In what I can only interpret as a consequence of near-total obliviousness to any sort of criticism provided to her, Susan Patton '77, in an attempt to reassert her relevancy to current discussions on romance and sex, has inserted herself yet again into the national spotlight. She recently appeared on a segment of Comedy Central’s satirical news program The Daily Show covering Las Vegas students’ advocacy for better sex education in schools. Ms. Patton, in theory, is arguing against “sex education in schools at any grade.” In practice, her words instead serve to seriously strengthen the students’ argument. Over the course of the five-and-a-half minute clip, she grossly mischaracterizes students’ attitudes (“I think students want sex. I don’t believe they want sex ed”), claims that “sex education is something that should be taught by parents to their children” even as she can’t answer pressing questions the Las Vegas students have about birth control and STDs, and exhorts children with questions about sex to “Google it” as a legitimate alternative to structured sex education.
I don’t plan on spending much time in this column arguing against Ms. Patton’s viewpoints here or in any of her other interviews or columns, because I think it’s pretty much a given that many people affiliated with Princeton have spoken out against her ideas already. As a community, we saw this last week when members of the Class of 1978 penned an editorial in this newspaper speaking out against “the attitudes of the so-called ‘Princeton Mom.’ ” We also saw this in an open letter which hundreds of Princeton faculty members signed last year, siding with students in opposition to Ms. Patton’s statements of implicating survivors of sexual assault as complicit in the crime.
At this point, I think that we’ve run through most of the courses of action for dealing with the negative feedback those associated with the University receive at the hands of Ms. Patton. No matter whether we as Princetonians thoroughly debunk and rip open her claims or simply ridicule what she says, Ms. Patton will still receive a platform to speak because her thoughts fit into a pre-existing narrative about Ivy Leaguers. Her words would demonstrate how out-of-touch we are as Princeton students with the world at large, locked up in our ivory tower with antiquated and harmful views on sexual assault. Her identification as “the Princeton Mom” further solidifies this image — note her use of “the” instead of a pronoun like “a,” establishing her voice as definitive. (Though Ms. Patton claims that “the media came up with” the name and that she “doesn’t speak for the University,” her Twitter handle (@ThePrincetonMom) suggests that she is very comfortable using her position as a University graduate to augment her legitimacy.)
Rather than relying on (somewhat ineffective) rhetoric against Ms. Patton’s ideas, I believe that the most positive and constructive solution to the situation at hand is to show that we as a community don’t agree with her conception of sexual well-being with actions as well as with words. I am glad that so many Princeton students and alums have shown solidarity with those Ms. Patton would denigrate, intentionally or otherwise. However, at the same time we should show that we are trying to change the status quo beyond what we say. When she says that sexual assault is a “learning experience,” we should point to the work that our SHARE peers are doing. When she objects to sex education in schools, we should contrast that with the efforts of our Peer Health Advisors. Actions speak much louder than words.
More than anything, we should show that the Princeton experience Ms. Patton embodies is not the Princeton experience that almost all of us try to live. It is no longer enough to verbally reject the advice she gives as not representative of the Princeton name. We must actively reject that advice as well — if we are to stand in solidarity against a model most of us believe to be retrograde and problematic, we must show that with our actions, whether by getting involved with a health organizations on campus or simply expressing support for those affected by the issues she trivializes. It’s clear that Ms. Patton does not represent the Princeton to which we members of the wider University community are so inextricably tied. If we can show publicly that we not only believe her to be wrong, but that we have well-formed ideas about what is right, we will be a stronger community for it, and we will give society at large a better idea of what we stand for.
Will Rivitz is a freshman from Brookline, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.