Every culture since the dawn of time has placed constraints on sex. Some were draconian, such as Victorian England’s prohibition of homosexual intercourse or Jewish law’s harsh penalties for adultery. These strictures are thankfully in decline.
Other conventions, however — discouraging teen pregnancy, criminalizing incest and stigmatizing prostitution — have long served an important function. Sex makes babies, complicates friendships, hurts feelings and destroys families. It is little wonder, then, that the world has always regulated sexuality. Unwanted children, volatile emotions, broken relationships and broken families rarely make for a happy polity, or, I might add, a happy campus.
Yet at Yale, we do not treat humanity’s most destructive passion as something to be tamed or controlled. Instead, we explicitly equate sex with froyo, a pleasant and altogether inconsequential good whose consumption is governed by a single rule: You do you, or anybody else as long as they say yes every 15 seconds.
This insouciant attitude flies in the face of human history, public safety and, most of all, common sense.
Expectations and norms will never eradicate sexual assault, but they might help keep men and women safer. By delineating healthy contexts for sex, robust norms can make it more difficult for people to coerce and prey on one another out of an unmitigated desire for physical satisfaction. The values of commitment and monogamy provide scripts for sex, channeling our most destructive drives into sustainable, even ennobling outlets. When those scripts go out the window, we must increasingly rely on individual reason and restraint — two virtues that rarely fare well when hormones and alcohol are coupled.
Some claim that liberal mores portend a new utopia of free love, in which all encounters will be voluntary and pleasurable. They insist that human beings should be able to do whatever they please, so long as all parties consent. Such logic places immense faith in the species responsible for World War II and Donald Trump. Why on earth would we expect people, least of all 20-year-old men, to show the same respect to someone they have just met as they would someone with whom they are in a committed relationship? Wouldn’t a culture of obligation make us less likely to mistreat our sexual partners, as opposed to a culture of instantaneous gratification and emotional repression?
This should be especially clear to anyone who has seen the sobering results of Yale’s recent sexual climate survey. Our campus has a justifiably strong aversion to victim blaming, but that ought not prevent us from recognizing that some patterns of behavior are more likely to cause harm than others. When nearly a third of young women have experienced attempted or completed sexual assault on this campus — a THIRD — it is hard not to conclude that our “enlightened” sexual norms have utterly, utterly failed.
But the most pernicious argument for unrestricted sex is this: If one biological process is just like any other, why should we ascribe more significance to sex than we do to eating, drinking or sleeping? Why think that sex means anything at all?
A few stalwart progressives contest that the specialness most societies ascribe to sex must be illusory, a social construct. And they might be right. But perhaps history’s many formulas for coupling were not, as is often suggested, designed to dominate and oppress. Perhaps, instead, they were motivated by the realization that human beings must create and conserve value for life to be meaningful. Perhaps they understood that sexual fantasies — in the most profound sense of that term — are worth preserving.
“So what?” many exclaim. “I don’t mind having casual, emotionally unfulfilling encounters from time to time. And I don’t mind if my friends do the same.”
Such objections elide an inconvenient truth. Human beings are social animals, whose actions have social consequences. The choices we make influence community norms, and community norms influence the choices we make. Thus, your sex life — and your life in general — is not all about you. One-night stands might not prevent person A from enjoying physical safety and emotional intimacy. But what about persons B-Z? Maybe they will manage to navigate Yale’s “you do you” status quo. Or maybe they won’t.
We cannot “consent” to the mores that shape who we are and what we choose. All we can do is identify and appraise these mores, in order to decide which ones are worth keeping — and rejecting.
If you fear a culture of violence, apathy and nihilism, the choice is clear.
Aaron Sibarium is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .