Dorm BrothelVIGEN GUROIAN
Nineteen sixty-six, the year in which Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman was published, is also the year I entered as a first-yearman at the University of Virginia. We did not stoop to the State U level of referring to ourselves as freshmen, sophomores, and such not at "The University." We were all men at U.Va. "gentlemen," we were told.
"The so-called sexual revolution is not, as advertised, a liberation of sexual behavior but rather its reversal. In former days, even under Victoria, sexual intercourse was the natural end and culmination of heterosexual relations. Now one begins with genital overtures instead of a handshake, then waits to see what will turn up (e.g., might become friends later). Like dogs greeting each other nose to tail and tail to nose."
Parietal rules were enforced even in the fraternity houses self-enforced by those of us who lived in them. Young women were not permitted in the bedrooms and had to be out of the house by a certain hour. We dated, blind-dated often. We did not know what "hooking up" was. We had never heard of date rape either, though some of us may have committed it. It could happen in the back seat of a car, a cheap motel, a cow pasture, or a Civil War battlefield, but not in a college dormitory or fraternity house bedroom, not yet at least; it was not until the end of the decade that all the rules and prohibitions came tumbling down and the brave new world of the contemporary coeducational college commenced.
Back then, and from time immemorial, so far as I knew, there were the "easy" girls. We had a provocative name or two for them, and they were quickly sorted out from the "other" girls. Word got around fast. These were not young women one seriously considered marrying, and most of us expected and hoped to find a mate in college. If, however, a guy got especially "hungry" or "horny," there was no special stigma attached to taking advantage of what the easy girls had to offer.
The gentlemen of the University of Virginia lived by a double standard, but there were standards. There was little doubt about that. The arrangements the colleges provided for the sexes to meet and mix, strict dorm-visitation hours, approved housing, curfews for female visitors, and the like made that abundantly clear. When we set off on a road trip to a girls school, either by hitchhiking or jamming six or eight into a car, and arrived at the dorm, we did not just mosey on up to our dates' rooms and hang out. We waited, garbed in coat and tie, in the big informal parlor until our dates made their entrance.
My college classmates and fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia and I were certainly not Victorians, but we were not post-Christian and postmodern young men either, not quite yet. Maybe we were the last gentlemen, which certainly should not be interpreted to mean that we always behaved like gentlemen, just that we had some appreciation for the meaning of the word and maybe even aspirations to become what it signified. Furthermore, we knew what the opposite of a gentleman was. In fact, in those days "The University" was often called, proudly by some, the Playboy School of the South. So we were gentlemen and playboys both, spirited by our friend Jack Daniels. We knew there was a contradiction in being a gentleman and a Don Juan at the same time. But being a Don Juan or playboy has significance only in a world in which the idea of the gentleman exists, in which fidelity is acknowledged as a virtue, and in which sex is considered most appropriate to the marital union. We had absorbed these notions from a culture that had not yet abandoned them. We knew the game had to end eventually, probably when we met the right girl and got married, and most of us got married by the age of 23 or 24, many to our college sweethearts.
Experts identify a variety of reasons and causes, but I do not pretend to address the subject scientifically or dispassionately. I will not review this literature here. Nor do I have a sentimental attachment to a remembered past. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not call for a return to the "good old days" of dating as it was when I was a youth anymore than I would advocate a return to arranged marriages. As a college professor and father of a college-age daughter, however, I am outraged by the complicity of my college and most other schools in the death of courtship and the emergence of a dangerous and destructive culture of "hooking up."
Doane College in Nebraska recently mailed a recruiting postcard that showed a man surrounded by women, with a caption that read that students at this college have the opportunity to "play the field." After a public outcry last December, administrators hastily withdrew the marketing campaign, explaining that the postcard was harmless and a metaphor for exploring a variety of education options. But the very fact that the campaign was conceived and approved in the first place speaks volumes. The sexual revolution, if that is an appropriate title, was not won with guns but with genital groping aided and abetted by colleges that forfeited the responsibilities of in loco parentis and have gone into the pimping and brothel business.
I do not use these words lightly or loosely, and rarely is a college so blatantly suggestive as was Doane, although this attitude about the commendability of sexual experimentation as become an orthodoxy among many who hold positions as deans of student life at our colleges. Of course, some colleges take concrete steps to resist this revolution of morals. Still, in most American college coed dorms, the flesh of our daughters is being served up daily like snack jerky. No longer need young men be wolves or foxes to consume that flesh. There are no fences to jump or chicken coops to break into. The gates are wide open and no guard dogs have been posted. It is easy come and easy go. Nor are our daughters the only ones getting hurt. The sex carnival that is college life today is also doing great damage to our sons' characters, deforming their attitudes toward the opposite sex. I am witnessing a perceptible dissipation of manly virtue in the young men I teach.
In 1966, my fraternity brothers and I were caught up in a monumental shift in relations between the sexes that Will Barrett, the young protagonist of Walker Percy's tale, struggles to understand and come to terms with. One evening, Will and his love interest, Kitty Vaught, retreat to a cramped camper. They try to dance and then lie together in a bunk with all the expectations ignited by young flesh pressed against young flesh. A conversation ensues that is profoundly emblematic of what my generation went through. Prompted by the intimacy and abandon of the situation, Will tells Kitty a story about how his grandfather took his father to a whorehouse at the age of 16. Kitty asks Will if his father did the same for him. Will answers that he did not. Then, after some chatter about the meaning of love and the difficulty of it, Kitty says to Will, "Very well, I'll be your whore." Will does not protest, so Kitty injects,
"Then you think I'm a whore?"
This is what dating was becoming back then, as young men and women without traditional adult oversight started to entrust themselves to one another. A clear sense of the formal stages of courtship had faded and authoritative rules of conduct were dissolving. Percy's scene is not wholly foreign to my students. But neither is it typical. The culture has changed dramatically.
I cannot say for sure whether these shows influence real life or whether it is the other way around. In the end, it does not much matter. What I do know is that a latter-day Walker Percy could not write the scene I have cited with the belief that it faithfully depicts how contemporary young men and women meet or what is at issue between them.
Take, for another example, the benchmark movies of the '60s about young men and women coming of age, such as The Graduate or Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now. They are now passé. The sexual innocence depicted and the presence of adult supervision, limited or mocked, against which the young protagonists struggle, are no longer realistic. Frank Capra's classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night, released in 1934, contrasts even more strikingly with contemporary sexual mores. In that movie, a newspaper reporter named Peter Warne, played by Clark Gable, heroically and humorously lives up to the standard of a gentleman in his behavior toward a rebellious young heiress named Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert. Occasions arise that certainly present Peter with opportunities to make sexual advances. But Peter does not take advantage of these occasions, despite his increasing desire for a woman whom at first he disdained. Only after these two spirited combatants of the war between the sexes get wed is it suggested that they are sexually intimate. At the end of the film, a symbolic trumpet sounds, announcing that the "walls of Jericho" are falling.
Over the years, I have asked my students whether they have seen this movie. Only a handful of the students in my course on theology and literature acknowledge even having heard of it. If they were to watch It Happened One Night, I do not doubt that some of my students would enjoy it and highly appreciate its artistry and humor. Yet I hardly think many would identify strongly with the characters and their situation. In simple terms, the symbolic curtain that Peter builds from a clothesline and a blanket in order to separate two twin beds in a rented room is hardly the correlative of life in coed college dormitories and apartments.
The nature and depth of this cultural disconnect is illustrated by a scene in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published just two years after It Happened One Night premiered. John, the so-called Savage, is brought to London from the Indian reservation. During a conversation with Helmholtz Watson, a young author of radio jingles and touchy-feely movie scripts, John recites lines from Romeo and Juliet, a play that has been banned and is unknown to the inhabitants of Brave New World. Despite the fact that Helmholtz rebels against the shallowness of life in Brave New World, the plot of Shakespeare's play puzzles him. After listening to the scene of the lovers' first meeting, he wonders what the fuss is all about. He does not understand the nature of the tragedy because he has no knowledge of courtship or the roles of parental and filial love and fidelity in Shakespeare's world. "Getting into such a state about having a girl it seemed rather ridiculous. The mother and father (grotesque obscenity) forcing the daughter to have someone she didn't want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having someone else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred! In its smutty absurdity the situation was irresistibly comical."
