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The new puritans of campus sexual politics

When even whistling becomes a crime

Tennessee State University has a policy on the books that bans “whistling in a suggestive manner,” because it is considered a form of—wait for it—sexual harassment. The standard complaint against “politically correct” culture is that it is relentlessly proscribing the ways in which society may conduct itself; banning wolf-whistling on the grounds that it constitutes “sexual harassment” may be among the more crystalline examples of this phenomenon.

To be sure, one can imagine that being whistled at could get annoying, if one experiences it enough times. But to elevate it to the level of sexual harassment is something of a comic absurdity. Words mean things; they have meaning, and we dilute their meaning at great cost to public discourse and public problem-solving. If someone tells you, “I was sexually harassed,” you have a certain picture in your mind of what that entails; it likely does not entail being whistled at, and for good reason. Put another way: if a friend told you, “I was assaulted today,” you would probably be quite alarmed—until you found out that a rude driver had simply given your friend the middle finger. Dumbing down a loaded concept does nobody any favors.

That so much of this new puritanism takes place on our college campuses represents another level of cognitive dissonance. A great many campuses today, if not most of them, are often steeped in a stew of sexual bacchanalia: sex weeks at colleges across the country are essentially week-long condom and anal sex festivals, bizarre spectacles meant to encourage an already-oversexed population of young people to sleep with each other with ever-more reckless abandon. If that’s your thing, sure, fine—it’s not a crime to given in to one’s animal impulses, and it can be hard to avoid when the administration is handing out gallons of lubricant. But what a contrast: universities are stoking the fires of sexual frenzy on the one hand and freaking out about sexual frenzy on the other. It would be funny, were it not so sad. (Okay, it’s still pretty funny.)

Sexual revolutionaries have bet on a rather fantastical proposition: that you can encourage a society of licentiousness while at the same time retaining certain chivalrous norms meant to protect vulnerable women from harassment. But we know that can’t really be the case: a culture that teaches men and women to objectify each other as sexual playthings cannot have it both ways. And yet this is where we are: a society that has embraced sexual chaos while at the same time engaging in a sexual moral panic that has grown to encompasswhistling. Yes, it’s rather amusing—so have a laugh. But it’s also dismaying as well, and it’s not going anywhere for a while.

MORE: Public university’s ‘Sex Week’ offers 26 events in seven-day span

MORE: Harvard Sex Week: 13,000 condoms, 1,200 bottles of lube, and ‘BDSM in the dorm’ lesson

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