When it comes to sexuality in college & culture, nothing has really changed, right?

20 Feb

Isn’t all the talk about sex and culture just “old folk” speak, always assuming things are worse now than when they were coming of age?  Yeah, we’ve changed the name (from courtship to dating to hooking-up), but not the substance, right?

From Dr. Vigen Guroian (University of Virginia)

“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.”

Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1966)

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. Young women visited on weekends from Sweet Briar and Randolph-Macon, Mary Washington, and Hollins College. But they did not stay in the dormitory or the fraternity house. They stayed in college-approved housing, more often than not the home of a widow who had a few rooms to let and happily accepted a delegation from the colleges to assume the responsibilities of in loco parentis.

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.

One could say that in 1966, what men and women called dating was a late–and as I look back on it, probably also tenuous–version of courtship. We understood, at least implicitly, that there was an important difference between going whoring and dating. Treating a young woman like a whore was what a Don Juan would do, but not the mark of a gentleman, especially one looking for a future wife. But today is entirely different. My grown children tell me so, as do my students at Loyola College, and much has been written on the subjects of dating, courtship, and the sexual attitudes of our youth that confirms their testimony. But why is dating, as a form of courtship, an endangered practice?

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.”

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