It Happened One Night was filmed more than 300 years after Shakespeare wrote his plays. Nevertheless, its humor and ennobling power rest on standards of propriety and courtship nearer to the 16th century than to Huxley's futuristic London or even today's hook-up culture. The reading public of the first decades of the 20th century might find the abolition of courtship and marriage in Brave New World interesting and remote, but my students readily admit the possibility of such a future. I recently gave a lecture at Loyola on Brave New World. During the question-and-answer period, there was a brief discussion about the similarities of dormitory life with Brave New World. I opined that whatever the resemblances, there is a clear difference between the two: Sexual promiscuity and hooking up among college students is voluntary, I said, whereas in Brave New World this behavior is mandatory. A young woman and dormitory resident adviser walked up to me afterwards and chided me: "Dr. Guroian, you are mistaken about that. The peer pressure and the way things are set up make promiscuity practically obligatory. It doesn't matter what the school says officially. The rules are to be broken. This freedom can make girls dizzy and unsure of whatever else they believe about 'saving oneself' for marriage. When it seems like everyone else is 'doing it,' it is hard to say no. It is more like Brave New World here than you think. I deal with it or, more frequently, turn my eyes from it, every day as an RA."
During the spring semester, this same young woman, who was enrolled in one of my classes, wrote a brief exposé on what goes on at Loyola College and other colleges. She explains the sundry distinctions today's young men and women make in relationships and sexual liaisons.
It may not be that dating is at the brink of extinction, but it has taken a back seat in the modern-day lives of students. Hooking up, going out, going steady, and dating, contrary to what some may think, are not the same thing. If you are "going out" with someone it means that you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you are in a "steady" relationship with that person. However, a couple needn't actually go anywhere [go on dates together] to be in this kind of relationship. Hooking up is basically dating without the romance. It has become customary for young adults to simply cut to the chase, the sexual part of a relationship. A hook-up can be a one-time thing, as it most often is, or it can be a semi-regular thing, but not a full relationship. Although it may take on the signs of one.
I could have foregone quoting this young coed to cite any number of studies that describe these phenomena more "scientifically." These studies try hard to be "objective," but as a result they cannot convey the immediacy and passion of this young woman's narrative or the matter-of-fact manner in which she draws connections between the breakdown of courtship, the rise of a hook-up culture, and what we used to call pimping and prostitution. "Coed dormitories," she continues, "are they an ideal situation or a sad form of prostitution? You go out with your friends on your terms, after a few drinks you're both attracted. Interested and lonely, you go together, no obligations, no responsibilities, and no rules. Then there is that late-night 'booty call.' This has become such a custom of the college lifestyle [that] most have come to accept it, although maybe not respect it. If it were really the ideal situation, the walk home the next day [to one's own room] wouldn't be called 'the walk of shame.'" At Loyola College, the vast majority of students live on campus, and since the college has bought up a number of neighboring high-rise and garden apartments, after the freshman year the "walk of shame" need not even be made. It may be only a few steps from the boy's apartment to one's own, or better yet, from the boy's room to one's own.
The sexual adventures that follow can take a variety of paths, but what this young Loyola man describes is not atypical.
True story: I woke up at three in the morning one day last year to my roommate having sex in his bed five feet away from me. Taking a moment to actually wake up, I realized what was going on. I got up heard what was going on, and recognized the voice of the girl. I had two classes with her the semester before and one that semester. The next morning there was no awkward exchange. No childish giggling. I simply told him that I could not believe that she didn't mind having sex with someone for the first time while someone else was in the room sleeping. I also couldn't believe that she hadn't stopped and covered herself up when I had walked out of the room. My roommate looked at me with a casual smile, the same smile I'd seen when talking about the Mets or Red Sox, the same smile I'd seen at our dining-room table over Taco Bell, and he said to me, "Whatever, she's a college girl."
This is a disturbing description of the demise of decency and civility between the sexes for which the American colleges are culpable and blameworthy. It is not that what this student describes was unheard of in the 1960s. Frankly, I can tell similar stories about my college experience. Nevertheless, this was the exception rather than a commonplace occurrence. For colleges made it clear to young men and women that such behavior was unacceptable, and had in place living arrangements with rules and sanctions that discouraged it.
