Every fall, kids arrive on college campuses and learn that their basic moral intuitions on sexual matters don’t square with the reigning ideas. Thanks to debased campus culture and overreaching on the part of administrators and professors, students are beginning to respond systematically—and they’re having an impact. Here’s how.
No two undergraduate experiences are quite the same. But the undergraduate years are marked by certain commonalities: students are challenged intellectually, socially, and ethically. Long-held beliefs are forced to submit to rational scrutiny. No longer is “that’s just the way we do it” or “that’s just the way I feel about the issue” sufficient. In philosophy classrooms and biology labs, students are expected to slough off the opinions they held in their pre-critical-thinking days and adopt the conclusions of the best arguments. Everything is to be tested, and only the rationally defensible is to be retained.
Most students arrive at college knowing few, if any, of their classmates. Navigating the maze of social expectations and the ensuing climbing of social ladders in a community of strangers, students are forced to ask themselves questions: what type of a person am I; what type do I want to become; and with what type do I want to become friends? For many, this explicit self-examination and social-selection—choosing which finite group of people to befriend from a seemingly limitless pool of possibilities—is a first-time experience. In grade school, junior high, and high school, such choices weren’t quite as necessary—there were certain cliques and people just naturally fell into place. Get to college and you get to reinvent yourself—you have
to define yourself one way or another.
No longer living under their parents’ roof, no longer in a supportive school, neighborhood, or church community, students no longer have external supports encouraging them to strive to meet the demands of ethical living—and holding them accountable when they fail. Instead, they find themselves subjected to new forms of pressure: a campus culture that demands conformity as the price of social acceptance, a professoriate that preaches new ethical dogmas, and administrators whose policies recognize no values but legality, liability, and physical health. It’s easy to see how otherwise virtuous students can begin to go astray—and how those already set on a bad path from high school have little hope of reforming themselves.
Yet most students arrive at college completely unaware of the patterns of life that await them. The fact is that many unsuspecting freshmen innocently join sports teams, enter into Greek life, and otherwise expect to lead active social lives, but have little idea of what sexual expectations are awaiting. Once seduced into the campus culture, they find it hard to break free. Even if dissatisfied and unfulfilled, they assume the problem is with them, not the culture. And for those who resist it from the get-go, it’s unclear what the alternative is.
Apart from some religious campuses and religious enclaves on secular campuses, the late teens and early twenties are a bit of a wandering. Sex is to be expected, but with no expectation of commitment, never mind marriage. Those desiring an alternative have no example to look to, no role-models to emulate. Gone are the days of courtship. Gone are the days of dating as an explicit preparation for marriage. Gone are the days of using one’s late adolescence and early adulthood to form the habits, the stable dispositions, the virtues required for healthy male-female relationships—both friendships and marriage. Instead, exploitation looms large. And most marriages fail.
But it only gets worse. Campus officials in lecture halls and administrative offices, rather than challenging debased campus culture, actually aid and abet it. “Abstinence education?” That’s a scientifically disproven method of avoiding pregnancy and disease. A pill and a latex sheath is all you need. “Chastity?” Hardly a virtue, the best moral philosophy and clinical psychology tell us that it’s a vice—an unhealthy attitude of repressing sexual desire, hating one’s body, and viewing sex as dirty. Courtship, dating, marriage, and then sex? All you need are consenting adults (in any number or pairings) to have good sex. And marriage is an outdated ideal anyway.
Most won’t buy that last argument—they still long for a marital relationship, of some sort, at some point. But they don’t know how to get there or what to do now. And anyone entering the secular academy holding anything resembling traditional Judeo-Christian views about sex, marriage, and the human family had better be prepared to meet the challenging questions coming his or her way. Why not pornography and masturbation as an alternative outlet to rape? Why not some pre-marital sex and cohabitation as a means of better getting to know one another, to see if you can live together before the wedding vows, to see if you’re sexually compatible before the wedding night? And even if not as preparation for marriage, why not hook-up just as a sign of temporary affection, and, well, because it’s fun, enjoyable, pleasurable?
Yet it’s not just the hook-up culture. If you think men and women are equal in dignity yet distinct and complementary, bringing unique and special gifts to bear on all aspects of life, expect to be called a sexist. If you think mothering and fathering are different, “parenting” in the abstract doesn’t exist as such, expect to be met with hostility. And if you’re at an Ivy League University and intend on being a mom first and foremost, expect to be told that you’re going to waste your education.
But the worst of all university dogmas to reject is the goodness and worth of the homosexual lifestyle. You think two men or two women can't legitimately enter into a loving and committed relationship? Well, you’re no better than the bigots who opposed interracial marriage. You think a homosexual orientation is intrinsically disordered and homosexual acts are objectively immoral? Can you say “homophobia”? And good luck if you’re someone who experiences same-sex attractions but doesn’t desire to be gay. You will be labeled as self-loathing.
From liberal dogmas on homosexuality to liberationist agendas on sex, feminism and marriage, from the social pressures put on guys and girls to be sexually active to the resulting pornography, masturbation, alcohol, and body-image problems—college campuses aren’t a pretty sight.
