American universities are beset by confusion regarding sex and sexual misconduct on their campuses. The latest high-profile incident in this saga is Harvard’s move to cut short its men’s soccer season after news emerged about the team’s “scouting report”: a document in which players exchanged lewd commentary on their female counterparts.
Compared with the quagmires that have followed cases of alleged sexual assault, the public response to the incident has been remarkably sane. Preferring that the story not be blown out of proportion, members of the women’s soccer team penned an open letter expressing their disappointment with the scouting report in frank but forgiving terms, and a New York Times write-up of the story showed that Harvard students seemed to be following their lead, describing their disgust with the incident without resorting to stilted “rape culture” rhetoric.
And yet the episode must be placed within the broader context of modern colleges’ indecision regarding their students’ sex lives. As David French noted, the attitude of the men’s soccer players — from their preoccupation with casual sex to their comfort with graphic descriptions of their preferred positions and practices — is not merely tolerated but encouraged by the “sex positive” preaching from college administrators. And so the general agreement about the wrongness of the scouting report breaks down once we take up a more pressing, future-oriented question: What would it take to improve young men’s outlook toward sex?
Inasmuch as modern colleges offer any answer to that question, they usually take a tack that originated in the feminist movement of the 1980s. In The Hearts of Men (1983), the gender scholar Barbara Ehrenreich popularized the concept of the “new man”: young folks who may happen to possess male sex organs and traits but who could be unburdened of their toxic maleness through education, allowing them to finally treat women with the dignity they deserve. Today’s “third wave” feminists and their collegiate comrades have adopted and expanded Ehrenreich’s vision — such influential luminaries as the quirkily styled “bell hooks” routinely assure us that men will be fixed when they reject “the patriarchal script of domination and subjugation.”
If this approach to shaping the way men relate to women and sex—i.e., uprooting some part of their (figurative) manhood — strikes you as fanciful, then fear not. An alternative approach to this one has managed to endure — at least through its continuing practice in millions of American households (if not in the words of gender-studies professors and magazine think pieces). In this approach, it is presumed that most attitudes that we associate with maleness emerge from the essence of the men who possess them, and as such, should be nurtured and trimmed to grow into habits that are deeply decent . . . and yet still distinctly male.
To their credit, many avowed feminists have done more than their share to revive this understanding. Christina Hoff Sommers, the bête noire of gender studies departments but a firm proponent of male–female parity, made the case, in an interview with Vox, for cultivating rather than castrating male attitudes. She argues that “history teaches us that masculinity constrained by morality is powerful and constructive, and that masculinity without ethics is dangerous.” By this reading, the rising trend of sexual misconduct on campuses is less a symptom of old masculine norms than it is a symptom of their absence. As colleges have declined to impart any vision of positive sexual ethics beyond mere consent, the baser bits of young men’s sexual complex are left free to bubble up with minimal structure or restraint.
And what’s more, the lecherousness embodied by the Harvard scouting report is only one of the grave problems emerging from today’s stripped-down sense of masculinity. As Hoff Sommers often points out, the diminished consensus about how men ought to behave has fed into the rise in absent fatherhood and the plummeting rate of male work-force participation.
Ironically, Barbara Ehrenreich herself had strong-enough doubts about the decline in traditional masculinity that she was moved to ask in her book, “Are these really the new men we want?” Even in the wake of the Harvard soccer affair, it remains unlikely that administrators and scholars will think deeply about that question. And yet the fate of today’s young men, and of the women with whom they interact, depends in part on their willingness to answer truthfully.