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Harvard Parietal Rules: An Outspoken Appraisal

By Paul S. Cowan

PAUL S. COWAN '62, former Executive Editor of the CRIMSON is doing graduate work at the University of Chicago.

I have been following the recent controversy over parietal hours with much interest, especially hoping--as I still hope--that it would produce among undergraduates a concerted demand that there be no restrictions upon the hours during which they can have women in their rooms. Instead, to my dismay, the debate seems to have settled on the question of whether the status quo should be maintained or whether it should be cut back a notch.

The problem seems to be that the terms of the argument, which have been established by Deans Monro and Watson, are not realistic, and that so long as they remain the guidelines for discussion there can be no real communication between different generations. The gap between how the Administration thinks undergraduates act and how they really do act is presently too great for sensitive legislation.

For example, here is what Dean Monro (in his letter to the Crimson, Oct. 9) conceives to be the function of parietal hours:

...I want to agree whole-heartedly with the main point in the [CRIMSON] editorial, that the present social rules do provide a chance for men and women students to be together, and talk together, and enjoy each other's company in a quiet, private place, and at no cost. It was this pleasant and constructive view which the Masters had in mind and presented to the Faculty in 1952 when our present rules were adopted.

Well, it is true that men and women students like "to be together, and talk together, and enjoy each other's company in a quiet, private place." It is also true that most Harvard and Radcliffe students, when they leave their Colleges, are no longer virgins; and it is finally true that many of these students have their first complete sexual experiences during Harvard's parietal hours. I cannot understand why both Dean Monro and the Crimson should choose to ignore these latter realities. By thus simplifying the consequences of parietal rules they divide the undergraduate body into two polar categories--those who have had sexual intercourse and those who have not--whereby emptying the situation of all its subtlety.

Tracing its path of logic from this polarization, Dean Monro's letter suggests that all those students who have experienced sexual intercourse have exposed themselves to almost certain misfortune. This attitude pervades the letter. For example, he writes that students have come to use "the college rooms for wild parties or for sexual intercourse," as if each man or woman who had entered into a fulfilling relationship would thus be prepared to go out and participate in an orgy. But this is not so: the equation between sexual intercourse and wild parties is by no means exact. Or, for another example, he writes that "Sexual intercourse...is restricted both by law and the sanctions of moral code, for the good reason that unrestricted behavior has always led, and still leads, to undesirable consequences for society and for the individual involved." Again, Dean Monro is drawing his lines too tight. Of course there should be some restrictions upon sexual intercourse (nobody is advocating promiscuity), but that does not mean that unmarried men and women should remain entirely chaste. Individuals do have some control over themselves and their passions, and for many people the experience of sexual intercourse, of a satisfactory relationship, leads to fidelity rather than promiscuity. To suggest that sexual intercourse is the same thing as "unrestricted sexual behavior" is as unfair to a large part of the University's undergraduate body as it is inaccurate.

Changing Attitudes

Later on in his letter Dean Monro admits "I would have to agree that relationships between the sexes are changing rapidly, and that this fact has to affect all our thinking about the problem of sexual intercourse." I wish that this point had stood at the center of the letter instead of representing, as it does, an unexplored concession.

But I'm afraid that one sentence toward the close of Dean Monro's letter comes closer to revealing the Administration's true attitude toward undergraduate sexual life than does the sentence quoted above. Dean Monro is discussing the difference, in his opinion, between men who adhere to a moral code and those who pay attention only to a written law. "We are dealing here," he writes, "with the difference between a moral man and a shyster." Since the Dean is discussing undergraduate attitudes toward sex I can only infer that he is calling all those who have participated in pre-marital intercourse "shysters." That is not a description with which I can in any way agree. I can, however, understand how the Dean's feeling that those people who solve "the problem of sexual intercourse" by transgressing a rigid moral code, thus becoming "shysters" who indulge in "unrestricted sexual behavior"--how this feeling would lead to Dean Monro's narrow view of social rules.

If one attacks a view of morality that strikes one as being completely wrong-headed, then quite frequently one appears to have no morality oneself. The trouble with the terms of debate that Dean Monro has established is that to follow them is to argue by extremes, whereas for my part I have as little desire to live a life of constant orgies as I have to live the life of a monk. I do, however, have a moral order whose roots are in my knowledge of myself and of the people around me.

