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Sex and the New Asceticism at Yale
Derek Webb • Love and the body • 1999

It is often said that Yale is an institution of higher learning. If you listen closely, undergraduates will often be heard saying things like, “I came here to learn,” or, “I’m here to get an education.” People who are not yet Yale students, but who want to be, will occasionally tell admissions officers that they want to come to Yale to “know more.” In my more contemplative moments I have often reflected on such rich and mysterious aphorisms as these. “Why do these people say such things? What madness fills their hearts? What kind of unholy disease has made its home in their brains?” I apologize. I do not have an answer to these questions. More philosophical minds will have to answer them. 

Let me instead tell you about my confusion. I am confused because a place that I guarantee you is called an institution of higher learning is a place where people forget the most important things, even those things which seem most securely in their possession. Far from being the home of Lux et Veritas, Yale has become the river Lethe. Students approach it, drink from its contents, and forget. 

What do they forget? They seem to be learning quite a bit. Ask any chemistry students what the fundamental structure of the tiniest piece of material in the world is and he will tell you. Ask any astronomy student what you can find a billion miles away from the earth and he will tell you. 

The thing that is forgotten is not some particular conclusion reached by rational inquiry and recorded in a text since lost somewhere in Sterling Memorial Library. 

No, the thing that has been forgotten is the very thing that is present in each and every one of our scientific efforts. Not only that, it is the very thing that is present in each and every one of our nonscientific efforts. It is the human being. At Yale we forget the “I” in “I came here to learn.” 

But how can I say that Yale students forget themselves? Never mind that this is most likely an uncharitable thing to say. It may be uncharitable but still correct. More importantly, this kind of statement seems necessarily impossible to validate. How can anyone know the contents of another person’s thoughts? 

An interesting question. But this has already been answered. We can determine that a chemist knows chemistry by asking him certain kinds of questions. We can determine that an astronomer knows astronomy by asking him certain kinds of questions. 

So we can, in fact, know the mental contents of certain kinds of people. We do this by asking them those questions that are relevant. So the question now becomes, can we know the thought of a person not insofar as he is a chemist or an astronomer but insofar as he is simply a person? 

Here again I think that the answer is yes. But what is the relevant question here? What will we ask someone if we want to know if he understands himself? 

The question should be a universal question. And no question could be more universal than the question of what love is. All people have experienced it in their lives, or else they felt its absence as painful. They have themselves either been in love with another person or at least imagined it. Love or care is the fundamental experience through which all other experience becomes intelligible. A student studies night and day because of love for his future career. A man works night and day because of love for his wife and family. A man commits suicide because he has finally stopped caring for the world or himself. 

So it has been with a great deal of interest that I have observed what Yale students have had to say on this most important subject. 

And how do they answer? Enter any party hosted by the brothers of DKE. Read any essay written by the staff of the New Journal, Herald or Daily News. Listen to the thoughts of the hosts of “Love Talk” on WYBC. You will be amazed by the discovery that you will make. You will there discover a beast of unimaginable oddity and remarkable persuasiveness. 

It is, first of all, very old. It was there in the earliest days of the world and has reigned supreme in numerous religious traditions. It has won millions of souls to its side and continues its effective marketing strategy up to today. 

Second, and more interesting, it is greatly despised in this age. Whenever its name is uttered people take flight or stand up in righteous indignation, But despite this fact, it manages to conquer these very people. 

Put simply, this beast is hatred of the world and the body. It is the kind of hatred that famously manifested itself in the ascetic ideal of certain Christian groups in the Middle Ages. It led men to whip their bodies to a bloody pulp or hang themselves from nails. It led groups of people to reject creature comforts of all kinds, to deny the holiness of marriage, and to long achingly for their deaths. 

That “life philosophy” is the philosophy regnant at Yale. It is the philosophy which proclaims that whatever love is, it is not about the body. Whatever love is, it is most certainly not about this absurd shell or husk in which we find ourselves, for the moment at least, imprisoned. How we utilize our bodies may be of endless amusement in the cartoons of “Wide Gauge” but is not actually to be taken seriously as the arena of love. 

Because love, after all, is important business. It is the stuff of every single person’s dreams. It is the culmination of heroic effort and the cause of even greater effort. Love is rapture and ecstasy. It is homecoming. It is becoming truly one with another person. 

But what could possibly be further from a passion so soaring and transcendent as love than a body whose mundane operations are at times so grotesque and clumsy? What supremely spiritual reality should be determined by such facts as the weather and indigestion? 

Love, rather, is the life of the spirit. It is one transcendent personality uniting itself with another transcendent personality. It is the free intelligence and will of one embracing the free intelligence and will of another. It is, to quote a popular management consultant group, minds wide open. 

For if this were not so, if love really were a bodily reality, then the very first thing to go would be the one thing Yale students will not give up. That is, they would give up “hooking up.” There would be no quickies, no “physical relationships” and absolutely never any full-throated praise for the loss of one’s virginity prior to marriage. Those activities which are now praised for their carnal appreciation of the body would be despised as denigrations of the physical world. 

