Review: ‘Sex and God at Yale’

by Katy Bachelder on September 21, 2012

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It’s a disgusting, excellent work. Seldom do those two adjectives belong next to each other in a sentence, but it’s the best way to describe Nathan Harden’s new book “Sex and God at Yale.” It’s a curious combination — a memoir mixed with a devastatingly thorough exposé of the ongoing moral decay at Yale. In 1951, National Review founder William F. Buckley wrote “God and Man at Yale,” a book about how Yale’s professors indoctrinate students with liberalism. Sixty years later, Nathan Harden updates Buckley’s thesis, and demonstrates how the problem has grown much more troubling — and shocking.

For a significant portion of the book, Harden chronicles –– in vivid detail — the events that compose Yale’s infamous “Sex Week,” in which a student organization brings in speakers and hosts events to discuss nearly every aspect of human sexuality. No topic is too shameful or bizarre. From sex toy demonstrations to lectures from S&M experts to porn viewings, it’s a comprehensive venture. While not funded directly by the Yale administration, the events take place in Yale classrooms. At every event, the speakers use Yale podiums to glorify mindless, casual sex and encourage students to gratify their every desire, no matter how unusual or depraved.

But Harden has more evidence than this one gross week to prove Yale’s lack of moral purpose. He weaves the issue through nearly every aspect of campus culture. Anecdotes abound: lesbian porn shown in Spanish and other language classes, the campus women’s center capitalizing politically on an ill-advised fraternity prank through disgraceful victimization, and the administration’s creation of a website forum for students to publish essays about their sexual experiences. Beyond these specific instances, Harden discusses larger issues, especially in his chapter about Yale’s insidious hook-up culture. How, he asks, can Yale expect to produce the next generation of top women leaders if the school encourages its female students to forget being asked out on a date and just enjoy sleeping with drunk men after parties? Without even having to say it, Harden shows how the sexual revolution has failed to empower women.

Throughout the book, Harden offers a welcome reprieve from the horrifying by describing his own experiences as a student at Yale. Determined to be a “Yalie” since third grade, Harden is rejected twice before finally gaining admission to the Ivy League school. He includes a wonderful section on meeting his wife and marrying her in a matter of weeks, and beautifully describes how this powerful love has shaped his life. He tries to find his Chakra in a drama class, and tells of his ineptitude, with a likable self-deprecating humor. It’s evident that Harden loves Yale, and his memoir explains how something he adored, when experienced up-close, disappointed. The tale of love lost adds to his credibility. He wasn’t a man dedicated to exposing Yale’s darkest sides.

Much of the criticism surrounding Harden’s work complains he’s too much of an outsider to understand Yale: he’s married, so how can he comment on the hook-up culture when he hasn’t lived in it? But it took someone as completely removed as Harden to see these events for what they are: morally bankrupt. Perhaps the culture has become so pervasive that it takes an outsider— a kind of campus anthropologist— to be shocked.

Unfortunately, the tone of the book poses an occasional problem in communicating its message. Sometimes the wit and cynicism doesn’t fit. One chapter tells the story of Aliza Shvarts, an art student whose senior art project medium was blood from “repeated self-induced miscarriages.” Yale disputes the story, claiming it was an attention-seeking hoax. But this is, at best, a case of a psychologically troubled young woman desperate for attention, and at worst, an unspeakable affront on human dignity. This and several other chapters, including the chapter on the violence in porn, could have used more earnestness, more sorrow—and less snark. Sometimes the snark works, but it doesn’t work everywhere.

The final line of the book reads: “What’s happening at Yale is coming to a university near you.” But it’s not coming to Hillsdale. Our college is not without its problems—human nature is the same here as it is at Yale, but Hillsdale students and faculty share an understanding of absolute truth and the simple differences between good and evil. Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale is a fascinating, compelling testament to just how rare this has become.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Pauley September 24, 2012 at 5:50 am

You are an amazing young lady Katie with a talent for writing. Keep up the wonderful work God has begun in you!

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2 reader September 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Perceptive review. Only one point – the thing with the Shvarts episode is she had the project approved (at first) which goes toward the author’s larger point.

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