As a Christian, I knew that my beliefs and identity would be challenged at a progressive university like Duke.
My first challenge came well before I arrived on campus, when I learned that all first years were assigned “Fun Home,” a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The book includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex.
After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.
But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”
I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
I’m well aware that my ethics make me an anomaly on campus, in contemporary culture and even among many professing Christians. However, my principles come primarily from my understanding of the Bible, which I have read multiple times, studied weekly in community for the last seven years, and consider to be the Word of God.
I don’t believe my position will limit my exposure to essential lessons in history, philosophy or literature. I assume that having to view graphic images of sex for a class will be rare. If it does happen, I will avoid any titillating content and encourage like-minded students to do the same. And I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral.
Still, if my academic experience at Duke is full of thought-provoking stimuli other than pictures of sexual acts, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be incomplete.
I decided to post about my decision on the Duke Class of 2019 Facebook page to comfort those with similar beliefs. I knew that my decision wouldn’t be well-received. How could it in a country where, according to one study, more than three-quarters of American men between 18 and 24 years old have viewed pornography within the past month.
But though many students denounced my decision publicly, almost 20 people privately messaged me, thanking me for my post. I received many messages from Christians, but a message from a Muslim man stood out. The man, currently a sophomore at Duke, wrote, “I’ve seen a lot of people who just throw away their identity in college in the name of secularism, open-mindedness, or liberalism.” Is this really what Duke wants?
Cultural pluralism will lose its value if students aren’t allowed to follow their beliefs, even if they are conservative. Without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled.
I recognize, of course, that Christians on campus and throughout the country have an important responsibility, too. We need to learn how to dialogue across differences. Over the past couple of days, I have received many encouraging messages from a new friend, who considers herself bisexual and a Buddhist. She and I became friends after she saw my Facebook post. Instead of criticizing me, she asked me to explain my beliefs. I, in turn, asked her to explain the Buddhist perspective on sexuality. This is how diversity is supposed to work. We each shared our perspective, and walked away from the conversation with a deeper understanding and compassion for each other. That is what college is really about.