Adam and Eve After the Pill, and she notes the cultural redefinition of sex as a zone somehow outside morality: Nothing we do in the gymnasiums of our beds can be wrong, if it’s what we feel like doing.
Now follow the logical consequences that flow from that definition. If what we choose can’t be wrong, simply because we choose it, then the only wrong sex is sex we do not choose—rape, in other words. Of course, human experience, from the Ancients to the Moderns, suggests that sexual desire is complicated, peculiar, and riven with guilts and second guesses. But the sexual revolution’s redefinition of virginal chastity as a kind of psychological sickness left subsequent generations with no widely shared moral vocabulary to describe the bad experiences inevitable in the widely ranging sex they were encouraged to have.
No vocabulary, that is, except the language of rape. We live in a world where a straightforward novel of sexual sadomasochism such as Fifty Shades of Gray can top the bestseller list, like The Story of O rewritten for suburban housewives, and anything appears to go. And yet, somehow, we are also seeing enormous growth in the concept of rape, as it colonizes even distant fields in proof that not everything goes.
But there is no contradiction here. What Rolling Stone first published as the story of the young woman in Virginia—thrown through a glass table, penetrated by multiple men while others watched—is rape by anyone’s definition: a horrendous crime for which everyone from the fraternity president to the school’s administrators ought to have been indicted, if it were true. This was a violent physical rape, we were told, not merely some form of “sexual assault” (a category expansive enough to include an unwelcome kiss). But what about the college experience Lena Dunham describes as rape in her recent memoir? Or the awkward and subsequently regretted sexual encounter with which Emily Yoffe opens her important essay in Slate, an encounter for which a young man was hounded by the University of Michigan?
Rape is the only bad sex, by definition, and if what a particular young woman experienced seems to her bad sex, then what she experienced has to be rape. In the absence of any other vocabulary to express the thought of unpleasant coupling, it must be expressed—it must be understood—in terms of rape.
We could insist that this is a failure of logic and language, operating to detriment of women who have been raped in the older, stronger sense of the word. Operating to the detriment of male students and the colleges themselves, for that matter: Yoffe reports that 72 percent of the money that the colleges’ insurance companies are paying out for on-campus sexual assault is going to young men wrongly disciplined.
I want, however, to turn the thought upside down and suggest that the current agitation about sex on campus derives from something else—something deep in the incoherence of the sexual revolution. Even at our colleges, the truths of human experience and human nature are beginning to reassert themselves. They’re doing so in a particularly strange and, I think, damaging way. Nonetheless, sexual manners are being recreated, mostly because they have to be. The sexual revolution licensed sexual predators, and we cannot live with the result. Yes, these new manners are bizarre and unhealthy. They require a destruction of male sexuality they cannot achieve, and they are being driven by sociopolitical activism and due-process-deficient college tribunals.
Still, we shouldn’t be surprised by the turn to something possibly resembling moral panic about sex on American campuses. Why wouldn’t we panic about the current sexual situation of our young people? Possessing only the brutality of the sexual revolution’s denial of human nature—lacking a graceful account of the body, understanding neither chastity nor sexual maturity—these young people are uniquely at risk.
Joseph Bottum is a #1-bestselling writer of Kindle Singles on Amazon and author most recently of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Follow him on Twitter@JosephBottum.