Writings by Cole Huffman

Sex and God at Yale...and UNA

My alma mater and Nathan Harden’s are more than geographically far from each other. Yale, where Mr. Harden matriculated, has nurtured the intellects of presidents and justices and Jonathan Edwards. North Alabama (UNA) gave honorary doctorates to George “Goober” Lindsey (The Andy Griffith Show) and Roy Clark (Hee Haw). What hath Florence to do with New Haven? UNA’s affinity for Pickin’ and Grinnin’ with Yale’s for Sinnin’? UNA’s Goober with Yale’s goobers?

During my halcyon days at UNA, I walked into a buddy’s dorm room one night to find a gaggle of guys and gals gathered around a 19 inch TV watching a version of Hee Haw I’d never seen. It was a porno—the scene I came in on set in a barn I’m sorry to recall. I’m even sorrier to recall that I lingered a bit before taking my leave, troubled in conscience but also entranced by what I had never seen physically enacted “live.”

I’d made “a covenant with my eyes” (Job 31:1)! Would God now send me some of Job’s plagues as punishment for not fleeing like Joseph? My sense of faithfulness back then was more heroic, as is often true of ardent young followers of Jesus, so lingering around to keep watching a scene of porn felt like Superman collecting kryptonite, like letting Delilah have at my longish (then) hair.

I don’t know what I would have done as a Yalie during Yale’s biennial “Sex Week.” Glad I never got the chance to find out although as a wannabe intellectual I admit my Ivy League envy. And so I was a little afraid at first to read Harden’s Sex and God at Yale. Arguably America’s most distinguished institution of higher learning, Yale institutionally prostitutes itself every other year to pornographers and their wares. I learned this after reading a speech Mr. Harden delivered. Impressed with his angles on things, I ventured the book.

Upon receiving it I wondered if I’d done the right thing. I feared I might find the subject matter—eroto-mania run amok at Yale—titillating, what with reports of porn stars lecturing classes and all, one doing so topless. My imagination doesn’t need that boost.

The fears were dispelled by the time I got to Chapter 4, “Abortion as Art.” Now I, a Kudzu Leaguer, was pitying, and praying for, the “party naked” Ivy Leaguers I was reading about. But what Yale and certain Yalies mean for salaciousness Harden means for sagacity. He uses the ethos of Sex Week to chronicle what George Will once dubbed “educating ourselves into imbecility.” And it seems, in the case of Yale, the more elite the education the more imbecilic events like Sex Week. As Christopher Buckley wrote in the foreword (his father William wrote God and Man at Yale, a 1951 critique of Yale forcing liberal ideology on its students; Harden’s book continues in that train, critiquing Yale’s forcing debasement and degradation—wittingly and unwittingly—on its students): “What strikes one, in the end [after reading Harden’s book], is how utterly preposterous sex—whatever orifices are involved—becomes when it is treated with such ludicrous seriousness [as Sex Week does]. The impotence of being earnest, if you will.”

As environments for moral formation go, Yale is, institutionally considered (there are always individual exceptions), impotent indeed. Harden loves Yale, which I appreciate, and it is his ardor for the place that prompted his writing the book to not just chronicle but call Yale to get its institutional ego in check, an ego so out of touch with itself that:

“In an attempt to avoid appearing moralistic, Yale’s leaders have cultivated an atmosphere at odds with the equality they say they believe in. They say they are committed to equality for women. Then, in the name of academic freedom, they have welcomed the woman-objectifying porn industry with open arms. Afterward, they act surprised when young men on campus begin to display similar callousness and disrespect toward women. It’s not a long trip from sadomasochistic porn screenings with glamorized violence toward women, to frat boys chanting ‘No means yes!’ and ‘We love Yale sluts!’ on the campus quad. But Yale’s current leaders don’t seem to make the connection. They don’t seem able to see the hypocrisy of permitting the former, and then pretending horror at the latter. They fail to realize that by cultivating a selfish and exploitative sexual culture, they have harmed all students, and especially women…. I can only guess that the strange sexual agenda they are pushing is, at some level, a belligerent reaction against religious moralism and traditionalism—Yale’s attempt to run from its own past. The more outrageous the debauchery, the more self-assured Yale’s leaders become about the distance between themselves and Jerry Falwell. Probably the worst thing you could do to a typical member of the Yale faculty would be to spread a rumor that he or she is secretly a right-winger, or a closet religious zealot. There is a deep fear in many academics that if they ever say, ‘This is right, and that is wrong,’ it would amount to imposing their beliefs on others. But their failure to uphold even limited moral standards is, ironically, the very thing that leads to impositions on women—whose equal treatment they say is a matter of moral right. You can’t believe in both moral relativism and the equality of women. You have to choose one or the other.” (p. 286, 288)

I wish I could tell you all about the book, for it was an important read for me and Harden is the kind of insightful cultural commentator the church needs more of—that is to say he is incisive, winsome, not a prudish tongue-clucker. (And being a lover of neologisms, I thank him for giving me the word “virginophobia,” p. 189, the “fear of the chaste” he found at Yale.)

With five kids of my own, two in high school next year and our firstborn heading to college in two years, I think it will be an important read for them too—when they’re ready. I will have each of my children read Sex and God at Yale before or during their freshman years. The book is graphic in its depictions of institutional bacchanalia, but I think it needs to be. As I tell my girls especially, the world isn’t a friendly place for women. I tell them this not to make them paranoid but wise. “You can,” as Walker Percy put it, “get all A’s and still flunk life.” You can get a great sheepskin for the wall but become a gold ring in pig’s snout if you’re a woman with no discretion (see Proverbs 11:22). Harden’s book is a book of caution but the best part of caution is discretion applied.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:33 AM
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