We are told that these are the best four years of life.
Visibly eager, and almost impossibly energetic, the recent high school graduate fantasizes about the ideas he will learn and the experiences he will live in this new utopia without limits and free from the dreaded specter of authority figures quelling fun and life itself. College life is supposed to be experimental. The student steps into an unfamiliar world when he begins his career at college, and very quickly the world without limits that once appeared so desirable becomes a source of great confusion, and in no way is this more evident than with regard to interpersonal relationships, both sexual and platonic. In its attempt at boisterous self-expression, the sexual revolution has freed us from the yoke of a “thou shalt not…” but has simultaneously left the modern university student with no guidance about what sex is for and what he ought to do with such desires. In examining the reasons for this strange paradox, I argue that today’s undergraduates are more sexually and personally disconnected than ever before because the sexual revolution’s emphasis on self-expression has isolated men from each other and distorted the selfless use of human sexuality into a hedonic pursuit of self-gratification.
The rallying call of the sexual revolution on campus today is the unquestioned assertion of the inherent goodness of self-expression—this is taken to be axiomatic. It is true of both the homosexual and heterosexual contingents of the movement, for indeed, the logic of self-expression is intentionally apathetic toward the actual content of that expression; it matters little what is expressed or how it is expressed—only ensure that the self is expressed, the tacit argument goes, and we have attained our goal. And undergirding this entire edifice is a dank and seething selfishness, for the object of these aspirations is not to be noble or brave or to display any such classical virtues. The object is simply that the self exert itself upon the world, and under such conditions, none can claim that the self-expression of the philanderer is any better or worse than that of the philanthropist.
The modern understanding of sex is also inherently selfish because it has, at its root, the desire for self-satisfaction above all else. C.S. Lewis articulates this quandry thusly: “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body.”[i] A more incisive analysis of the contemporary college hookup culture could not be written as succinctly. The “other” is merely an accessory for achieving the desired sensation: “how much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition.”[ii]
This attitude toward the disposability of the sexual partner is not novel; what is novel is engineering social relations with the express purpose of disposable sex, and it was just this attitude toward sex and this confusion over the very essence of relationships, love, and sexuality that was enshrined at my alma mater, Georgetown University, in an event during Senior Week 2011 entitled “Last Chance Dance.” Having completed four years of rigorous study, the senior class is presented with a week of activities as the pinnacle and culmination of their undergraduate years. The Last Chance Dance is designed as a venue to air hitherto unexpressed romantic affection toward another student or students, and the intention of it is something far less than Platonic. Placed as it is, strategically after a university-sponsored keg party and only a few days before graduation, the Last Chance Dance is designed as the ideal opportunity for casual “hookup” sex between ebullient and inebriated couples who, either for want of ambition or because of the pesky influence of sexual morality, have thus far been prevented from enjoying their allotted and expected bacchanalia. And should social awkwardness ensue after the event, no matter. Graduation and departure are only a few days away. This is the epitome of lust without romance—it explicitly and unquestionably exalts the sensory experience to the detriment of all relational and personal experience.
Such an approach toward the disposability of the other stems from a false anthropology, influenced by modern notions of ascendant individualism that claim each man is sufficient in himself. This is in contradiction to the wisdom of the ancients. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes famously gives an unusual and comical speech detailing how human beings are now half of the creatures we once were, “globular in shape, with rounded back and sides, four arms and four legs, and two faces, both the same, on a cylindrical neck, and one head, with one face on each side…” before incurring the wrath of the gods and being severed from our partners.[iii] According to Aristophanes, all romance we experience is the desire to be reunited with our primordial partner, to be completed in the most literal sense of the term. The story is comical, yet it is no more so than the modern liberal notion that the human person is already a complete, self-sufficient, and entirely whole entity less in need of outside completion than in need of a fuller and freer self-expression, and this is truly a more jarring and dissonant conception than anything Aristophanes could have conceived.
Though we feign romantic admiration of Tom Cruise’s iconic “you complete me,” the modern university student is not truly aware that basic longings and deficiencies naturally exist in his soul and can only be fulfilled through another. This need for basic, intimate, and faithful human romantic connection is twisted and contorted until the student truly thinks that these desires are engineered (“designed” would be far too baggage-laden a word) to lead him toward unrestrained, unconnected copulation devoid of real, deep connection. Indeed, we pride ourselves on our ability to have intercourse and move on without sympathy or lingering attachment—it is the subject of social events and high-budget movies. No Strings Attached, an unintentionally didactic tale revolving around the contract of two people to use each other’s bodies for pleasure and nothing more, grossed almost $150 million in 2011 by telling the obvious story that a man and a women having sex together cannot but develop intimate connections that transcend mere physicality, no matter how hard they try to resist such feelings. This comes as a novel thought to the modern, liberated individualist who, blinded by his own individualism, is confused at his inability to find fulfillment in transitory, libidinous encounters intentionally evacuated of all higher significance in the revered name of self-fulfillment.
But the failure of the sexual revolutionaries to be satisfied is unsurprising. When the sexual libertines from the sixties down into the 21st century speak of “free love,” it is lust that they speak of, devoid of agape. “Love,” speaking precisely, is exactly what they do not provide. Love is always costly, and those who would lightly esteem it will necessarily find themselves with nothing but the shell of love and a cheap substitute for it—a pleasurable sensation caused by the titillation of nerve endings, and then dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction with the myth of modern individualist self-expression is unsurprising if one accepts the classical idea that man is, by nature, a political animal (to employ a Greek phrase) and that it is not good for man to be alone (to cite its Hebrew counterpart); modern man’s highest ambition lapses into solipsism because it springs from a false anthropology.
In reality, man is at his most human when he loves the other fully and selflessly, yet by a strange paradox, he is most like a beast when he is in lust. Failing to hold himself to the highest standards of human life, he inevitably gives way to the basest. The result of this on a societal scale is that, as Malcolm Muggeridge famously observed, we become “impotent out of our own erotomania.”[iv]
The modern day college campus, as an environment virtually devoid of any sexual mores, is an ideal laboratory in which to test Muggeridge’s theory. And here we see that is it holds true. The result of uninhibited sexual self-expression on college campuses is virtually pandemic: “One in four college students today has some kind of sexually transmitted infection (STI). According to the CDC, 19 million new cases of STIs occur every year, half of them being among 15-24 year olds.”[v] And much of today’s scientific research is oriented not towards educating us into making better choices, but toward allowing us to continue making bad choices with impunity, knowing that science has promised to continue steadily removing the consequences of our behavior at every turn.
Yet if the dissatisfaction and frustration so endemic of the modern university is to be reversed, it is not going to come through scientific advances and increasing sexual liberation. It will come through the humble confession of our need for others, and a proudly held moral ethos of self-sacrifice and true love. Institutions such as the Love and Fidelity Network show that this desire is not fantastic but is genuinely possible and a work most emphatically worth doing.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, and World Inc: New York. 1960. p. 134.
[ii] Lewis, p. 135.
[iii] Symposium, beginning at 189e.
[iv] Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, Wipf & Stock Publishers: Eugene, Oregon, 2000. p. 20.