Politics & Policy

Sexy Education

A modest movement makes its way onto campus.

A girl whose boyfriend assured her sex was “like doing the dishes.” A vengeful college student who coldly deserts her ex-boyfriend the morning after with, “I got what I came for.” A Girls Gone Wild spring breaker who laments, “I thought I was doing the right thing for a woman my age . . . but now I feel empty.” Another who said she “felt I had to give myself to any guy who wanted me.”

It might seem easy to characterize modesty crusaders as talking at young women, and lecturing them on the importance of propriety. Yet the content of the Modest Proposals panel this week at the Ethics and Public Policy Center featured no clucking mother hens. Instead, it focused more on listening to our young people as they tell the truth about the fallout of the sexual revolution.

Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked; Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of Unprotected; Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild; and Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, assembled to discuss the state of sex on campus. Joining the authors was a recent college graduate fresh from the front lines, Cassandra DeBenedetto, who founded the Anscombe Society, a collegiate group dedicated to promoting a chaste sexual ethic. Combining their research and experience, these five women were able to speak for countless more.

The most common sentiment expressed by the panelists on behalf of the college students they’ve interviewed was a sense of loss and emptiness. Many young women seem at a loss, in fact, even to describe an alternative sexual ethic, feeling familiar only with what they see among their friends and on Sex in the City. The titles of the books that have been written on the subject echo that elusiveness: Unhooked, Unprotected, A Return to Modesty. Something has been undone, something has been cast aside that we are only now beginning to feel in its absence. The Sexual Revolutionaries, who urged us to feel comfortable about our bodies–and our bodies’ urges–stripped the sexual act of its importance by demystifying it. We are now comfortable with our sexuality, when what we long for is, in fact, the danger of commitment and the challenge of restraint.

The overall snapshot of the status of relationships on campus was heartbreaking. Sessions Stepp described a world of casual hookups, predatory dating as an expression of power, and a cynical reluctance to cultivate a meaningful relationship. Lovers are picked up with little thought and casually tossed out afterwards with the condom and last night’s beer cans. Students view love as a distraction, and most prefer to stick to the emptiness of playing the hookup game in lieu of maintaining a 24/7 relationship, which seems to them to be the only alternative to casual sex.

Much of Sessions Stepp’s research was collected at my own alma mater, George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As one of the university’s House Proctors, an experimental hybrid of RA and life coach, in the school’s wildest freshman dorm, I found that many of the stories she told resonated with my own experience. For all of the statistics that one can compile on the rise in STDs or depression diagnoses, my own personal evidence consisted more in the dramatic numbers of therapeutic pints of Ben & Jerry’s consumed on my couch and the high repeat count of Kelly Clarkson’s cathartic candy for the newly single, Since U Been Gone, on my friends’ iPods. Despite my duty to care for the freshwomen in my flock, I can admit that I refrained to offer any advice beyond Socratic questions. Though my personal knowledge conflicted with the university policy of being “nonjudgmental” of others’ sexuality, I was hired to espouse it.

Dr. Grossman, a campus psychologist at UCLA, has dealt with that same ethical dilemma. She seeks to end it by bringing the state of the campus to light and changing universities’ policies. She has been tending to the casualties of casual sex on campus her whole career, and sees the lines of women (and men) coming into her office for appointments about depression, anxiety, sleep loss — all caused by an inability to live up to the unrealistic picture of “healthy sexuality” they had been taught all of their lives. Condoms, birth control, and frequent testing have not saved them from the emotional aftershock of sex.

Despite the ravaged landscape, the panel still had a positive outlook. Far from being a nest of clucking prudes deriding the indiscretions of “kids these days,” these women were concerned about the waves of depression and sexually transmitted disease that are sweeping over our young women. They placed their disapproval not upon the girls so much as the school systems and parents that failed to teach them the buzz about the birds and the bees, and called upon college students to expose incidences of these prejudices in universities so that they could be reversed.

Grossman, who has devoted her life to university health, had the most stirring condemnations for the collegiate sex educators. She warned that despite their claims of neutrality, policies towards sex on campus were anything but neutral. Built-in assumptions that experimentation with sex is always beneficial and that youth are going to be sexually active no matter what warp the effectiveness of campus sexual-health programs. At my pre-college physical, my pediatrician began to write me a prescription for birth control without even asking, assuming it was routine for such a visit. My own experience at a university hospital forced me to deny sexual activity no less than four times. After they removed my mother from the room to ask me again, still squinting at me with suspicion, I was about ready to pitch the bedpan at the attending doctor’s head. What does it say to a college freshman struggling to be abstinent when physicians treat an 18-year-old virgin with the same mixture of curiosity and revulsion that they would the Elephant Man?

While those assumptions may encourage doctors to uncover the truth of sexual activity in some shyer girl, these presuppositions do more harm than merely isolating the chaste–they conveniently silence mounting scientific evidence that might convince girls to put their clothes back on. The biochemistry of post-coital attachment, the increased vulnerability of women to STDs, the risks inherent in so-called safer-sex programs–all of these go unmentioned in the clinics.

The college administrators at large are no better than the health professionals. Shalit remembered her college days fighting against the co-ed bathrooms in university housing. Her grievances were met with suggestions to see the university counseling center about her lack of comfort with her body. DeBenedetto has her own battle scars from fighting against the raunchy, mandated Princeton orientation play, “Sex on a Saturday Night.” Until the complaints lodged by her and several other students, the play–meant to advise incoming freshmen about the sexual scene at Princeton–failed to include an abstinent character. The omission illuminates again one of the inherent assumptions of sex ed: Everybody’s doing it.

Parents don’t get off the hook, either. Sessions Stepp warned that they contributed to this loveless love life by discouraging their children from making deeper romantic connections, worrying that it will distract them from their studies or lead them to sex. Surprise, parents–this only leads to sex without love. Probing even further, Sessions Stepp wondered if many parents weren’t more comfortable talking about sex rather than love nowadays. If the L-word has become a four-letter word and sex has been stripped of its taboos, it is no surprise that we have yielded a generation of sex machines. Shalit noted that this point is reinforced by professional sex educators. One sexual-advice website for young people she found included a Sex Readiness Checklist–a “to-do before you do it” list. Listed as one of the items was a requirement that one be able to “separate sex from love.”

As the panel neared its end, Eden pondered aloud that even though she had not planned on starting a “modesty movement,” one seemed to be organically sprouting up with the advent of all of these books and groups. And with the founding of each group and the publishing of each book, letters and e-mails pour in, saying, “I thought I was the only one!” Each speaker was optimistic that the emptiness of the hookup culture could be effectively combated, because all signs point to a silent majority of women desiring to unhook themselves from its claws.

Sessions Stepp recalled an anecdote in which she spoke to a large group of students and asked them if they would like good, old dinner-and-a-movie dating to make a comeback. An overwhelming majority, over three-fourths, threw their hands into the air. Now that the modesty movement is getting out the message of these girls, one can only hope that it will not be long before they start having the courage to listen to themselves.

— Emily Karrs is a National Review editorial associate.

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