The next time a Navy recruiter calls you and asks, “If your life was a book, would anyone read it?” refer him to the third spot on the New York Times bestseller list. As you may know, Tom Wolfe—a realist fictioneer and former Duke parent—just produced a novel about a university with lush gardens, quarantined freshmen, abutting slums, Gothic spires and basketball monomania. Judging from the hack reviews it inspired, Dr. Wolfe appears to have pinched the nipple of truth way too hard and got the liberals squealing. But by having done years of field research, he has more credibility than his so-called “factual” critics. After reading I Am Charlotte Simmons, many of you will agree that he has produced an honest—and riveting—rendition of undergraduate life.
He attacks the practice of “hooking up” with particular vehemence. In the novel and in his Duke commencement address a few years ago he laments the way in which the sexual revolution has transformed traditional undergraduate courtship into a sexual “carnival.” Moreover, his fiction insinuates that women carry the psychological burden of hooking-up disproportionately, and his commencement address suggests that advances in neuroscience have contributed to this moral decline by making us think that we are mammals and ought to be held to no higher moral standards.
He has a point. Mainstream American culture encourages female promiscuity like seldom before. Last year, a female Chronicle columnist urged girls to go out and aggressively lay men, provoking an entertaining response from the usual God-fearing fearmongers. This behavior is of course possible, but is not a good way of furthering the noble project of women’s equality because some of the sexual limits that have been “imposed” on women by “society” are actually biological.
Evidence for this has been found in a sexually liberated country—England—in a 1990-1991 survey of 18,876 men and women that showed that women are twice as likely as men to have had only one sexual partner, and that 24.4 percent of all men had enjoyed 10 or more sexual partners while only 6.8 percent of women had done the same, and this general trend is conserved cross-culturally (Badcock 2000). Moreover—for those of you inclined to cite social repression—women are more disposed to have “contextual, emotive, intimate and passive” fantasies as opposed to males who have “specifically sexual, promiscuous, and active fantasies,” and female homosexuals are generally less promiscuous than male homosexuals (B.J. Ellis and Symons 1997 reported in Badcock 2000).
Because nature built women to place mate quality before quantity, it is reasonable to suggest that women who adhere to an unnaturally promiscuous sexual strategy may be gambling with their psychological health. This is not sexist; it’s honest. Disregarding our biological design constraints is a bad idea, which is why one of the recommendations of the Women’s Initiative was to encourage a “dating culture” at Duke. This, after all, seems to be the equilibrium arrangement for humans.
Wolfe’s protagonist, Charlotte, is tormented by her conscience after having the “dust knocked off her hillbilly beaver” casually by a notorious Dupont frat boy. When conscience speaks, we should listen. Ernest Hemingway sums it up: “What is moral is what you feel good after.” Offhandedly, he captures the essence of sexual ethics. You don’t need the 100,000 counterfactual religious systems that have appeared over the span of human history to tell you what is moral and what isn’t: nature has given you highly bioengineered brain that spits out certain chemicals to reward or penalize you for different behaviors, and the vast majority of you will know from how you feel if you have done the right thing or not. Faith exists because it gives its members an existential kick in the ass and an amorphous “purpose” (which all too often includes slaughter and territorial expansion), and is always bad because it compels conviction without evidence.
This is one of the few things Wolfe misses—that neuroscience and evolutionary biology are not responsible for destroying morality and making us rut like beasts of the field. Quite the opposite; their advancement will help us complete the picture of human nature and discover the moral principles that will assist people—including sexually confused undergraduates—make the choices most conducive to their happiness and the good of society.
Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior.
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