Discover more from Robert Reich
The sexual revolution and me
My introduction to political hypocrisy
From time to time, I burden you with some personal history, based on my belief that our values begin with who we are and where we came from. Besides, I’ve been writing this daily letter to you for more than two years, and you have every right to know a bit more about me.
So today I want to tell you about my introduction to the world of political hypocrisy.
I still feel ashamed about what I’m about to relate to you. My weak defense is that the norms of the early 1960s — when colleges still clung to the bizarre notion of in loco parentis — were quite different by the late 1960s, after the so-called “sexual revolution.”
Dartmouth College in the early 1960s consisted of 3,400 young male undergraduates and no young women. Unlike Columbia, Harvard, and Brown, which were also “all-male” but had managed to create women’s colleges under their misogynistic male banners, the closest women’s college to Dartmouth was several hours away.
The interstate highway system had not yet paved the way from Dartmouth to Smith, Mount Holyoke, or numerous female “junior colleges.” In the winter — which in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River ran from mid-November to mid-March and reached such low temperatures that one’s nostril hairs froze and broke off on the way to morning classes — snow often blocked the roads.
In other words, Dartmouth in the early 1960s was a monastery … in Siberia.
The College Handbook, distributed the very first day of matriculation, warned that students would unceremoniously be expelled for, among other things, engaging in “lewdness or fornication.” It did not spell out in detail what behavior qualified as “lewdness,” but there was no question about fornication.
It’s what almost all 3,400 of us hoped for.
Recall, again, that this was the early 1960s. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the nearly foolproof contraceptive that came to be known as “the pill.” By the early 1960s, it was gaining wide circulation among young college-aged women. It ushered in what came to be known as the sexual revolution.
As the poet Philip Larkin wrote,
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
During the first weeks of my freshman year, I decided to run for class president. I had a vague sense I could make the place more livable, more enjoyable, and more, well, grown up.
Dartmouth was a picture-postcard gorgeous campus, and the professors were superb. But the male isolation made dorm life rather raunchy and adolescent — focused on “Playboy” centerfolds and boasted sexual exploits. I thought I could improve the quality of dorm life by, say, encouraging student-led seminars.
I also sensed that being class president would somehow compensate for my being by far the shortest person in the class. And I relished the thought of phoning my father and telling him I had been elected, knowing how proud it would make him that his runt of a son had been chosen to lead.
I visited every freshman dormitory room and introduced myself to almost all of my 800 classmates, most of whom had no idea why anyone in their right mind would barge in on them and ask for their vote.
I won handily.
Yet my classmates had only one thing they wanted me to do as class president: Invite busloads of young women students to Dartmouth for the weekends.
I didn’t give up on the student-led dorm seminars, but I also had to respond to my constituents. If they wanted busloads of young women, their new class president would oblige.
On a Friday night several weeks later, dozens of buses arrived in Hanover, containing over 400 women invited from every women’s college in New England.
Dartmouth had never seen anything like it.
To avoid having the young women snaked by upperclassmen, I allowed only freshmen through a makeshift fence surrounding the paved area where the buses unloaded them and had klieg lights directed at the bus doors from which the young women disembarked.
Unfortunately, this had the effect of forcing each young woman to make a rather theatrical entrance onto the campus from her bus — prompting my freshmen constituents to holler numbers from 1 to 10, reflecting their judgments about her looks.
The spectacle made me cringe. It was worse for the young women. Many were humiliated. Some even refused to get off the bus. Several convinced the bus drivers to take them home.
But the larger problem was perhaps more predictable. It was the College Handbook.
As class president, I was automatically a member of the student court, which heard complaints from the dean’s office about alleged violations of the handbook. The student court interviewed alleged offenders and dispensed appropriate punishment. It was an inquisitorial form of justice.
By tradition, as the youngest member of the court, I was responsible for asking what was known as the penetrating question. As the accused young man sat before us trying to explain how it came to be that the dorm janitor found him in bed with a young woman at 7 o’clock in the morning, it was my duty to ask, “Did you penetrate?”
If he answered in the affirmative, the student court was obliged to send him packing.
You see my dilemma. As class president, I was procuring hundreds of young women for my classmates, who had little else on their minds other than fornication. As a member of the student court with the job of asking the penetrating question, I was obliged to expel any young man honest enough to admit to it.
A few years later, I wouldn’t allow myself to be in this predicament. In 1968, I warned the college president, a giant of a man named John Sloan Dickey — who talked so ponderously we called him John Slow Diction — that if he did not put an end to the obnoxious and demeaning in loco parentis rules, he’d have a revolt on his hands.
He did not, and the undergraduates duly revolted, lifting Slow Diction out of his chair in his lofty office on the second floor of the administration building and depositing him on the sidewalk before taking over the building.
But, again, it was 1964 when I was enticing young women to campus because my classmate constituents wanted to fornicate with them, and expelling anyone who was found to have succeeded.
I didn’t yet know the new depths of the hypocrisy I was plumbing.
I did attempt to improve the intellectual life of the college and led efforts to make everyone more attentive to civil rights. But what of the civil rights of the young fornicators?
My dilemma came to a head, as it were, the following year. I had been reelected class president and by then had figured out how to lure even more young women to Hanover, weekend after weekend, without subjecting them to ritual humiliation.
But the Vietnam War was coming into view, and the moral universe was shifting.
A case came to the student court from the dean, who had been contacted by the dean of one of the women’s colleges. A Dartmouth student had been caught in bed with a student from the woman’s college, but (and I emphasize “but”) the nefarious coupling had occurred during spring break, when both were vacationing in Mexico.
My peers on the court were unsure how to proceed. Did the College Handbook’s prohibition of fornication apply during spring break when neither perpetrator was on campus? And even if it did, did the long arm of the college’s law extend outside the United States?
I said no to both questions, but my judicial brethren decided otherwise, and when the young accused offender — named Giff — appeared before the court and answered the penetrating question in the affirmative, the court voted to expel him. (A similar fate apparently befell his love interest.)
Giff was promptly drafted and sent to Vietnam.
My conscious mind repressed all of this until one day, roughly 20 years later, my wife and I were sitting at the counter in Lou’s Restaurant on Main Street, and Giff walked in, now 20 years older.
Everything came rushing back with frightening clarity.
The question of whether he had been killed in Vietnam must have been reverberating in the recesses of my guilty brain, because the moment I saw him, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that caused tears to well up.
My wife had no idea what was going on. I asked her to ignore me and hoped that Giff would ignore me, as well. I tried to hide behind a menu.
But he saw me and made a beeline for where I was sitting.
“Bob!” he said, putting a large arm around my shoulders. “Good to see you!”
“Giff!” I said. “I’m so delighted to see you, too.” And I was — truly. Giddy with relief. Also, guilty and embarrassed and humiliated at what my younger self had done.
Tears streaming down my face, I wanted to apologize. But I couldn’t find the words. There were none.