College freshmen are now on campus or soon will be. If my experience arriving at Princeton University four years ago is any guide, the days ahead could be more than a little awkward for them.
One event in particular sours many freshman orientations: sexed-up sex-ed.
At Princeton, the freshman class must attend "Sex on a Saturday Night" (SoSN) during its first week. It's a university-organized, student-performed play designed to warn about sexual assault and alcohol abuse. Many schools have similar programs. Its noble intentions are overshadowed, however, by a deleterious message: College is time to get busy (and not just in the library)!
SoSN revolves around Joe, a bookish upperclassmen, who is egged on by his peers to "score big" on his first date with Frances, a naïve freshman. Armed with condoms and the keys to an isolated lovepad on campus, he sets out. The play then turns to their sex-crazed friends, who spend their Saturday plotting about hooking up. Meanwhile, Joe and Frances get very drunk. She passes out and he, on the brink of a blackout, has sex with her on a coatroom floor. The next morning, in a poignant scene, Joe realizes he committed date rape.
If SoSN were only about preventing sexual assault, it would be a positive contribution to freshman year. But that's not its underlying lesson. The play spends much of its time glorifying the hook-up culture, and through crude jokes and jejune stereotypes, drowning out the message about rape. Every one of the play's 10 characters (including one gay couple) is sexually active, save for the token abstainer, who comes off as hokey (and owns a copy of Playboy).
More worrying, the play doesn't seem to acknowledge that hooking up can be a risky contact sport, and rape isn't the only kind of collateral damage.
Princeton does "not take a position on the sex lives of students," according to spokesman Eric Quinones, but the "anything goes" attitude of SoSN is a far cry from neutrality. For many Princetonians and their parents, the underlying message—that it's perfectly healthy to be sexually active—is hardly neutral. By presenting consent as the principle moral consideration before having sex, the play makes the important question of whether you should have sex in the first place seem irrelevant.
Princeton 's administrators are intelligent people of good will, but what they sometimes miss is the big-picture perspective on how programs like SoSN can be harmful for students. Indeed, the play gives freshmen the false sense that virtually all of their peers are sexually active, with the resulting message that, "Maybe you should be too." But according to the 2002 National Survey for Family Growth, about 35% of 18-19 year olds have not had sex—a figure that increases among those who come from intact families or have mothers with at least some higher education (true for most Princetonians). A 2007 senior thesis survey of 1,210 Princeton students looked at the issue more broadly, and found that around half of all freshmen have never hooked up (a hookup is here defined as any physical intimacy outside a committed relationship).
More worrying, the play doesn't seem to acknowledge that hooking up can be a risky contact sport, and rape isn't the only kind of collateral damage. SoSN is silent on the unplanned pregnancies and high rates of STDs on college campuses. And as University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox notes, "A growing body of research suggests that sex—particularly sex with more than one partner—puts young women but not necessarily men at risk of depression, suicide, and a loss of respect in the eyes of their partners." The Princeton survey bears this out: The vast majority of students report feelings of exploitation, discomfort, regret and guilt after a hookup, with rates higher among women.
SoSN also discards the golden rule of cultural sensitivity. Imagine how a student with traditional views of sex feels when he seems to be the only one not laughing at jokes about "screaming orgasms" or flavored condoms. You don't have to be religious or conservative to realize that these students probably feel forgotten and a little alienated at SoSN.
As an undergraduate, I and other concerned students discussed these objections several times with the administration. In a welcome effort to accommodate us, they offered to change one supporting character to seem realistically more abstinent. The big problems, though, were untouched. One university official worried that further changes would add too many messages to the play. Ironically, she either failed or refused to see that SoSN carries a lot of one-sided messages that already overpower the supposedly central lesson on rape.
If only SoSN were an isolated instance of poor judgment about sex-ed. Games of "Sex Jeopardy" for residential groups and scathing university-sponsored lectures like "The Religious Right's Obsession with Gay Sex" demonstrate a pattern of programs that either quietly encourage sex or unfairly denigrate traditional values.
I wouldn't trade my time at Princeton for anything, but it could have gotten off to a smoother start. Princeton can begin to improve things by changing SoSN, or at least make it not mandatory. It would be best to make freshmen attend an entirely new program that stayed focused on the evils of rape. But if the university wants to keep the play, it would do better to give a truly balanced portrait of sex, its ethics and risks.
Rob Long. "Sexed-Up Sex-Ed." The Wall Street Journal (September 5, 2007).
Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal.
Christian C. Sahner is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, studying Islamic and medieval history.Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal
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