly offensive attack on Catholicism for its teachings on sexual morality — one that the University would never accept if targeted at, say, Islam. Administrators claimed not to have realized the anti-Catholic nature of the exhibit, but even after it was pointed out to them, they refused to do anything about the exhibit, citing its “educational value.”

Then there’s Lee Silver. If he disparages and demonizes a fellow professor in a public outlet, what does he do in private with students who dissent from the liberal campus orthodoxy? On campus he is well known as an ideologically-driven biologist-turned-ethicist, and students repeatedly complain of syllabi and presentations biased against social conservatives. Those who dissent from Silver’s ideological line claim that they are punished with a lower grade.

Sadly, Silver isn’t an anomaly. Three years ago, eminent English professor John Fleming wrote in the Daily Princetonian about the hostile environment faced by Christians: “I cannot remember ever hearing an actual anti-Semitic comment uttered by a student or colleague on this campus. . . . On the other hand I have heard hundreds of anti-Christian slurs. …hostile remarks about historical or contemporary Christianity are common coin on this campus.”

These recent articles and the resulting public reaction serve as prime examples of how college campuses send signals — signals about what are acceptable social views, and what are not; signals about which people can legitimately be mocked, and which cannot. Professor Silver’s attack wasn’t really aimed at Professor George; it was aimed at the students. It was meant to send them a message about which points of view are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Those students who dissent from the liberal orthodoxy have been warned that they’ll have to pay the social, and academic, price.

And if they complain about it, their complaints won’t be taken seriously by the university — even if they come from one of the university’s most distinguished recent graduates.

– Ryan T. Anderson, a Princeton alumnus, is an assistant editor at First Things and a 2007 Phillips Foundation Fellow.


The Latest