Op-Ed

Campus sex in antiquity (or the 1950s)

About 200 students, most of them members of UNC fraternities and sororities took part in the annual regional "It’s On Us" rally to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, and to fundraise for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center on the campus of UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 2017.
About 200 students, most of them members of UNC fraternities and sororities took part in the annual regional "It’s On Us" rally to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, and to fundraise for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center on the campus of UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 2017. cliddy@newsobserver.com

If sexual candor bothers you, please turn to another item. I begin with a warning after wondering whether I am the only senior who slept through an age like Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and woke up in a new world that was even stranger than the “brave new world” that greeted Miranda in Shakespeare’s “Tempest.’

The wonder is prompted by a controversy at Chapel Hill over the privacy of “sex offenders.” A few brief sketches may explain my sense of displacement.

Then (the 1950s) as now, sex was a preoccupation among undergraduates, although crimes of aggression were rare. In that pre-pill age the relationship between young men and women was very different. Mothers taught daughters to beware of enticements that could lead to pregnancy. Abortion had not been legalized by the Supreme Court. And UNC and comparable institutions were governed by age-old standards of courtship that would strike millennials as Victorian, if not pre-historic.

A memory: The offices of the Daily Tar Heel were on the second floor of Graham Memorial, the student union. We could look out in the early fall when, beneath our windows, the elegant Katherine Carmichael, dean of women, held her welcoming reception for new “co-eds” from every point of the compass – Jane and Patti, cousins, from Tennessee, Lois from New York, Blynn from Kentucky and others who would become a seventh of a largely male student body. In their elegant dresses, high heels, white gloves and carefully coiffed hair, these elite young ladies were a sight for longing eyes. No more superior collection of women ever caught my eye.

The manners of that earlier era did not obscure “la difference,” but the assumptions underlying courtship were conservative. There were few, if any, affectionless “hookups” in our crowd. There were no regulations about the buttons on ladies’ garments; none were needed. Dating was the game, dances were important, and men paid. Figures at the fringes stirred rumors; but the expected decorum of well-bred gentlemen (and we were not embarrassed by the term or the adjective) was absolute. Of course there were those few whose gross behavior proved the rule.

To wit: A drinking club was severely disciplined for staging a party, decorated with inflated condoms and calculatedly insulting to their guests. A Georgia cousin, visiting from Sweet Briar for a weekend, witnessed a frat-house display of drunken self-exposure. But again, such gross exceptions proved the rules.

Some of the foregoing recollections doubtless sound stuffy, but we were neither prigs nor prudes. Self-restraint was the rule. Parental precepts were equally restrained and subdued. The culture of the time supported traditionalism in sexual matters. Novels like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” were banned. The movies were under the firm (and prudish) control of the Hayes Office. In any bedroom scene the actors had to keep one foot on the floor. Birth-control devices were hidden in drug stores and difficult to obtain without embarrassment. Television was not a sexual romp in which people took to their beds when they weren’t shooting at each other. No internet throbbed day and night with fleshly pleasures. Sexual preferences were discreetly closeted, and to carry a furled black umbrella was taken as a sign of deviancy.

Perhaps you will now see why the new world of sexuality, with its elaborate fetishes, looks as different to those of my vintage as the Hudson Valley hills looked to Washington Irving’s awakening hero.

We who value history as a key to cultural analysis are taught to avoid and discount facile moral distinctions between Then and Now, of which graybeards are fond – and the more so when generational distinctions are described as “better” and “worse” and assume dubious variations in human nature. I still recall Alistair Cooke’s corrective observation about the the Roaring Twenties of the last century which, he said, never roared, were pervasively sad, and whose defining music was the blues. A lesson in generational comparison not to be forgotten.

But history does suggest from time to time that while human nature remains remarkably stable, cultural trends do shift and occasionally tempt the designation “decadent.”

And sometimes the insult fits.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a UNC-CH graduate and a former columnist and editorial writer in Washington, D.C.

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