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The Dangers of Sexual Equality

By Harvey C. Mansfield

If I say I want to consider the sexual scene at Harvard, any reasonable person might ask, how could I know about this? Believe me, I’m not a player. Nor have I made a study. I just listen to students, ask questions, and try to avoid a high moral tone.

Last Spring a Faculty Committee on Sexual Assault at Harvard issued a report saying that there had been 65 complaints of date rape or attempted date rape at Harvard in four years. Rape is a cruel fact that casts doubt on the equality of the sexes. Because rape is a crime virtually always committed by men using their physical strength, when women seek to tempt men into unwanted sexual acts, they have to use means other than the physical: they resort to a seduction that becomes an indirect, non-violent, and non-criminal means of coercion—a stealth counterpart, but not equivalent, of rape.

So women in our enlightened time still need protection from men. Where do they get it? They are not protected by parietal rules, which were abolished in the late ’60s. Nor do women get protection from the idea of “gentleman.” Once upon a time a male student could be punished for “conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” No longer. The double standard in sexual morality is now rejected—which means that women are not expected to be more modest than men.

What protects women now is the idea that all sexual activity must be by consent. Consent means consent while sober. It is permitted for a woman to seduce a man with feminine wiles, but it is not acceptable for a man to ply a woman with drink and then take stupor for consent. Almost anything goes so long as the woman consents. One exception to this is that faculty are not allowed to fool around with undergraduates. Other exceptions probably would be enforced if necessary; for example, one doubts that Harvard would permit an undergraduate prostitution ring even if it were consensual.

The Faculty Report mentioned above declares that for “many young adults” being at college is “a time for experimenting with sexual intimacy.” In my time you would not have heard deans talking like that. It’s a big change, even if the number of Harvard students who actually experiment is unknown.

The Report does not recommend experimenting, but it also does not mention the possibility of not experimenting. It is a combination of feminist doctrine—which says there are no differences between the sexes—and liberal permissiveness, which accepts the sexual revolution of the late ’60s. Theoretically, there could be a single standard for sexual morality and all would behave modestly, as women used to do—an idea that early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had. But in fact we have a single standard closer to the level of sexual experimenting that males go for.

Turning from the extreme of rape, there has been much improvement from my day in the everyday relations between the sexes. Undergraduate men and women see one another every day; they study together and eat together. Everyone now gets to meet many more people of the opposite sex. In these meetings there is less pressure, less artificiality—you can be yourself. I remember weekend dates brought into the dining hall to stand in line for dinner, running a gauntlet of leering envy or contempt. There is more informality now; students have fewer dates but go out in groups. Girls don’t sit by their telephones waiting for a call. One of them might even call you. This is good.

What is not so good is the loss of romance. Less formality means less romance—less courting, less tension, less excitement. Relations between women and men are rather unerotic. The hormones are there; so too the attractions of youthful bodies and the permission to experiment. The result is lots of sex (or so I hear): recreational sex, loveless sex, hook-ups. There is more consummation and less yearning.

Is more sex more fun? Perhaps, but it is a man’s game that women today insist on playing. Women are giving out many more free samples than they used to. Men are less spirited than they were in my day, when we lived in relative isolation from women. Men today are always in the presence of women, hence always in fear of making fools of themselves before women. College men have become premature husbands.

Careerism is more apparent now as well. In the 1950s, women expected to be happy in life without having a career. Women now are almost as ambitious as men. It has become their duty. How strange that the women’s movement, inspired by the left and led by sometime Marxists like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, has brought about a great increase in bourgeois careerism among the young.

Another new fact is the lack of a definition of femininity and of manliness. There is no standard or guide, nothing one should or should not do because one is a man or a woman. Is this good or bad? Liberals say it is good; conservatives say it is bad. If you see a young man today trying to behave like a gentleman, he seems artificial and self-conscious. He must, pop culture tells us, be either conservative or gay.

Altogether, in comparison with the time of my youth, I think I see more equality now and less love and spirit; or more justice and less happiness.

Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is the Kenan Professor of Government. This piece was adapted from remarks given at the Dec. 2 Eliot Student-Faculty Dinner.

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