Young Blood and Good News: A Report from the Sex Wars in Princeton, NJ
I was fully expecting that the Love and Fidelity Network would cancel its fifth annual conference in Princeton because of Hurricane Sandy. Registration was slated to begin on November 2, 2012. I was scheduled to present my work alongside Mark Regnerus and Ana Samuel the next day, on November 3.
On October 29, "the largest Atlantic tropical storm on record" made landfall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, only 100 miles away from Princeton. There were tens of millions of people without power, and the mayor of New York was considering canceling the city's annual marathon.
"Are you sure this conference is going to happen?" I kept asking the organizers of the Love and Fidelity Network. Yes, yes, they assured.
On the drive from Newark to Princeton I witnessed the miles-long queues for gas and toppled electrical poles looking like fallen dominoes. The helplessness of man against forces of nature left me pensive. The weekend was looking to be a sparsely attended and perhaps discombobulated affair.
The event turned out to be quite the opposite, and a dose of good news in otherwise depressing times.
The Love and Fidelity Network is an intercollegiate organization dedicated to promoting sexual integrity and strengthening the institution of marriage.
The members are a deeply religious and formal group on the whole. I was the only one seen in denim slacks the entire weekend.
In Princeton gathered a tiny cadre of professors -- the few right-of-center academics left in America still willing to embrace socially conservative opinions in public, rather than simply evade leftist calumny by hiding behind the "libertarian" label. At a breakout session for faculty, the tininess of our numbers was sobering. Had not the contingent from a Mormon university come, we would have been fewer than ten -- and of these, Mark Regnerus, one Ivy League assistant professor (who will remain nameless), a Dominican priest, and I were the only scholars from Generation X.
But then there were the students. Wholesome, clean-shaven, and modestly dressed, they came from a few dozen campuses across the country, as close as Princeton and as far as Stanford. They were by and large from the nation's elite schools. Chatting with them at breakfast and fielding their questions during plenaries, I saw that they had rigorously cared for their minds and bodies, staying physically fit and good-looking without being vain, delving into philosophical intricacies without being pompous.
And these were all students who'd trekked through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to trumpet chastity and build alliances for the sanctity of traditional marriage. Even on Friday night, for a speech from Patrick Fagan of the Family Research Council, in what is traditionally a low-traffic time slot for academic conferences (the first night of registration), the students appeared in hearty numbers, filling an auditorium of McCosh Hall.
What struck me was the students' earnestness and faith. I almost regret that other conservatives could not have been there to absorb their energy, for there was no clue in the voices of these student organizers that "the culture is lost," "our decline is irreversible," or "the end of marriage is inevitable" -- in other words, all the powerless and pessimistic mantras that right-wingers throw out just before they decide to call themselves "moderate" and shut up for the rest of their careers in public life.
These students are fighters. I got the sense that even if Mark Regnerus and Robert George told them to hold back and surrender, they would not. They explain the fallen state of their campuses, ranging from Georgetown to Harvard, in eloquent terms. They have mastered logos by choosing highly qualified scholars as mentors. They have mastered ethos by staying true to their faith against all odds. And most importantly, they have mastered pathos by seeing the sexual alienation of their peers with compassion.
Probably no generation is more aware than those in college now of the bitter fruit of the Sexual Revolution. At a Saturday evening panel we heard from Yale, Harvard, and Georgetown students talking about their difficult struggles to stop "Sex Week" events, approved or even encouraged by administrators and faculty, involving the celebration of hedonism and how-to workshops with sex toys in Ivy League classrooms.
Think of how time has changed our sexual landscape. The Baby Boomers had the opportunity to treat puerile and smutty shenanigans with thrilled naïveté, thinking such transgressions were transformative.
My generation, Generation X, was jaded and blasé about oversexed liberalism; it was, for better or worse, the way things were, and we figured there was little point in trying to fight it. We had no Tim Tebow.
This latest wave of college students includes an encouraging number who hold quite a different attitude from the prior generations. Surrounded by a hook-up culture so rampant that its spiritual decrepitude is undeniable, they can harbor no illusions about unmoored sex being transformative, benign, or simply "the way things are." They have a thirst for reform born of the firsthand witness they have borne to their peers' pains: the date rapes, loneliness, infirmity, eating disorders, self-abuse, and general destruction inherent in erotic meaninglessness.
When I was at Yale in the late 1980s, it was unthinkable to countermand what our professors told us. For all the complaints about current college students feeling too entitled to things, emboldened by Rate My Professor, and willing to undermine their teachers' authority, there is one tremendous upside: they aren't drinking radical Kool-Aid. Growing up with the internet has made them more skeptical of slogans. It has also made it easier for them to break out of the seeming firewall that leftist academics had around classrooms in bygone decades.
I sat with students from Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, and Ohio, and they told me of their struggles. They are not allowing academics to trample their faith anymore. They are arming themselves with research where they can get it, even scheduling extracurricular reading groups and study sessions so they can master the rhetoric they need to vindicate chastity and deflect bogus "pro-gay" or "anti-misogyny" red herrings from the left.
My panel was on Saturday afternoon. Having to lecture before such a large audience, I felt strange. It was my first time speaking with perfect honesty about the strange peaks and troughs of my life. Mostly I discussed my research into the cultural history of same-sex eroticism.
Naturally, I worried about snickers and judgment from the twenty-year-olds sitting in the audience. I got none of that type of hostility. Instead, they asked me heartfelt questions, such as:
How do I speak about sexual integrity with friends who call themselves gay without making them feel that I'm rejecting them?
I have several friends that people call gay because they have effeminate gestures. It seems the gay community encourages them to enter the gay lifestyle simply because they assume from their mannerisms that they are gay. What do you have to say about that?
What do I do? I have to minister to students who were conceived through in vitro and raised by a lesbian couple. What should I expect when the topic of sexual integrity arises?
I realized by the end of Saturday afternoon that this was a group of students who get it. They weren't going to be fooled by feminist or gay rights rhetoric into justifications of extramarital promiscuity or abortion. They are certainly not bullies, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, for leftist critics to paint them as bigots. They go to the core of language and ask existential questions.
Rather than accept passively the notion of equal rights for gays, they ask, "What does it mean to be gay?" and "Who defined it that way?"
Rather than be cowed with "cases of rape or incest" scenarios in discussions about abortion, they speak holistically about creating social spaces where men are held to high standards and women keep each other from dangerous situations in the first place.
Though the events took place the weekend before an election day, there was no campaigning or sloganeering. These young folks are girding themselves for the long fight, not a quick battle.
Much to their credit, these college students are also arming themselves with the humanities -- something that my generation of rightists neglected. Many are majoring in literature, religion, classics, or music, rather than the usual conservative strongholds of economics, government, and social sciences. As they grow and develop their careers, they will be well-poised to transform right-wing think-tanks like Heritage and Cato. From there, it may be possible that, in later decades, they take back Hollywood and academia and save us all. Here is to hoping.
As a Protestant, I was impressed by the Catholic predominance but embarrassed, too. There was a time when Protestants were vocal leaders in socially conservative causes. Now Catholics seem willing to fight where many evangelicals have liberalized or gone into hiding. It might be, in the end, that Catholicism's massive infrastructure created enough nooks for conservative counterrevolutionaries to set up headquarters. It would be ironic, then, if this generation of organizers saves the United States by saving sex from cultural rot. If they can turn back the trend of degradation, perhaps one day Americans will have the Vatican to thank for the fact that there is a functional America at all.