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Berg: Culture is What We Do

You may want the freedom to act without having to consider consequences beyond tomorrow. But perhaps you want something else, and I’ve begun to wonder whether there is room at Dartmouth for you to admit that.

In case you missed it, I encourage you to read Kathleen Mayer’s recent series on the Hackers Club Last Chances web site and hookup culture. The piece is a great touchstone for dialogue on sex and culture at Dartmouth. If I could distill her arguments into a few points, they would be as follows:

  • The dominant “hookup culture” and casual sex at Dartmouth is no crisis.
  • “Hookup culture” is an unhelpful descriptor; sex and love always exist in a cultural context, and the supposed “courtship culture” of yesteryear was no utopia.
  • In the pursuit of social equality and power through sex, women now seek to “exist as men have always been allowed to exist: as people whose reputations do not solely depend on their perceived chastity. People who are the subjects of conquests and not merely their objects.”
  • Women have traded away vulnerability for respect, and now both men and women are afraid to admit vulnerability and the desire for more than meaningless sex.
Consider Mayer’s closing remark:
But ’14s (or ’13s or ’12s or ’11s), if you relate to anything written here, try to be ready — when you can — to open yourself up to being hurt, and to being wrong, and to acting with consequence.

This argument resonated with me because it strikes me as a portrait of better humanity, of a better person, of the kind of person that a good culture would produce. A better Dartmouth would have more people like that. I think that Mayer would agree, though she reserves for herself a nonjudgmental attitude towards those who are content with just the “chicken nuggets,” as she phrases it, of hookup culture.

I think there is an inherent tension in that position because culture is always composed of what we do. To make a relevant example, imagine a world replete with jokes demeaning women, with images that demean women or reduce them to sexual objects, and with widespread discrimination against women. In this milieu, in a culture where women are not valued in practice, it would be hard for any individual to buck the trend; and even if they did, it is likely that they would do so quietly while still nested within the prevailing culture around them. Implicit in the critiques regarding Dartmouth’s campus climate is the fact that socially powerful individuals are responsible for campus norms by virtue of their decisions. It is not consistent to say, “I really value women personally, but if you all want to act as if women have little value, it really doesn’t affect me. Live and let live.”

Mayer’s position is consistent only if there is no particular end to which she/we aspire in our relations. For example, what if a good society was one in which men simply felt good about how they each viewed women, regardless of the skew? Whether men and women viewed one another as equal partners or as objects to be used and discarded was irrelevant; what mattered was that we all chose freely and happily. If you care about the actual position of women in society, above and beyond what you individually feel about women in your life, this point is obvious: the decisions of others matter. If you care to see sex valued, you should care about the decisions that other people make to devalue it.

This post is no paean to supposed halcyon days when Dartmouth men and women supposedly respected one another and loved one another in ways now lost unto us. Rather it is a statement that as long as sex is devalued and sexual prowess is intertwined so tightly with self-respect, it will be increasingly difficult for students to experience the love, consequence, hurt, and humanity in which Mayer believes. Perhaps she would argue that the benefits to women of the hookup culture are worth the cost and that the power and autonomy and respect they have seized from men is still progress overall.

Maybe she is right, but what I see before us is a mixed inheritance. Students look around anxiously at the way contemporary sexual norms have been shaped so dramatically by pornography. Frank Bruni of the New York Times comments on contemporary sexual culture and asks, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” At this year’s Dartmouth PRIDE Banquet, the keynote speaker noted that:

We sexualize each other, and ourselves, as we are sexualized by those outside our community. We experiment, and are experimented upon. Sexualized violence is inflicted upon us as we come out — and we are meant to be grateful for being given the opportunity to come out.

There is darkness to be probed in Dartmouth’s culture surrounding sex, love, and relationships. This interrogation lies at the heart of what we value. In the end we should ask whether there is room for the dignity and inconvenience of another human being in the depths of our inner lives.


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