New Haven, Conn.
The tension was palpable in classroom WLH 116 on the night of Monday, February 6. Members of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College (UBYC) filled the first two rows of wooden desks. They had invited Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College to speak that evening as part of the newly initiated “True Love Week,” founded in response to the concurrent Sex Week that has taken place at Yale every two years since 2002.
The room was filled with other students, too, far more than the classroom’s 60 seats could hold. Many were there to protest Esolen’s presence on campus. Although his lecture that night was on the topic of “The Person as a Gift,” his published writings include arguments against gay marriage. Before his talk, an email had gone out to some of Yale’s more liberal student groups:
“Aside from the sheer creepiness of the talk’s title, Mr. Esolen is also a giant homophobe. . . . So what are we gonna do about it? How about a kiss in? Find a partner, a friend, a stranger who consents—anyone you feel comfortable sharing a smooch with (whether or not there's tongue is entirely up to you and your partner/s).”
The students filling the back of the room exchanged glances and suppressed giggles. “I would say five people are actually here for this,” one girl standing in the back muttered.
The UBYC students were not oblivious to the controversy. Bijan Aboutorabi, the group’s co-president, introduced Esolen with a request for his audience to show tolerance, even for one with whom they might “substantially and passionately disagree.” He might have saved his breath. Less than ten minutes into the lecture, a cell phone started playing Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and pairs of students stood up and began kissing on cue.
“Do you want to do this?” one girl said, giving the girl next to her a wary glance. They remained in place as the protestors left the room chanting “One in four, maybe more,”—a slogan at Yale that refers to the alleged statistic that some 25 percent of male students are homosexual.
“I kind of want to stay for the rest of the talk,” one of the girls said. “I feel like I owe him that.” The girls sat together, holding hands, for the rest of Esolen’s lecture, while almost every other protestor filed out.
Yale’s kiss-in protest and the clash between Sex Week and True Love Week are indicative of a larger ideological struggle going on at many colleges and universities as students seek to build healthy relationships in an environment that gives them virtually no guidelines for how to do so.
There is, on the one hand, the “openness” of the predominant sexual climate. Courtney Peters, executive director of Sex Week 2012, says the event is about education and openness—“not about bringing rampant sex to Yale.”
“We’re not here to throw condoms into a screaming crowd of underwear-clad undergraduates,” she said. “Sex Week was never about being rebellious. It was never about creating a culture of salacious voyeurism.”
What Sex Week is about, she said, is “creating dialogue,” through some 50 events during the ten days leading up to Valentine’s Day.
“Students who want to talk about sexuality and sexual health should not be made to feel like deviants,” Peters said. “This is going to sound very grandmotherly, but it needn’t be as big of a problem as it is.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the Undergraduates for a Better Yale College doubt that events like Sex Week are really for their benefit.
Isabel Marin is a senior who helped organize the events of True Love Week. The events of Sex Week, she said, are “not giving students any guidance or helping the climate improve.” Instead, “they’re simply going with the status quo.”
“Sex Week events continue to support the hookup culture or give the choice to support the hookup culture,” said Marin. “Giving the individual unlimited choice and no guidance is what is leading to rape on campus and other forms of sexual misconduct and disrespecting women.”
True Love Week, by contrast, offers a radically different message. “The only thing that is really going to change" the culture, Marin said, “is to convince Yale students that the healthiest, happiest romantic lives take place in the context of stable, chaste relationships.”
The problem of sexual victimization is what the organizers of both Sex Week and True Love Week say they are trying to fight. But the two sides radically disagree on how to do so.
The issue hits close to home for Peters because her mother was a victim of rape at age 14, but wasn’t able to tell anyone about it for 30 years. “She raised us to tell her anything,” Peters said, “because she didn’t want us to suffer alone as she had suffered alone.” For that reason and others, Peters said, she believes that events like Sex Week will “be a force for good” on Yale’s campus. She hopes that Sex Week will provide “a forum, a safe place, a haven” for students to openly discuss sex and sexual issues.
To that end, Peters said, she originally asked the organizers of True Love Week to join forces. Sex Week, she said, is supposed to be “all-inclusive.” Because Sex Week is intended to be “beneficial and substantive for everyone on this campus,” Peters said, “we approached [UBYC] and asked them to be a part of this.”
But to the students of UBYC, joining forces with Sex Week would only be counterproductive. “Sex Week [symbolizes] the very attitudes we disagree with,” said Bijan Aboutorabi, representing as it does “a continuous and limitless expansion of the principles of the sexual revolution.”
True Love Week, its supporters say, is a countercultural challenge to the prevailing “casual sex” ideology on campus. “True Love Week shows there is an alternative point of view,” says Courtney McEachon, another organizer.
Challenging the campus status quo through traditional love and marriage is hardly unique to Yale. A secular organization called the Love and Fidelity Network is doing similar work on a national scale. “I think the battle is being fought at every university in America,” said Travis Heine, who helped organize True Love Week.
On many campuses, however, the fight for “love and fidelity” comes from religious rather than secular organizations, many of which offer a crucial sense of community. At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, for example, there is a student residence, called the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, which houses nearly 600. On an even bigger scale, the St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M serves nearly 13,000 students. For undergraduates seeking to resist the dominant hook-up culture, the support that these and similar centers offer is invaluable.
Despite these pockets of support, a healthy sexual climate is still far from the norm at many universities. What's missing on college campuses, says Meg McDonnell, “is a healthy dating culture with understandable norms that allow young men and women to get to know themselves while getting to know other people in the context of looking for lasting love.” McDonnell, a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation, has done extensive research on marriage trends among young Americans. Census data shows that Americans are marrying later and later, she says, and the campus culture is one reason why.
With wildly divergent understandings of what constitutes a sexually healthy environment, it's no surprise the two sides can't reach common ground. “One side sees the ultimate success in a relationship to be pleasurable sex,” McDonnell said. “The other side sees the ultimate success in a relationship to be an integrated relationship that encompasses mind, body, and soul, properly ordered.”
Then, too, there is the problem in even getting one side to listen to the other. Courtney Peters and a handful of others were willing to stay and give Esolen’s speech a fair listen, but the vast majority left immediately after the protest.
With True Love Week, Heine said, “we are literally offering a competing view, allowing a dialogue instead of a monologue.” But the dialogue ends when the kiss-in starts.
Theresa Civantos is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.