After my own four years as an undergraduate at Princeton, the problem was readily apparent to me, and a potential remedy seemed worth trying: rather than cowering away from the liberal orthodoxy on human sexuality, why don’t we subject it
to intense, critical, rational scrutiny, expose it as intellectually wanting, and build a social network to oppose it?
February 2005 saw the launch of a new student group at Princeton, the Elizabeth Anscombe Society, named for the famed Cambridge philosophy professor, star student and successor of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and intellectual defender of traditional sexual ethics. The Anscombe Society set for itself a lofty mission:
We aim to foster an atmosphere where sex is dignified, respectful, and beautiful; where human relationships are affirming and supportive; where motherhood is not put at odds with feminism; and where no one is objectified, instrumentalized, or demeaned. We aim to increase the level of respect among members of the university community who disagree on these issues as we explore our common understandings as well as our differences. Lastly, we hope to provide those students who strive to understand, live, and love their commitment to chastity and ‘traditional’ sexual and familial ethics with the support they need to make their time at Princeton the best it can be.
The students who formed the Anscombe Society were tired of being subjected to a dehumanizing campus culture and hoped to point to an alternative, more excellent way. They were tired of the one-sided presentation of academic arguments related to marriage and family life—biased syllabi inside the classroom and monolithic student groups outside the classroom—and so they hoped to balance the intellectual conversation. Lastly, they were tired of an administration that absurdly claimed to be morally neutral when it came to matters of sexuality while consistently promoting liberal and liberationist sexual policies. They were determined to hold the administration accountable and seek change.
To achieve these ends, the Anscombe Society followed a three-pronged approach.
First and foremost, as a group at an academic institution and as heirs of Anscombe’s legacy, the Anscombe Society was about ideas—the give and take of reasons, the making and countering of arguments. Too often the academy has its own orthodoxy on issues of sexuality, and the prevailing orthodoxies are treated as immune from challenge. In classrooms, administrative offices, student groups, and student publications, an unquestionable dogma had been established. The Anscombe Society, through guest lecturers, newspaper op-eds, and discussion groups, provided serious and respectful academic responses and counter-arguments. The scholars they brought to campus to give public lectures made the intellectual case for a traditional conception of human sexuality and the human family from a multi- and inter-disciplinary perspective that drew on outstanding scholarly works of philosophy, theology, ethics, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, economics, and sociology. They created an academic database on their website with the best articles from these same disciplines.
Now, the practical reality on most college campuses is that the main attacks on traditional sexual morality come from the constant onslaught of same-sex marriage advocates and feminists. Just from the need to play defense, these became central issues of response. For a student arriving on campus with basically sound intuitions about these issues—that there’s something to the fact that we come as male and female, something about our sexual differentiation that matters, and something about male and female forming husbands and wives to become fathers and mothers that mattered
—but who couldn’t articulate a robust response to the campus LGBT and feminist groups or their ethics and politics professors, the Anscombe Society offered much-needed intellectual support. These students aren’t bigots. These students aren’t misogynists. But those are the charges you’d get if you voiced traditional thoughts on these issues on many elite secular college campuses today.
As the defense of traditional marriage was made, it quickly became apparent that the argument only runs as a conclusion from the underlying principle—virtue—of chastity. And so the Anscombe Society quickly began shifting from just a response to same-sex marriage and anti-feminine feminism to a whole-hearted proposal of chaste relationships as the most fulfilling. The Anscombe Society was committed to presenting the fullness of truth when it came to the intellectual case for the human family. (With one notable exception, the group abstained from taking a position on the issue of contraception.) Intellectual arguments—that was the first prong.
Second, but equally important given the social realities on college campuses, the Anscombe Society set out to form a supportive community. If you’re one of the few who is personally committed to living a chaste life, you can often feel quite alone on a college campus. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if everyone is having sex all the time. But it changes the way you approach considering even the possibility of dating at college if you think that all of your potential suitors will eventually get to the point where they’re expecting sexual favors from you. As a result, many chaste students just withdraw. Part of it is that they simply don’t know who the other like-minded students are; part of it is that they think their ideals are outdated on campus, so they never speak up about them—and other like-minded students do the same. And so they never know how many of them are really out there. The Anscombe Society wanted to bring this closeted community out into the open—to get people to meet and know each other, and to provide alternative social activities for those students who didn’t quite enjoy the usual weekend scene of drunken debauchery. One of the best ideas they had was holding a reception for students sponsored by the faculty who affirmed the virtue of chastity and traditional marriage. Robert George, a professor in Princeton’s Politics department, took the lead in hosting the event. The first year there were eight faculty co-hosts. This past year, just four years later, there were just under twenty—even among the professoriate they don’t know how many of them are out there.
