10 years after founding, Anscombe Society sparks debate over sexual ethics, free speech
Amid debate over free speech on campus, the Anscombe Society — entering its 10th year of operation — provides a noteworthy case study in the recent history of the wider University community's engagement with alternative viewpoints.
In the spring of 2005, six students founded the Society to respond to what they saw as a need for more honest discussion of the University’s casual sex and hookup culture. The group named itself after the 20th century British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a professor at Cambridge University who wrote rigorous defenses of traditional sexual ethics, marriage and family.
Cassandra Hough ’07, one of Anscombe’s founding members who currently resides in Princeton and is an Undergraduate Fellows Program Coordinator for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, said that the prevailing attitude of “anything goes” regarding students’ sexual activity was actively promoting risky sexual behavior.
“At the time the Anscombe Society was founded, it was in the mind of the other students who founded the group … that the University life, both in its intellectual and social dimensions, really favored more libertarian ideas and norms on matters of sexual relationships,” Hough said.
Students who experienced the negative effects of such a culture felt alienated and unsupported, Hough said. Since no campus group existed to address these concerns, she and several classmates decided to establish a network of support for students who shared similar sentiments and wanted to improve campus discourse, she explained.
“We wanted to see University discussion take more seriously the wealth of research and arguments that either challenged those libertine ideas about sexuality and relationships, or that support, instead, the institution of marriage, the role of the intact family and what we like to call sexual integrity,” Hough said, adding that Anscombe was the first organization on campus with such a purpose.
The group hosts public lecture events each semester, invites professors and students to present arguments in weekly discussions and, often, contributes significantly to conservative thought at the University.
Among other reasons, the Anscombe Society exists to contribute a voice to campus discourse that would not otherwise persist, its president, Christian Say ’17, explained.
“We’re kind of a gadfly. We're always there,” Say said. “We think there’s a way of viewing sex that is most in line with who we are as human beings and [we’re going to] do things that continually remind us and the campus of this alternative view. And if we don’t exist, there is literally no one in this public square at Princeton who is going to say otherwise.”
Hough said she has observed a decline in campus receptivity to Anscombe since its founding 10 years ago. According to Say, the Society’s status as a dissenting minority voice means the group naturally attracts criticism.
“There’s definitely a stigma attached to the Anscombe Society, but I think that the fact that we exist allows other people to … become increasingly more vocal, and not aggressively vocal, but increasingly more willing to take a hit for what they believe,” Say said. “There’s a niche for what we do, and I think that’s an important one and that it contributes to the campus discussion.”
Say added that constant challenges and scrutiny from the majority increase the need for Anscombe to defend its intellectual rigor.
Say said he had concerns over the health of the University’s public forum in general. The dominance of campus orthodoxy is especially worrying, he said, because its antagonism toward countervailing opinions has discouraged a wider, pluralistic debate.
Anscombe attempts to engage more with other viewpoints on campus, Say added.
“I’ve been really trying to reach out, as president, to groups we disagree with, trying to open up avenues of dialogue,” he said.
In the fall, Say invited several organizations to present and discuss alternative views on the issue of marriage. He was surprised when some of the groups invited reacted negatively, he added.
“Right now, a lot of our fight is just saying, ‘Look, we can talk about these things,’ ” he said.
Lily Gellman ’17, co-president of Princeton Pride Alliance and a LGBTQ Center staff member, said she sees Anscombe differently.
“I’m sorry if people were rude to them and I don’t think that’s ideal, but I also can understand where that urge would come from,” she said. “There are lot of queer and trans kids at Princeton … and to have to engage with a group that’s violently opposed to these very important aspects of people’s lives — I can see why people would think that it would be counterproductive to even bother.”
However, Gellman said she was still open to discussing issues with the Society.
“I’m interested in having a variety of conversations on a variety of points of view because I would never want to suppress anyone’s free speech,” Gellman said.
Noting that the Pride Alliance and Palestine solidarity activists’ posters are often torn down across campus, she added that she understands the feeling of being shut down.
“I would not want [the Anscombe Society’s] speech to be suppressed, because I know what that feels like and it doesn’t feel good,” Gellman said.
Daniel Teehan ’17, co-editor of The Princeton Progressive, praised the shift nationally and on campus toward marriage equality and greater civil rights for people of different sexual orientations. He said the fact that non-heterosexual people no longer have to defend their sexual orientations is a good thing.
"If [non-heterosexual people] don’t want to engage with people who they see as not believing in their rights or who they see as backwards in their sexual ethics, then I think that’s their prerogative,” Teehan said.
Erik Massenzio ’17, an Anscombe member, said Anscombe was doing valuable and under-appreciated work in advocating for an alternative viewpoint.
"[When it comes to gay marriage], a lot of people think there’s just no argument on the other side, and that all arguments on Anscombe’s side is completely irrational," Massenzio said. "I think the community that it’s fostered is extremely successful. Just from my own personal experience, I came in not having an opinion and am very glad that I came in and now I have an opinion. It’s changed my life. I have looked at relationships in a different way, I feel like I’ve become a better friend in this way. I feel like my future romantic relationships are going to be much more healthy now."
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the class year of Christian Say '17. The 'Prince' regrets the error.