Sixty-one years ago, a young man by the name of William F. Buckley, Jr., shocked the nation by publishing God and Man at Yale, a book claiming that professors at Yale—an icon of the established moral order—were promoting both atheism and socialism. The controversy surrounding the book helped Mr. Buckley’s career (and, depending on your political persuasion, American history) immensely, but Yale seems to have only gotten worse in the intervening decades. A new book that also discusses Yale’s relationship with the deity demonstrates just how bad things have become.
Sex and God at Yale by Nathan Harden, which went on sale last Tuesday, is a stomach-turning account of university-sponsored debauchery. Yale, it seems, has sacrificed its once-considerable moral purpose at the altar of power and prestige.
The message is an important one, and Harden documents it well (perhaps a bit too well, but more on that in a minute). Anyone concerned about the state of American higher education—and certainly anyone who is considering sending a daughter to Yale—should become familiar with what Mr. Harden describes.
Harden’s list of Yale’s moral failures is long, and he focuses mostly on those having to do with sex. The largest section of the book is devoted to Yale’s infamous biennial “Sex Week,” a series of primarily on-campus events hosted by the university. The “week” (which has metastasized to about a week and a half) is ostensibly held to advance sex education, but, in reality, it is mostly an excuse for some carnal titillation on the part of undergraduates and faculty (yes, faculty—the creepiness of Yale’s infatuation with sex is one of the prominent themes of the book).
Events range from speeches by producers of pornographic films, by porn stars, and by condom salesmen, to porn screenings and how-to demonstrations of the “battery-operated boyfriend.” One porn star even asked students to physically hurt her for the sake of sexual pleasure (hers), while standing topless in a Yale classroom. Throughout the week, free porn, condoms, and sex toys are handed out to students like so much candy.
Considering that the university officially sponsors such events—and administrators occasionally send out weird school-wide emails encouraging students to have “glorious, consensual sex”—Harden concludes that university administrators are intentionally encouraging promiscuity.
To social conservatives and old-fashioned squares like me, that would be bad enough. But even more appalling is Harden’s charge that the Yale administration is generally unwilling to help victims of sexual assault find justice.
According to Harden and the anonymous victims he quotes, the Yale bureaucracy is so confusing and inefficient that it seems intentionally organized to cover up sexual assault allegations. The university has filled the complaint system “with mazes of lawyers and committees and secretive disciplinary bodies” to such an extent, Harden writes, “that students could almost feel harassed simply by the sheer incomprehensibility of the grievance system.” While Yale fawns over pornography, it takes a bureaucratic approach to claims by women that they have been sexually assaulted.
Although Harden proclaims his love for Yale numerous times, he never gives a very good reason why we should think it lovely. Yale was founded as a Christian institution; in a later period, it devoted itself to patriotism. Now, having abandoned an institutional commitment to either religion or patriotism, elitism itself has become Yale’s “governing moral principle,” a “proxy religion,” Harden says. Sex Week, as he sees it, is a symptom of this elitism: Yale is willing to do whatever it takes to gain popularity among the leaders of society, including some of the lowest forms of moral decadence. According to this view, “For God, For Country, and For Yale” turns out to be not just an incredibly anti-climatic slogan chiseled into a stone archway on campus but also a very concise history of the institution.
At one point Harden tries to identify a redeeming quality that Yale inculcates in its students. The best he can do: “today’s Yale man . . . is, above all, a leader.” Harden seems to be saying that even if Yale doesn’t train students in traditional virtues, at least it gives them a good education and helps to connect them with the levers of power in American society.
That may be true, but it is hardly redemptive. They also need virtue. Unfortunately, Yale seems determined to undermine the formation of virtue with its celebration of meaningless sex.
Sex and God at Yale is an illuminating and important book—its subject matter is, or at least ought to be, shocking. Unfortunately, it has a number of flaws that will likely limit its readership.
For one thing, it’s too long. Spanning nearly three hundred pages, it probably could have fit into one hundred. Just when you think you’re done with reading about the worst parts of Sex Week, there’s more, and it’s worse than before. If you’ve heard of “gilding the lily,” Harden does the precise opposite.
The book also mixes in a bit of personal memoir about the author’s experience at Yale. The memoir made a pleasant break from the parade of porn stars, but it went on for too long and added little to the book’s main narrative.
Another limitation of the book is its style of argument. Harden throws many charges at Yale, often in a haphazard fashion. For example, his criticism of Yale for kicking ROTC off campus is placed at the tail end of a chapter on Sex Week, and he blames Yale for being academically lax in the midst of a chapter describing a quasi-pagan ritual required as part of a “speech” class.
Combined with too many rhetorical questions and sarcastic one-liners, many passages in the book come off as petty sniping.
Harden does make one sustained argument other than the general idea that Yale has lost its sense of moral purpose (and the prodigious effort to gross out the reader with tales from Sex Week lecturers and perverted old Yale professors). He claims that Yale’s promotion of casual sex leads to “gender inequality.” But the argument doesn’t stand up very well under scrutiny.
It’s clear that the author cares deeply for young women who are hurt so often by casual sex and the porn industry that encourages it, but for some reason he frames his case as an appeal to the abstract principle of women’s equality:
The tension that arises when pornography is introduced into the Yale classroom is, at a fundamental level, the tension between freedom of expression and women’s equality. (p. 227)
The various moral arguments I make in this book can be reduced, in large part, to a single argument against institutional sexism. (p. 230)
The focus on inequality is odd.
For one thing, it’s an incorrect diagnosis of the problem. The promotion of the hook-up culture that Harden decries hurts women more than it hurts men, but that’s not because the two sexes are being treated unequally. It takes two to tango, after all.
It hurts women more because men and women are not equal. Women are being treated equally, in the sense that they are equally being fed a steady diet of libertine ideology and giving into it. The problem is that, due to the inescapable laws of human nature, a libertine lifestyle means that women end up being treated poorly.
Moreover, considering that Harden seems to be motivated by his deep concern for the well-being of the victims of today’s hook-up culture, the appeals to gender equality come off as artificial. He avoids traditional conservative appeals to protection of the family and protection from the social and psychological damage of promiscuity, instead adopting the language of liberal feminists, decrying “institutionalized sexism,” the “objectification” of women, and a lack of “women’s equality.”
At one point in the book he says the Yale Women’s Center is the only organization with enough political clout to do anything about Yale’s institutionalized bacchanalia, so perhaps his choice of language is intended to appeal to them.
If that’s what Harden is after, I wish him luck. But, given the track record of liberal feminists, I don’t think he will be successful.
Like the diversity advocates who tell us so much about the need for racial proportionality among college students and faculty but don’t seem bothered at all by racially homogenous historically black colleges, there seems to be something deeply inconsistent about the ideology of those who run on-campus women’s centers.
They lament the “objectification of women,” but rarely criticize pornography. They advocate “women’s equality,” but appear to have no problem with Sharia—the Islamic law that places many restrictions on women. They bemoan the frequency of rape on campus, but lift not a finger against the booze-saturated hook-up culture that fosters it (to do so would be “blaming the victim!”).
Another difficulty is that the women’s equality movement and sexual liberation movement have been linked for decades. Harden is trying to do the near impossible: pit the two against each other. I doubt that he will get anywhere by trying to redefine women’s equality to include something it never has included before—sexual restraint.
Sex and God at Yale is a noble endeavor, but it seems doomed to fail as a political enterprise. Probably the most tragic thing about it is that, although the subject matter is far worse than anything described in Bill Buckley’s God and Man at Yale sixty years ago, it will almost certainly be less shocking to today’s readers than Buckley’s book was.
Elite higher education has become a moral vacuum; everyone knows it, and few care.