The third task was to provide assistance to those students who needed help in meeting the ethical goals they had set for themselves. This proved to be too ambitious, demanding, and technical for a mere student group. Addictions to pornography, body-image problems, same-sex attractions, usually require professional assistance. Not surprisingly, that’s why Princeton has an LGBT Center, a Women’s Center, and various other special centers with full-time staff people to meet the needs of students. Nothing like that exists for students taking the other
side of the moral divide on these questions. At Princeton, the Anscombe Society is negotiating establishment of such a center right now.
Predictably, a group like this starting at an Ivy League university made waves. At first it was treated as a novelty. Then some people were threatened by the existence of the group; others were shocked that Princeton would allow a group that held “homophobic” and “anti-woman” views. But within the first couple of months the media started paying attention. Reports began to run in the New York Times
, on Jay Leno, and in various social conservative publications and TV shows. The most unusual thing reporters noted about the group was that it wasn’t religious—the students thought reason was on their side.
Along with the media attention came interest from students at other campuses who wanted to start up similar groups. We readily assisted them. Over time it became clear that this assistance couldn’t continue on an informal level, and we organized a 501c3 non-profit group to help provide material support for the groups, and two years ago we hired a full-time employee to launch a national organization called the Love and Fidelity Network that would begin planting similar groups on university campuses in order to create a national network. This fall the Love and Fidelity Network held their first annual conference. A hundred students from twenty schools—including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell—attended. America’s leading scholars on these issues made presentations.
All of that said, there are important lessons to be learned about starting an Anscombe Society. There are pitfalls and mistakes to avoid, based on how similar groups at other campuses have been launched or what a previous model looked like prior to the advent of Anscombe at Princeton.
1. Avoid anything that is too touchy-feely, too cutsey, too first-person personal, confessional, or self-referential. This is to be a serious group of serious ideas.
2. Avoid anything resembling chastity pledges, vows, or rings.
3. Do not sacrifice integrity to numbers. Softening your positions on various controversial issues in an attempt to drive up membership numbers defeats the entire purpose of a group like this. The goal isn’t to be popular; the goal is to provide a robust account of the more excellent way.
4. Be religion-friendly but do not be founded on religious premises or arguments. The purpose of a group like the Anscombe Society is to explain how traditional conceptions of the family and the role of sex within the family are more humanly fulfilling. Focusing on the human sciences—philosophy, sociology, psychology, medicine, biology, law, economics, political theory, etc.—should suffice.
5. Remember the doctrine of the mean: the virtuous positions lies between two vices on either extreme. As such, don’t overreact. Don’t respond to campus culture by going too far in the other direction and returning us to aspects of a previous age that have rightly been left behind. Consider three examples:
a. Sticking with the above: you don’t need to be secularist or anti-religion. There are good theological reasons for the traditional family—and you can include theological reasons as one among many. For example, a panel on religious reasons from across the traditions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) would be effective.
b. Speaking truth in love on the issue of homosexuality is very difficult. There is the temptation to water-down the truth or to express it in a non-loving way. Anti-gay bigotry is real. It is to be avoided.
c. Forcing women back into the home, barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen is not the proper response to the Ivy League professor who looks at you incredulously when you tell her that the most important thing in your life is the desire to be a good mom. Finding creative ways to merge your vocation as mother and vocation as scholar, lawyer, doctor, etc. is the way to go. Modern work schedules and professional life were largely formed around gender arrangements from a time long-ago, and they need not be retained. This is the work for the new feminism.
6. Preaching to the choir is not the same as intellectual engagement with campus culture. There is a time and a place for building up the base and equipping the students with basically sound dispositions with solid argumentation. There is also a need to be provocative and shake other students out of their complacent acceptance of liberal dogma. Finding ways to do this and to meet people where they are is key. The goal is securing intellectual and moral conversion.
7. The focus should be on marriage, not chastity. If people ask, “what’s the Anscombe Society all about,” the answer they should get is: “promoting stable and healthy marriages.” Chastity is the virtue that fosters this—both before and during, both inside and outside of marriage. Emphasize the end goal—the good—that you seek to promote.
The future for groups like these is bright. In response to debased campus culture coupled with overreaching on the part of administrators and professors, students are beginning to respond systematically—and they’re having an impact. I don’t foresee the basic situation changing in the near-term. We’ll continue to have basically decent kids come to college with basically sound intuitions, and then they’ll be bombarded with alternative messages. The need is to equip them with arguments to know that their basic gut instinct about Adam and Steve is correct; that wanting to have a family and be a mom and be educated is OK. The need is to create alternative environments to counter the cultural pressures that can lead passion to override reason, to form communities of virtue.
But meeting this challenge will not be easy. Survey data on the next generation shows views on the family and sexuality that are quite at odds with the vision of Elizabeth Anscombe. To persuade this generation of the truths Anscombe defended, we’ll need a new generation of scholars, from all the academic disciplines, willing to turn their scholarship toward defending the human family and the principles of morality that protect it and the virtues that sustain it. Given our academic setting, it’s fair to encourage all students, especially graduate students, to consider devoting their research to these issues. And professors shouldn’t be afraid to speak out. Elizabeth Anscombe certainly wasn’t.Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good. This essay is adapted from a paper presented at the annual conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2009 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.