If you’re in need of some comic relief this week, check out this piece from The Atlantic on “the sexually conservative Millennial.” In it, writer Emma Green sets out to show that Millennials (the generation of Americans presently between 18 and 35) are in fact far less libertine than is widely supposed. They are, in fact, a “sexually conservative” generation.
How conservative? Oh, it’s amazing. Fully 37 percent condemn “sex between adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship.” Another 21 percent think the random, anonymous hook-up might be wrong “depending on circumstances.” So slightly over half of Millennials think that there might be more to sexual morality than “don’t rape people.”
Isn’t that a load off your mind? Here I was thinking young people today had problems with sexual morality.
As a conservative moralist, it pretty much goes without saying that I’m obsessed with sex, and seize every opportunity to preach about it to the depraved young. My university ethics courses routinely involve a unit on chastity (fitting under the general topic of temperance), which actually does put me in the position of regularly discussing these questions with a fairly representative cross-section of American youngsters. Here’s the first telling fact: at the outset of the unit, most of them literally do not know what the word “chastity” means.
As we begin, so we continue. Liberal colleagues have suggested to me in the past that students might find the formal study of chastity “old hat”: familiar, antiquated and not applicable to them. I find to the contrary that very few have anything approaching a clear understanding of traditional sexual mores. There are exceptions, certainly, but most have been given very little advice about sex beyond repeated warnings to “use protection.” If they went to Sunday School at all, their teachers probably figured that talking about chastity would be uncool and alienating.
Hence, I get the pleasure of doing something all teachers enjoy: startling my students with radical views on sex. When I suggest, for example, that a major objective of traditional sexual morality is to enable men and women to love and not exploit one another, that’s clearly quite surprising to many. They just thought it was about obeisance to small-minded rules. And while some are clearly affronted by the moral implications of the traditional view (college-aged men in particular tend to resist the suggestion that fornication might be exploitative even if the woman consents) I also find that most of them know they don’t have all the answers.
It’s really quite unconscionable that parents and other “responsible” adults send young people to college with so little insight into the psychological and moral significance of sex. In order to bypass the “consent” roadblock, I sometimes pose the following question: suppose a young woman is starting college and comes to you, a more experienced student, for advice about when she should consent to sex. “I know it’s up to me,” she says, “but I don’t know how to decide when to say ‘yes’. What would you recommend?”
I get a lot of shrugged shoulders at this, but the ones who answer are even more heartbreaking.
“Listen to your heart. You’ll know when you’re ready.”
“Bad sex happens, and most of us have experienced it. It hurts, but that’s part of becoming an adult. Grow up, move on and make better decisions the next time.”
“The main thing is not to gripe about it. I can respect anyone who ‘owns’ their sexual choices, no matter what they are.”
In other words, today’s Millennials aren’t sexually conservative. What they are is sexually clueless. If they ever do get to marriage (Good news! More than 70 percent still think marriage is a relevant institution!) they’ll probably already be scarred by years of heartbreak and betrayal that their elders did nothing to prevent.
I think it’s telling that “campus rape culture” has become such a major topic of discussion these last few years. In many ways it’s a canard. Many or most of the episodes classified as “rape” would more accurately be described as “bad hook-ups,” and some appear to be invented from whole cloth. The disciplinary actions that follow on these “rape” cases are often egregiously unfair. Nevertheless, I can easily understand why this has happened. When “rape” is the only recognized sexual taboo (at least among unmarried young adults), the category must be expanded to include all sexual wrongs.
Activists often caution against “blaming the victim” in cases or rape (or “rape”). I agree. The people who should most be blamed are not sexually confused Millennials, many of whom were given their parents’ and teachers’ blessings to go forth and copulate (and just make sure their sexual encounters are safely sterile). The most blameworthy parties are adults who failed to teach their children anything of note about the meaning or purpose of sex, or to offer any useful guidelines as to when to engage in it. Let’s hope all those scars and heartbreak inspire this generation to find a better way, so that their kids can have it better.