Seeing Things: Learning in Sodom

“You have to understand. We’re basically living in Sodom.”

The figure who recently offered this cultural analysis is not a fundamentalist, a right-wing conspirator, a neo-Nazi, or any of the other fanatics who allegedly threaten to take over the American landscape as the Clinton presidency subsides. He is the dean of a distinguished private liberal arts college, trying to explain to a protesting female undergraduate why certain things were present on campus , such as: a large bucket of condoms in the dorms, full on Friday, empty by Sunday; aggressive marketing of abortion, contraception, and “morning after” pills; and pamphlets delivered to all campus mailboxes, some going so far as to show how to avoid getting sexually transmitted diseases through the creative use of plastic wrap when engaging in the kind of sex that President Clinton has sworn is not sex.

The campus mailings drew protests not only from undergraduates, but even from several faculty members who resented being forced to view graphic sexual material against their wishes.

To his credit, this dean was sympathetic; in fact, he seemed to share the opinions of those who complained. Ironically, the school in question prides itself on encouraging students to develop virtue. But like other American institutions of higher learning, it has abandoned the attempt when it comes to sex. It would not dream of providing clean needles for drug users who were “going to use drugs anyway.” Neither would it take the view that underage drinking was going to happen anyway and should be practiced “safely.” No, the institution would maintain that whatever the proclivities of students, they could be asked to control themselves for their own good and the good of others.

Only on sex today do we regard ourselves like the materialist in the limerick who saw himself as machinery, and machinery condemned to arrive at certain destinations:

There once was a man who said, “Damn!
It is borne upon me I am
An engine that moves
In predestinate grooves,
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.”

But the problem is even much worse than fatalism about sex. The novelist Tom Wolfe has recently observed that, when the history of our time is written, the most preposterous phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century will be described in just two words: coed dorms. Despite the supposed “responsibility” of the medicalization of sex through “reproductive health services,” the coed dorm is the kind of lunacy that could only exist on a modern campus.

Some future historian will document exactly how this crackpot practice came to be the norm in America’s institutions of higher learning. I would guess that a small minority of faculty and administrators, mesmerized by the ’60s fantasy of absolute sexual equality, got the notion into their collective heads that coed dorms and coed bathrooms were necessary to “teach young men and women how to live together.” These educators seem to assume that men and women spring from two different sexual species who are unaware of each other, rather than from families where, in the natural course of things, men and women produce other little men and women who inhabit a common household. For some in the academy, that seems to be an anachronism from the distant childhood of the human race.

The dean, most of his faculty, and a few students may recognize that the arrangements have not exactly resulted in a utopia. But the weight of the culture is such that, even at a school that bucks intellectual decadence, lifestyle decadence is quite difficult to reverse. All he could offer the student was an invitation to encourage other students to protest, since it would make his personal desire to change things a little easier.

We worry about the effects of television and Internet porn on our children. But why has there been no outcry from parents forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for higher education, only to find that their children are being taught quite harmful lessons?

It may be too simple to explain Bill and Monica as the result of two generations internalizing undergraduate social ethics (Monica seems to have been taking advanced placement courses in this subject in high school). But it will do as well as any other explanation. Some commentators have argued that the Clinton impeachment was a struggle between two cultural positions: one traditional, the other the result of the ’60s social revolution. I doubt this, but I wish it were true. Then we might take a hard look at things many of our cultural elites thought were private and enlightened and harmless, but in fact have been public and harebrained and, for many people beside our impulsive president, highly self-destructive.

Robert Royal


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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