In recent years, Duke University has developed a reputation for debauchery. A steady drumbeat of scandal—from the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case to Karen Owen’s 2010 “thesis” on the bedroom exploits of her numerous lovers, to various racist or sexist fraternity parties—paints a picture of a university gone wild.
While that picture may be slightly exaggerated, a recent study found that over half of Duke students had participated in a “hook-up” in the previous six months. That means that they had had “sexual activity with someone outside of an exclusive romantic relationship.”
But beneath the revelry is a heart-breaking tragedy, according to a Duke psychologist who spoke at the conclusion of Duke’s 2013 “One Sexy Week.”
To hear Gary Glass, assistant director of Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), you had to wait till the end of the series of university-sponsored lectures in early February called “One Sexy Week.” Like Sex Weeks at other colleges, it featured a potpourri of activities celebrating unrestrained sex. There was the “I Heart Female Orgasm” seminar, complete with how-to instructions; a screening of “The Purity Myth,” by Jessica Valenti, in which Valenti mocks the idea of chastity; distribution of free condoms before a basketball game; and several talks about sex and race, sex and disability, and gay sex issues.
Glass’s was one of two lectures in the week-long program that bucked the trend of blatant rejection of sexual morality and prudence. One of these involved a panel of students addressing several religious perspectives on sex. If there were others, I couldn’t discern them from the program. Glass’s lecture was titled “Enriching Relationships: Thinking About Considering a Sexual Relationship.”
Glass is no Moral Majoritarian bent on restoring traditional values; in fact, he is unwilling to openly classify himself as conservative or liberal, religious or not. But as a counselor for undergraduates at Duke, he has direct contact with the psychological fallout of the hook-up culture and does his best to help those hurt by it to restore their lives. “I love the students. I love people in general,” he said in an interview with the Pope Center. “And when I see them suffer, to me there’s a sense of duty to … find the things that are leading to their suffering.”
Students come to Glass because they are depressed, anxious, or feel they are having trouble fitting into the college environment. Glass said in the talk that he often hears students (mostly women) say: “I agreed it was just sex. Why don’t I feel good about this?” Says Glass: “That is really the scenario that motivated my doing this talk.” Students who come into the counseling center as a result of sexual encounters are often “some variation of scared, or lonely, or both.”
Although the lecture was sparsely attended—only about 8 in total showed up, including three reporters—Glass shared some valuable insights into the thinking process that drives the hook-up culture. One is the relatively recent change in the cultural perception of sex.
He pointed out that a couple of decades ago, a man trying to get into bed with a reluctant woman would have to tell lies pretending that he loved her. Why? Because the society as a whole admired chastity. “In modern times,” however, Glass said, “the lie is not spoken between individuals.” Rather, the entire society has bought into the idea that it isn’t necessary to love someone before having sex. That, too, may be a lie, and, if so, a big one that is causing hurt and depression.
The situation today is, perhaps counterintuitively, worse than it was before. Today, there is no one to blame after dispiriting sexual encounters; according to the culture, one can’t even blame oneself. It’s more difficult, even impossible, to sort out moral responsibility.
Through cultural media—movies, TV shows, the Internet, and language such as the euphemism “hooking up”—the idea is transmitted to students that casual sex is normal and healthy. The idea is so ingrained that in many circles there’s a stigma associated with being a virgin. Having sex outside of marriage has become pretty much expected.
Furthermore, the widespread nature of the contemporary lie about sex means that a much larger number of people are ensnared by it.
Contributing to the lie is the perception that “everyone else is doing it”—and thus the feeling that one must conform. And the perception is fueled in part by the university administration.
The university’s Women’s Center hosted the “One Sexy Week” program, in addition to hosting speakers like “sex educator” Jay Friedman, who came to the campus in 2010. “If sex out of marriage equals ‘selfish hedonism,’ then sign me up,” he said during his lecture in 2010. The university thus gives its stamp of approval to the idea that casual sex is normal and good.
Another idea driving the hook-up culture is what Glass calls the “South Park Effect,” which he named after the popular cartoon show. The show makes jokes at the expense of just about everyone, conservatives and liberals, religious believers and atheists. The cumulative effect is for no value system to be taken seriously.
“One of the worst labels a student can have in this particular context [i.e. undergraduate life] is being ‘too serious,’” Glass said. “You can’t lose cool points faster than taking anything seriously.” This, too, spurs the hook-up culture.
Glass mentioned that the word “prude” as an epithet has come back into popular usage after falling out of fashion for decades. Activism that has to do with “dignity or integrity or justice or fairness or respect immediately get[s] put into something that is devalued and mocked.” In this way, the need to belong—a powerful psychological motivator among college-aged people—can trump moral concerns.
On the positive side, Glass has a prescription for improving the way students handle sex on campus.
He advocates changing the language used when students think about sex. He asks students to consider whether or not they plan to have sex out of a feeling of entitlement (believing that they or their partner “deserve” sex) or a desire for conformity (going along with the crowd). If students just thought about the issue in those terms, he argues, students would realize that their thinking is based on faulty assumptions and they would make wiser decisions.
Glass suggested a marketing campaign asking students to think about sex in terms of entitlement, conformity, and where their expectations about it come from. He even suggested students wear T-shirts linking sex and those terms.
Changing the language along the lines Glass suggests could be tremendously helpful. Some students believe in abstinence, but their convictions are worn down by the campus culture. If there were a campaign along the lines Glass suggests, and perhaps if pro-promiscuity speakers didn’t dominate the lecture circuit, those convictions might be edified rather than discouraged, and students would end up with fewer regrets. But they get lured in because of the overwhelming social pull.
Part of the problem is that, in order for students to get any such help, the university would have to take a stand. It would stop financial support of pro-promiscuity speakers and would take Glass’s ideas seriously. The university is unlikely to do so. Yes, there is a counseling center where students can go when it is too late, but there is no inclination to put respect for traditional mores on an equal footing with hooking up.
So more and more young people will continue to pour into psychological counseling offices, crying out, “If only I had known I would feel this way!”
And that’s just cruel.