However, if Princeton is to be a happy place, it is not enough for the administration to exercise regulatory restraint. We must also exercise individual responsibility in accordance with good values and even argue about these values in the public sphere. Victorian as it may seem to speak of morality in public, it is entirely reasonable to do so, given the large class of behaviors that should not be regulated but in which we’re all better off if students conform to some standard of decency. (It would be bad to have a ban on telling people you dislike them, but it’s good that this is a rare phenomenon.) The content of this standard of decency need not be resolved, but it can and should be contested in the public sphere, given the extent to which the choices of private individuals can affect everyone else.
Our sexual decision-making is a striking example and one that merits more discussion. The sexual decisions each of us contributes to a culture affect everyone on this campus, particularly in the expectation surrounding romance, which the University recognizes implicitly in “Sex on a Saturday Night?” If our culture expects freshman women to return drunk to the dorms of their dates, it has put them at a greater risk of date rape. The same is also true for risky but expected activities that are legal: If the average man on campus refused to publicly date a woman unless she’d (consensually) pandered to his most dehumanizing (but legal) fetishes, Princeton would be an unsafe and unhappy place for women. Both of these cases show how the consensual actions of private individuals can create an unsafe culture: In the first, a culture that requires freshman women to choose between dating and safety; in the second, one that requires women to choose between dating and dignity. And a culture that exposes some of its members to harm and indignity is a worse place for everyone, even for those who are not “directly” affected.
Because our private sexual decisions contribute to the culture that affects our peers, they are decisions of public importance, and we are as justified in arguing about the values that inform these decisions as we are in arguing about what policies are best. (It would be silly to suppose that we’re affected more by policies than by the values of our peers.) If problematic trends arise in this arena, they are unlikely to self-correct on their own.
Debates about sexual values can be productive even when we don’t achieve consensus. By arguing about morality, we recognize the importance of our peers and the importance of truth. Using reason to argue for your values typically involves recognizing that the other person is worth convincing and that morality should be based on truth. Sexual ethics is also clearly an area in which the tools of public debate apply. For instance, we can appeal to the social science data that suggests a correlation between risky sexual activity and depression among college-aged women. (See “No Strings Attached: The Nature of Casual Sex in College Students” by Grello, Welsh and Harper.) Similarly, we can apply reason to human experience: Because rape is worse than other nonconsensual activities, the significance of sex cannot be infinitely flexible, and philosophy can provide insights into what that significance might be.
My aim here is not to make a claim about the content of a healthy sexual culture but to suggest that our sexual culture can be improved through the public application of dialogue about our sexual values. Such public discussions of values can also improve our intellectual culture and our “civic” culture. By appealing to values rather than rules we might even convince the administration to abandon its doomed project of regulating Princeton to equality, freedom and bliss.
Audrey Pollnow is an philosophy major from Seattle, Wash. She is also the vice president of the Anscombe Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.