Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, I was predisposed to hate “Sex and God at Yale” by Nathan Harden. I did. (More on that later.) Second, it was engaging, funny and, at times, well-written. I’ll admit that much. Finally, it amounted to little more than a pretentious argument against pornography and a transparent attempt to exploit Yale’s name to garner its author 15 minutes of fame. Its logic was faulty, its message was preachy and moralistic and many of its core arguments made no sense. In short, do not buy this book.
The title “Sex and God at Yale” is, of course, a rip on William F. Buckley’s classic and overrated “God and Man at Yale.” In that 1951 memoir, Buckley asserted that Yale forced its students to accept liberalism and abandon religious faith. More than 60 years later, Harden goes further. He claims that Yale has lost its sense of purpose — that “Yale seems to no longer know what is or isn’t worth teaching in its classrooms.” Yale has become a “moral vacuum” in which women are devalued, pornography is taught in its buildings and the Yale administration watches as the fabled “cradle of presidents” becomes “a great institution in decline.”
The bulk of the book is about Sex Week. Harden goes on, vividly, about the week’s most controversial events — porn stars demonstrating oral sex, student volunteers demonstrating BDSM in the middle of a lecture hall. He makes clear his disgust. He leaves one event when event organizers throw condoms into the crowd. Of another event — a Q&A with a porn executive — Harden wrote, “My head sinks into my hands. And I think the world can get no more absurd. I have to keep reminding myself: I am at Yale. I am at Yale.”
Here’s what Harden seemed not to get: Sex Week is entirely optional. No one forced him to go to any of the events. And, as recent Yale alums Kathryn Olivarius ’11 and Claire Gordon ’10 noted in The Daily Beast, “most students don’t really attend [Sex Week] because they have other stuff to do. Like go to class.” Harden must have made a genuine effort to make the time for the “sex-toy pageants” he claims to so revile. I noticed that he made no effort to attend (or at least write about) the less controversial events of Sex Week — like the AIDS awareness benefit.
Harden seemed to miss another crucial factoid about Sex Week: it’s a week. (Fine, 10 days.) And it’s not even unique to Yale; Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois and many other colleges have raunchy sex education events, too. Brown even has the infamous SexPowerGod party, which is essentially a massive orgy.
Most troubling, Harden fails to note that Sex Week has changed since he was an undergraduate. He repeatedly indicts Yale for letting Sex Week events be corporately sponsored — by companies like Trojan as well as by sex toy and adult film empires. Yet this past Sex Week had no corporate sponsors. Indeed, the whole event was less risqué, partly because the Yale administration enforced more rigid rules and partly because conservative Yale students preemptively protested the event. Contrary to what Harden would have his readers believe, conservative students evidently have a voice at Yale.
The book largely amounts to Harden’s argument against pornography and against public displays or discussions of sex. Condoms in entryways, naked parties, films with lesbian sex scenes, art displays featuring naked pictures, classes about sex — all of these draw Harden’s ire. Harden claims that these things — and Yale’s “hook-up culture” — objectify women and create a culture hostile to them.
In a limited sense, he’s right: the sexual assault and the objectification of women on today’s college campuses are real and vastly underrated problems. But the problem is not talking about sex. It’s not encouraging safe sex — or encouraging sex in general. It’s cultural standards and stereotypes that transcend Yale. Harden relishes in examples of Yale men acting churlishly, but does he truly think one week of sex-themed events, or watching pornography, for that matter, made the men this way?
For all of his talk about how porn and Sex Week and the hookup culture objectify and devalue women, Harden’s own views of women are hopelessly paternalistic and antiquated. When discussing the controversial Yale student Aliza Shvarts, Harden laments her transformation from “looking clean-cut and preppy in a pleated skirt” to “wearing frilly white boots, a black leotard, and bulbous leopard-print shorts.” He yearns for the modesty of women from an older era — “You should see what Yale girls wear on Halloween, or, rather, what they don’t wear. I wish I had a dollar for every prostitute outfit I cam across on October 31.” You see, to Harden, some of the blame for misogyny lies with the women themselves — “making one’s body easily available to men probably isn’t the best way to fight oppression by men.”
Harden seems to be nostalgic for the conformist 1950s, the era of Don Draper, housewives and gray flannel. He expresses support for women getting married before considering starting a career. Harden would like to return to an older time, a different Yale. He bemoans Yale’s recent turn to academic disciplines that he calls “newer and less white.” He writes, “About forty years ago, a bunch of forward-thinking intellectuals realized that there was a shortcut to overcoming the fact that dead white men dominated all academic disciplines, and that was to create brand-new disciplines that definitionally excluded white men.” That departments like Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African American Studies exist at all troubles Harden. His desire to return to a lily-white, patriarchal past troubles me. In one passage, he even suggests that Yale should formally acknowledge the existence of God.
No, “Sex and God at Yale,” is not a serious critique, an actual effort to improve Yale University. In 1951, “God and Man at Yale” helped catapult William F. Buckley to conservative stardom, and perhaps Harden is hoping that his memoir will do the same. If the strength of his arguments is any indicator of the future success of his book, Harden’s notoriety will not last long.