Politics & Policy

On Campus, Salvaging Love from the Ruins

(Dreamstime: Sergey Bogdanov)
At an annual conference, students affirm the societal value of committed relationships and strong marriages.

Princeton, N.J. — Last weekend, when most Princeton students had gone home for fall recess, a handful stuck around campus, and students from dozens of other colleges and universities joined them. In the autumn chill of a quiet Friday evening, 300 students gathered on the upper floor of the university’s McCosh Hall to hear the keynote address of “Sexuality, Integrity, and the University,” the ninth national conference of the Love and Fidelity Network (LFN).

Since its founding in 2007, LFN has dedicated itself to educating college students about the value that stable marriages and healthy families bring to society. This stability is founded on an understanding of sexual integrity and moral behavior, both of which are regularly under assault at today’s universities. This annual conference is a critical part of LFN’s mission, bringing together hundreds of students from across the country to prepare them for marriage and family life, as well as to strengthen their understanding of the morality that allows culture and society to flourish.

One central aspect of this training stems from the conference’s goal of connecting college students “to leading scholars and experts in order to equip them with the best arguments and resources in support of marriage, family, and sexual integrity.” To that effect, the group sponsored a series of talks over the weekend on a variety of topics related to traditional sexual morality and family issues, including marriage, sexual assault, parenthood, and gender theory. In her opening remarks, LFN executive director Caitlin La Ruffa suggested to students that perhaps the U.S. faces its current predicament in the presidential election because “our nation has lost sight of the value and dignity of sexuality,” adding that “the two candidates are a reflection of our culture.”

The keynote, delivered by Anthony Esolen, a humanities professor at Providence College, a Catholic institution, addressed the importance of making marriage a foundational part of society and of raising children to be marriage-minded. Esolen advised the students on preparing themselves to be selfless, caring spouses in the future as well as to teach their children what marriage is and how to respect and care for members of the opposite sex. Among his suggestions: View sex as more than simply obtaining pleasure without incurring consequences, give children novels that depict wholesome friendship and authentic love, and enter into marriage with a mind toward the goal of eternity.

Esolen has drawn ire this fall on his campus, where students have rallied against him and requested his termination over “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult,” an essay in Crisis, an online Catholic magazine, where he argues, in part, that his college’s acceptance of the modern obsession with cultural and sexual “diversity” contradicts its commitment to its Catholic identity. Though Esolen insists that he is not in the least opposed to true diversity, the conflict over this essay and his related piece on modern culture’s persecution of Christians has put him in a difficult position at Providence, as some students and faculty members now seem to believe that he does not value or welcome members of the campus community who belong to minorities. Similar clashes occur frequently on college campuses across the country and often end with disastrous consequences for Christian and conservative faculty members, demonstrating the importance of a conference such as this, which equips students with the information they need to resist attacks from progressives.

On Saturday morning, a second speaker, Donna Freitas, contradicted another reigning social-justice mantra, arguing that the hookup culture pervading college campuses — a culture in which students feel pressure to engage in sexual encounters as a substitute for traditional dating models — is incompatible with feminism and the culture of consent, which progressives insist we must foster in response to assault. Freitas, currently a fellow with the University of Notre Dame, has spent over a decade researching college students’ attitudes toward the hookup culture.

Throughout the course of her work, Freitas has found that most young people are vastly disappointed with their options and are harmed by the overwhelming pressure to disengage emotionally from sexual encounters. “One student said it’s like a competition to see who can care the least, and another told me that ‘whoever cares the least wins,’” Freitas reported. This kind of coercive atmosphere makes true consent nearly impossible, she explained, because it eliminates caring and vulnerability from the equation. While feminist students often believe their options to be either repression or the “freedom” of the hookup culture, the modern situation in fact limits young people’s options and convinces them that they will be judged harshly by their peers if they choose to enter into meaningful, committed relationships.

Young people are vastly disappointed with their options and are harmed by the overwhelming pressure to disengage emotionally from sexual encounters.