Now one of the great difficulties I had at Harvard was that I could never feel comfortable under the conditions that the University's social rules imposed. My classmates and I, I felt, were developing a somewhat distorted view of sex in general and of particular women, a view that is unfortunately by no means rare in this country. Sex was becoming an end-in-itself, and women were frequently no more than objects toward that end. To cope with this problem, finally, I moved off-campus to an apartment where at least I could be my own legislator.

It was not, however, the absence of opportunities for sexual intercourse in a Harvard room that disturbed me; in fact, that seemed a somewhat irrelevant issue. For as most undergraduates know, and whatever administrators might desire, the fact is that at Harvard and elsewhere there are always opportunities for sex. You have only to visit a college with completely restrictive social rules to realize that male and female students who care for each other will make do with whatever they've got--the woods, a river bank, a motel room or borrowed apartment, the back seat of a car; a locked classroom and bare floor, if nothing else is available. It is a happy rule that men can no longer legislate away desire. They can only temper it with physical or mental discomfort or, if the night is cold, with a creeping fear of influenza.

Sex With A Deadline

What bothered me about social rules at Harvard, then, was the type of relationship which they created, beyond the actual act of sexual intercourse. If a man and woman make love but do not spend the night together, then their relationship has in it something of the hit-and-run. If a man takes a woman to his room with the central objective of making her within an externally imposed period of time, then there is apt to be something grasping and furtive about the entire affair. Sex is, or should be, just one part of a fuller relationship: a relationship that involves working together and eating together and sitting and talking together, and even lying peacefully together without some thought in the miserly part of the mind that one must feel desire another time tonight, before the St. Paul's clock tolls 12 times. As soon as a man feels a primary obligation to sex, and ceases thereby to be the partner of the particular woman he is with, then he is indulging in an act that to my mind has become distasteful, if not immoral. This sense of obligation to sex becomes intensified under restrictive social rules. It is my impression that this sense of obligation accounts for most of the millions of sexual casualties that presently litter our land.

In another age, it is true, these matters would never have presented themselves: at Harvard especially one would have devoted oneself to one's studies, and kept covert his social activities. Like in the 1960's the doors to sex open early and there are few people who fail to enter them, however loudly older people might cry "shame" from their platforms outside. To an extent, as Dr. Carl Binger has pointed out, this phenomenon pressures people into relationships that demand maturity, before they are fully prepared. Many couples, as well as many individuals, have met with major or minor misfortunes from beginning too young, and one of the worst consequences of these new social forces is that, just as there once was pressure on young people to retain their virginity until they got married, now there is pressure on them to possess experience, at whatever cost.

But either one defines a change in social mores by its visible causalities, or by its ultimate potential. It seems to me that the gradual dissolution of the guilt that has for so long surrounded sex will be highly beneficial. But in any case we are discussing a trend in society that cannot be reversed. Either one treats new social realities openly, establishing his own relationship to them, or one ignores these phenomena, thereby relinquishing all hope of control over his destiny. What Harvard's Deans would have undergraduates do, so far as I can tell, is to adhere to a moral code that applies neither to their generation nor to mine. I have the impression that it is precisely this attitude--uttering outworn beliefs while rooted in new realities--that has led to the astonishingly high rate of marital mortality and sexual misfortune that exists in this country. Those people who are most fully committed to the old morality, either clinging to it desperately or reacting against it blindly, turn out, in great part, to be the real sexual tragedies of our time.

Relaxing With Sex

Just as I don't believe in promiscuity, so I don't believe in chastity. I believe in relaxing with sex--a man with a woman, a woman with a man--and enjoying it as part of something fuller. It was my experience that Harvard's restrictive social rules discouraged this attitude, giving rise to an undue emphasis upon the sexual act while discouraging those other parts of a relationship which make sex as rich at is is normal. That is why I am against restrictions upon the hours during which men and woman can be together in privacy, and why I am in favor of the University allowing all undergraduates who desire to live off campus to do so.

There will be casualties. No change in morality ever takes place without them. But we really do learn from our experiences--from our own and from those of other people: from facing them instead of suppressing them. The reality is that most Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates will have pre-marital affairs whether the Administration approves or not. Some of these affairs will be happy, others will not; many of these undergraduates will learn to relax with sex, while others will allow sex to master them, for a time or forever. The Administration is powerless to control these things. But what it can do, and finally what it will be bound to do, is to create an atmosphere in which the new morality can work itself out sensibly, where men and women can relax with each other and with sex, without feeling triumphant or guilty, without regarding themselves as conquerors or transgressors.

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