Sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses. Conservatives should be cheering on its collapse; instead they sometimes sound as if they want to administer the victim smelling salts.
It is impossible to overstate the growing weirdness of the college sex scene. Campus feminists are reimporting selective portions of a traditional sexual code that they have long scorned, in the name of ending what they preposterously call an epidemic of campus rape. They are once again making males the guardians of female safety and are portraying females as fainting, helpless victims of the untrammeled male libido. They are demanding that college administrators write highly technical rules for sex and aggressively enforce them, 50 years after the proponents of sexual liberation insisted that college adults stop policing student sexual behavior. While the campus feminists are not yet calling for an assistant dean to be present at their drunken couplings, they have created the next best thing: the opportunity to replay every grope and caress before a tribunal of voyeuristic administrators.
The ultimate result of the feminists’ crusade may be the same as if they were explicitly calling for a return to sexual modesty: a sharp decrease in casual, drunken sex. There is no downside to this development.
Let us recall the norms which the sexual revolution contemptuously swept away in the 1960s. Males and females were assumed on average to have different needs regarding sex: The omnivorous male sex drive would leap at all available targets, whereas females were more selective, associating sex with love and commitment. The male was expected to channel his desire for sex through the rituals of courtship and a proposal of marriage. A high premium was placed on female chastity and great significance accorded its loss; males, by contrast, were given a virtual free pass to play the sexual field to the extent that they could find or purchase a willing partner. The default setting for premarital sex was “no,” at least for females. Girls could opt out of that default—and many did. But placing the default at “no” meant that a female didn’t have to justify her decision not to have sex with particular reasons each time a male importuned her; individual sexual restraint was backed up by collective values. On campuses, administrators enforced these norms through visitation rules designed to prevent student couplings.
The sexual revolution threw these arrangements aside. From now on, males and females would meet as equals on the sexual battlefield. The ideal of female modesty, the liberationists declared, was simply a cover for sexism. Chivalry was punished; females were assumed to desire sex as voraciously as males; they required no elaborate courtship rituals to engage in it and would presumably experience no pang of thwarted attachment after a one-night stand. The default for premarital sex was now “yes,” rather than “no”; opting out of that default required an individualized explanation that could no longer rely on the fact that such things are simply not done. In colleges, the authorities should get out of the way and leave students free to navigate coital relations as they saw fit.