Freitas was not the only speaker to address the contradictions of modern feminism: Researcher Erika Bachiochi told students about “care feminism” and its tenet that “men can be mothers, too.” For equality between the sexes, these feminists believe, men and women must alternate between care-giving and providing. Meanwhile, Bachiochi maintained, the second-wave feminists of the sexual revolution promoted a philosophy that contained a contradiction. While feminists pushed for contraception and abortion as a means of equalizing men’s and women’s experience of sex, so that women could be biologically “free” of consequences in the same way that men are, such “progress” actually hindered that outcome by further freeing men rather than women. With the increasing prevalence of contraception and abortion, modern men more frequently believe that they can engage in sex without commitment, often leaving women to “clean up” the aftermath of their actions. Because men are detached even further from the consequences of their sexual activity, record numbers of women face today single motherhood and poverty, and millions of children grow up in fatherless homes.

One of the event’s concluding panels featured a unique voice. Walt Heyer, an author and public speaker, spent eight years living as a woman named Laura Jensen before realizing that sex-reassignment surgery hadn’t resolved the deep-seated psychological problems he faced as a transgendered individual. Today, Heyer runs the website “Sex Change Regret,” where he collects testimonials and corresponds with people who face similar situations, and he travels around the world advocating for a better understanding and recognition of the underlying psychological issues that contribute to gender dysphoria and transgenderism.

Heyer and his co-panelist Ana Samuel, a scholar with the Witherspoon Institute research center, fielded questions from students about engaging transgendered friends and acquaintances with respect while still seeking to help them resolve any psychological trouble they might face. “You need to interact with transgendered people and try to find out where they’re coming from,” Heyer replied. “What is their life about? Find out the trigger mechanism that might have started the underlying psychological problem they’re struggling with. They weren’t made that way.”

While many LGBT activists insist that, to be fulfilled, transgendered individuals need only sex-reassignment surgery and societal acceptance, Heyer is a testament to the fact that this isn’t always the case. And he is far from alone. A recent report in The New Atlantis indicates that issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are far from settled science, and most studies on gender identity, in particular, are inconclusive at best. The researchers found that most children who experience “cross-gender identification” will not continue to do so long-term, which helps explain the vast number of cases, as Heyer reports, of individuals regretting their sex-reassignment surgery a few years down the road. This also might account for the strikingly high rate of attempted suicide among transgendered individuals: somewhere around 41 percent.

In the final hours of the conference, Robert P. George, a leading conservative scholar and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, spoke briefly to students about the importance of properly understanding and defending marriage. “The one virtue that is needed is the virtue of courage, and courage is in short supply, but you’re here, and that tells me that you’ve got that virtue as well,” he said, congratulating the students for taking the time to attend. He outlined the theoretical case for marriage as a comprehensive union that can properly be undertaken only by one man and one women, a case presented in his landmark book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, co-authored with his former students Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis.

“Because marriage is so deeply undersold, in theory as well as practice, you’ve got to actually know what it is and be able to articulate an understanding of what it is,” George said. He went on to present a coherent, wholly rational case for marriage as the permanent, exclusive, and life-giving relationship between one man and one woman, as it has been understood throughout history. It is this view of marriage — rather than a bigoted, religious bias against homosexuals — that undergirds the belief that same-sex sexual relationships, by their very nature, do not fulfill the characteristics of marriage. He also argued that the natural outcome of procreation necessitates a government role in defining and strengthening the institution of marriage, because it concerns the raising of a new generation of citizens.

“At a time when many of us have been sucked into the bitterness surrounding next week’s election, it went a long way to restoring my hope for our nation’s future to see so many young people gathered in one place, eager to learn of the importance of marriage and sexual integrity, to wrestle with challenging cultural questions, and to plan for their role in fostering long-term cultural renewal,” La Ruffa tells National Review. “Students were especially impressed with the keynote address by Dr. Anthony Esolen, the insights into collegiate hookup culture discussed by Dr. Donna Freitas, and the heart-wrenching personal account of sex change and restoration shared by Walt Heyer.”

As traditional conservative values are increasingly challenged — from the progressive domination of college campuses to the many attempts to drive Christians from the public square — this formative conference both encouraged and enabled students to stay the course.

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