There is nothing new or novel about human depravity or debauchery. Outrage over debauchery is deserved. Nevertheless, as I have suggested already, my outcry is not directed at the debauchery among college students, but rather at the colleges themselves. Today colleges not only turn a blind eye to this behavior, but also set up the conditions that foster and invite it. I am concerned about the young men and women who wish to behave differently, but for whom this is made especially difficult by the living conditions their colleges provide and often insist upon.
In I Am Charlotte Simmons, a fictitious counterpart of the young woman and resident adviser whom I cited earlier says to the new freshmen under her supervision, "The university no longer plays the role of parents." She means sex is permitted. The satiric irony is that there are rules against keeping or consuming alcohol in the dorms. Is that not also in loco parentis? Charlotte quickly learns, however, that all of these rules are made to be broken and that being "sexiled," which means being expelled from one's room so that the roommate may have sex, is routine and obligatory at Dupont University.
In the new culture that our colleges incubate and maintain, everyone is a "guy." Everyone is "familiar." Young men and women who have never seen anyone of the opposite sex naked or in underwear, other than family members, now must get used to being seen by and seeing others perfect strangers in just such a state. Everyone is available to everyone else. It would be antisocial not to be.
Under such conditions, how could dating and courtship possibly survive? How could traditional marriage survive, in the long term? Courtship and dating require an inviolable private space from which each sex can leave at appointed times to meet in public and enjoy the other. In other words, in a courtship culture it ought to be that two people who are "serious" actually do "go out" together and do not merely cohabit in a closeted dormitory or apartment. Yet over the past 40 years, American colleges have created a brave new unisex world in which distinctions between public and private, formal and familiar, have collapsed. The differences between the sexes are now dangerously minimized or else just plain ignored because to recognize them is not progressive or politically correct. This is manifestly the case with coed dorm floors and shared bathrooms and showers. These give the lie to official college rules against cohabitation. They are the wink and nod our colleges give to fornication and dissipation. Even in 1957, when he was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Clark Kerr was almost prophetic when he stated humorously that his job responsibilities were "providing parking for faculty, sex for students, and athletics for the alumni."
Loyola College and a great many other colleges and universities simply do not acknowledge, let alone address, the sexualization of the American college. Rather, they do everything possible to put a smiley face on an unhealthy and morally destructive environment, one that and this is no small matter also makes serious academic study next to impossible. Most of the rhetoric one hears incessantly from American colleges about caring for young men and women and respecting their so-called freedom and maturity is disingenuous. Should we really count it to their credit that colleges are spending more and more resources on counseling and therapy when the direct cause of many wounds they seek to heal is the Brave New World that they have engineered, sold as a consumer product, and supervised?
Young men and women are being enticed to think of themselves as two selves, one that is mind and reason in the classroom and another self, active "after hours," that is all body and passion. They begin to imagine though few entirely believe it that they can use (that is, abuse) their bodies as they please for pleasure, and that choosing to do so has nothing to do with their academic studies or future lives. In reality, they are following a formula for self-disintegration and failure.
This is the grisly underbelly of the modern American college; the deep, dark, hidden secret that many parents suspect is there but would rather not face. The long-term damage to our children is difficult to measure. But it is too obvious to deny. I remember once hearing that the British lost the empire when they started sending their children away to boarding schools. I do not know whether anyone has ever seriously proposed that thesis. I am prepared, however, to ask whether America might not be lost because the great middle class was persuaded that they must send their children to college with no questions asked, when in fact this was the near-equivalent of committing their sons and daughters to one of the circles of Dante's Inferno.
I have lived long enough to understand and be thankful for the fact that the sins and indiscretions of youth may be forgiven and overcome. Nevertheless, the behavior of our American colleges and universities is inexcusable. Their mendacity is doing great harm to our children, whom we entrust to them with so much love, pride, and hope for the future.
Vigen Guroian. "Dorm Brothel." Chapter 11 of Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics Literature & Everyday Life (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005): 145-59.
This article reprinted with permission from ISI Books and Vigen Guroian.
Copyright © 2005 Vigen Guroian. All Rights Reserved.
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