As I pointed out in a post last year, it has been suggested that the three things a university President has to secure are ‘sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.’ Whatever about athletics and car parking, I had never actually been asked by anyone to arrange for sex for the students. On the whole my suspicion would have been that they don’t need much help in that department anyway. But then today, in the course of an interview, I was asked to express a view on the free availability of sex on university campuses.
IIt wasn’t really that different when I was a student. Or rather, it wasn’t that different on the campus. In Ireland as a whole there was no sex, or none anyone admitted to, and the days when a parish priest would walk amongst the dancers at a youth club with a ruler in hand, to ensure that the minimum distance between boy and girl of one foot was being observed, were not long over. But on the campus the attitude was ‘anything goes as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses’, and the contrast between the puritan outside and the free-and-easy inside was striking. However, we had a rule that no student in college accommodation could entertain overnight guests of the opposite sex – this became popularly known as the ‘anti-heterosexual rule.’ And then one day the then Vice-President of the Students Union announced publicly to the college discipline officer that he proposed to entertain a woman overnight, ending his rather well crafted letter with the words: ‘Having thus informed you of my intentions regarding my female bedroom companion for tonight, I now await your pleasure.’ The college officer wisely did nothing at all.
Fast forward to my term of office as President of DCU. About five years ago a Sunday newspaper ran an article on how various university students unions were advising their members on safe sex and promoting the availability of contraception. A couple of days later I received an email from a very upset member of the public who remonstrated with me that I should be taking decisive steps to ensure appropriate chastity on the campus, so that young people would not be led into temptation and immorality. I replied very politely, and I hope sensitively, but I pointed out that this was a horse that had bolted the stable a very long time ago and was certainly not about to come back.
Which brings me back to the interview today. I had to think for a moment on what I could and should say. While I do believe, as I have just pointed out, that it would be impossible, counter-productive and undesirable for a university to intervene in the private lives of students as long as these do not involve activities that are illegal, I am not however in the business of promoting sex either. Students will do what they have been doing, but equally they should not feel under any pressure to do so, or certainly not from me. And I felt it was important to make it clear that non-consensual sex was wholly unacceptable.
My correspondent of five years ago was of the opinion that universities, and university presidents in particular, had corrupted Ireland’s youth and had turned sex into a casual act of consumption rather than something more elevated within marriage. No doubt he was not alone in that view, but in the meantime we are living in a different society which, frankly, no longer accepts the view of sex as being just about procreation within marriage. University presidents would, even if they disapproved of this fundamentally, be completely unable to do anything about it. I believe that the more important campaign around sex and sexuality should now focus on exploitation and trafficking, and on the importance of treating people with respect in this as in other contexts. That would be worth the effort.