Tom Wolfe is known as a world-famous author of nearly twenty novels and non-fiction books. But he is also notable for having identified, several years before it was common knowledge, the brokenness of modern campus sex culture.
As Jonathan Zimmerman writes at Inside Higher Ed, Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons was inspired in part by the fact that Wolfe was “frustrated by the lack of romance in modern sex.”
“Critics took him for a scold and a prude, but I think they got him wrong,” Zimmerman writes. “Tom Wolfe wasn’t opposed to sex in college; instead; he felt it wasn’t sexy enough.”
I Am Charlotte Simmons focuses on the life of the titular character, “a provincial young woman trying to make her way in a corrupt world.” Simmons is “thrown headfirst into the sexual hedonism of ‘Dupont University'” where “varsity athletes get sex without even trying; the fraternity brothers are more deliberate (and devious) about it; and the scholarly nerds pretend they don’t want it. But everyone at Dupont is either getting laid or laying plans for the same.”
Simmons, however, is a “sexual innocent from a small town” who is more interested in academics than sex. She eventually “succumbs to a preppy frat boy, who abandons her as soon as it’s over,” after which she becomes depressed. She is “nursed back to life by a nerd with designs on her. She rejects him but wins a basketball-player boyfriend…By the novel’s end she occupies an exalted rung on Dupont’s social ladder.”
Status and hierarchy were recurring themes in all of Wolfe’s work, of course. But as Charlotte discovers, there is something degrading — and depressing — about using sex to improve your social standing. And that’s what everyone in the novel does. They’re trying to figure out who the “hottest” partner is, as defined by everyone else.
What’s sexy about that? To research his book, Wolfe interviewed students at Stanford University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and the University of Florida. (Most readers thought Dupont was a stand-in for Duke, where Wolfe’s daughter went, but it was actually a composite.) Over and over again, students told him that the supposedly “free” sexual culture of college placed new pressures on them to act — or at least to seem — sexually attractive and available. And it actually made sex less pleasurable, not more so.
“Their thoughts in the middle of these sexual encounters were full of these status decisions,” Wolfe told National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel in 2004, describing his interviews. “Am I doing this right? That’s a constant worry. Will the other person feel I’m sophisticated and up to date on this stuff?” And if you resisted sex, Wolfe added, you risked a different kind of social censure. “Will I be considered a tease if I don’t go all the way with this?”
So while there was lots and lots of sex in I Am Charlotte Simmons, it was designedly un-sexy. “I wanted these scenes to be as impersonal as they in fact are,” Wolfe told Siegel. “If anybody is aroused by the many, many sex scenes, which are often quite detailed and anatomical, I’ve failed.”
“Most recently, the Title IX and #MeToo movements have highlighted the coercive quality of many sexual encounters on campus,” Zimmerman points out. “It isn’t just that students feel social pressures to have sex, as Wolfe noted; sometimes they are forced to do it by their individual partners.”