This is really quite simple. There would be a recognition that, if love were about anything at all (and I am certainly not insisting that you accept this premise), it would be about intimacy. That is, love would be a unique kind of being close with another particular person. For those who will respond that they can love and be truly and equally intimate with several people at different times throughout their lives, I have two things to say. 

First, I would love a chance to walk through your world for a day. I would love to see what it looks like to be overjoyed when a used car salesman insists that the particular car you have shown interest in is “made for you.” I would relish the opportunity to see what it looks like to be truly impressed by someone who tells you that the gift they gave you was the gift they gave all of their friends for Christmas but was uniquely chosen for you. The oddity of the experience would be quite refreshing. 

Second, I would say that you should demand more out of life. A unique treasure should really be unique. It makes it grander. To share something with one person that you will not share with others could be quite beautiful. To accord to all an equal dignity and then not go beyond that is to cut yourself off from the greater joy of prizing one above all other things. To say that you can love several people equally at different times in your life is to say that they could all mean the same thing to you. But to do this is to do the work of leveling, not raising up. In that world there is no superlative. There is no true peak or highest good. There is no mountain top beyond which there is no higher. 

Therefore, if you grant that love is a unique sharing with another of your self, then the serious question to answer is this: How can we be romantically intimate with another person? What is required for such noble experience? 

On the belief that whatever love is, it is not distinguished by physical actions, the answer is that there must only be a special giving of the personality or intellect. When we find that person with whom intimacy is possible and right,. we will muster up all the intellectual and spiritual juices at our command and aim them in the direction of the beloved. Of course we will have sex with this person as we have had sex with others. What will be different will not be that we are having sex, but “how we feel” while having sex. How we use our bodies will not show to either person how we feel about them because we will have done these acts with many other people (if we were lucky!) with vastly different feelings (hatred, lust, self-centeredness). And that makes sense. The body is not part of love, so why should its employment be a real show of love?

However, on the belief that love actually is about how we use our bodies, no such reasoning would be tolerated. The boring platitude of the Yale mind still hold of course when it comes to this belief. Lovers will naturally feel differently about one another than they do about other people. But here’s the really interesting part. If love is a bodily phenomenon then what I do with my body will be relevant to the activity of loving another person. The use of the body will be a true barometers of love. I could show my love for another not just simply as some ascetic Yalie through my personality but as a lover of the world through my body. 

Real intimacy becomes possible not by some remarkable summoning of the gnostic love spirit within, nut by very simple physical actions. The lover simply holds the beloved in a way he would hold no other. The lovers would united sexually in a way they would unite with no other person. The lovers would also bring children into this unity through their sexual union in a way that further binds them in unique and loving care. 

Pretty simple but not too surprising. After all, wouldn’t we be somewhat disappointed to learn that the most significant things in life required years of rigorous and advanced mental and spiritual discipline? Doesn’t it match our ordinary experience of the world rather that very simple people can enjoy unusually ponderous love for each other? Doesn’t it also match our ordinary experience of the world that the honoring of the body’s demands in all walks of life from craftsmanship to sports is central to good living? 

To the Yale mind this is all repugnant. To suggest that there is a different physicality demanded by real love is to affirm the body as actually important. Never mind the fact that most married people who never engaged in premarital sex have much happier marriages. Never mind the fact that a huge majority of the marriages that end in divorce are between people who have engaged in premarital sex. These are statistics about the weak and the simple! These are statistics about people who have not the spiritual magnanimity of a Yalie. 
What has to be denied is not these obvious facts indicating among many people a close connection between love and the use of the body. What has to be denied is the observation that love itself is inseparable from the body. What has to be denied is that you know a real romantic love by the presence of real sexual intimacy. This must be denied because to affirm it is to condemn the Yale student. To affirm it is to condemn the demonic asceticism regnant today. 

The problem with the Yale mind is not that it is too materialistic but that it is not materialistic enough. Yale students are shocked when their own sexual intercourse leads to reproduction (see the recent issue of the New Journal). Show me a mind that focuses like a laser upon nothing but the body and I will show you a mind that is not so easily shocked. Yale students have come to believe that the most important things in life are independent of the body. Show me a mind that cares greatly for the body and I will show you a mind that knows that all human significance is embodied significance. 

The problem with the Yale sex drive is not that it is too strong but that it is too weak. It does not long for robust sexual ecstasy. Instead it settles for lonely and addictive cyberspace porn free of all consequence and spirit. It settles for easy and drunken sex fortified by two layers of plastic and a scientifically guaranteed system of pill swallowing to ensure that the real consequences of the body are avoided. Real sex with real consequences is simply too much for the Yale sex drive. We would much prefer to just slink away and make ourselves less and less worthy of real love by satisfying our constantly diminishing capacity for pleasures in smaller and self-forgetful ways. 

—Derek Webb is a senior in Davenport College 

The Yale Free Press is published by students ofYale University. 
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