Where the Wild Things Aren't
by Thomas Dollar
Some of our writers have weighed in on the proposed Center for Abstinence and Chastity (CAC) at Princeton. I had a chance to correspond with one student who is advocating for this Center. I have long believed that the so-called “Hookup Culture” is more a case of pluralistic ignorance than anything real, and I wanted to know firsthand why some students were so concerned. (In a recent survey 43% of students reported having had zero sexual partners in the past year, while only 23.8% reported two or more.) The student argued that:
“Living a life of chastity or abstinence in a campus culture which exerts real pressure on people to have sex is difficult, and these students deserve institutional support in living out what for many is a crucial aspect of their sexual identities. You cite the 43% figure, but careful examination of the wording of that question reveals not that a large proportion of students are chaste or intentionally abstinent but simply that they have not had sex in a year…”
The CAC would not be geared so much towards students who just aren’t having sex, but would provide institutional support to students who choose chastity or abstinence as “a crucial aspect of their sexual identities.” “Chastity” is usually defined a broader category than just celibacy: no sex outside of or before marriage; sex in marriage only as part of a monogamous union. (This student was open to including some monogamous same-sex unions as chaste; the Anscombe Society is not.) Chastity—as opposed to de facto sexual abstinence—is a sexual lifestyle choice, and one that is marginalized by the dominant campus culture.
But is that reason enough to create a Center dedicated to supporting it, which would carry the imprimatur (and funding) of the University? There’s no precedent for it. Where the University has established special Centers, it has been to support students who have faced discrimination or been excluded from campus life based on who they are, not what lifestyle choices they make. The Women’s Center was established to provide support for women on a historically male campus; the Davis Center for international students; the Fields Center for students of racial minorities; and the LGBT Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Gender, national origin, race, and sexual orientation are not lifestyle choices; chastity is.
Vegetarians make a lifestyle choice to abstain from consuming the flesh of dead animals—and they make it in spite of the Meat Culture that dominates the University (and the country). For many vegetarians, their choice is deeply engrained as part of their identity. The University accommodates these students by providing vegetarian and vegan options (alongside meat options) in dining halls. They can join student-run organizations like PAWS, attend sponsored events, hold demonstrations, and meet likeminded faculty. If students’ dietary choices are faith-based, they can find support in the Office of Religious Life. But there is no University-funded Vegetarians’ Center.
Likewise, chaste and abstinent students can count on a variety of institutions for support: the Anscombe Society, ORL organizations, Sexual Health Advisors (who include abstinence as part of a comprehensive sexual health program), and—as President Tilghman pointed out—the Women’s and LGBT Centers. Still, there is the feeling among the CAC’s supporters that the University is currently—implicitly or explicitly—promoting sexual promiscuity. Anscombe President Brandon McGinley was quoted in the Daily Princetonian, saying “[The Center would help] by rectifying the current double standard by which the University implicitly gives its seal of approval to a more libertarian view of sexuality.”
And the student I interviewed wrote: “[A] Center is necessary out of a concern for fairness and true institutional neutrality when it comes to sexual ethics. By establishing the Women’s and LGBT Centers, the University ventured into the realm of sexuality, and especially with the latter center the University established an agency which has both implicit and explicit views of sexual morality…”
(He stressed that neither he nor Anscombe opposed the existence of the LGBT Center; they merely claim that neutrality dictates that a Chastity Center be established alongside it.)
Princeton University is institutionally neutral toward sexual ethics, but it is not indifferent toward matters of public health. Sexual health services are provided on the basis of students’ diverse needs—not the moral philosophies of some people. (And sexually active students will receive more health services than abstinent students because they will require more. This is unfair in the way that it is unfair that divers be provided scuba gear, while people who sit on the beach are not.) This policy acknowledges the chaste or abstinent lifestyle as a valid choice among many—and it recognizes the difference between sexual orientations and sexual choices. It is neutral toward all moral philosophies except one: the philosophy that the University should not be morally neutral at all.
By establishing a Center for Chastity and Abstinence—without establishing corresponding Centers for Serial Monogamy or BDSM—the University would privilege one particular sexual lifestyle over all others, based solely on the moral beliefs of a select subset of students. This is not something a secular university with a culturally and philosophically diverse student body should be doing in the 21st Century.
I’ve written in the past of the need for a new sexual ethic, based on honesty and personal responsibility, rather than pluralistic ignorance and self-denial. There are steps that Princeton could be taking to promote this new ethic, but a Chastity Center would be a big step backward.