Fundamentalist Colleges Save Lives

Maybe they were right. One of the hallmarks of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a clampdown on student behavior. The goal was to protect student morals, but a side benefit seems to have been protecting student health. A new study finds…surprise, surprise…that smoking pot and binge drinking lead to more risky sex among undergrads.

A hundred years ago, conservative evangelical Protestants reeled from the horror stories oozing out of America’s elite colleges. Fundamentalist preachers warned their flocks that colleges in the 1910s no longer protected students’ faith or morals. As a result, fundamentalists founded their own network of rigidly conservative schools. In addition to fundamentalist theology, all of these colleges adopted draconian rules for students: No smoking, no dancing, no drinking…and certainly no unmarried sex.

The view from 1931, Bob  Jones-style.

The view from 1931, Bob Jones-style.

As I work on my new book about the history of these schools, I’m struggling to make sense of these ubiquitous student rules. It’s easy enough to find the paper trail in the archives. At Bob Jones College, for example, founder Bob Jones Sr. placed the burden of avoiding sex on women.

Jones explained his thinking in an open letter from the 1920s:

The Bob Jones College discourages extravagance in dress AND INSISTS UPON MODESTY.

We request our girls to wear simple dresses in classes. We have a laundry where these dresses can be laundered.

The girls in the Bob Jones College voted to wear their dresses two inches below the knee cap. This is short enough for style and long enough for decency.

The girls in the Bob Jones College last year had the reputation of being the most attractive group of girls in the country, and as a whole, they dressed very simply.

There is one regulation which we wish our girls to thoroughly understand. WE DO NOT ALLOW OUR GIRLS TO WEAR EACH OTHERS CLOTHES. The only exception is in the case of sisters.

Bob Jones College was not alone in the effort to control sex by controlling women. One student who attended Wheaton College in the 1920s remembered a similarly strict regime of sexual policing. “Well,” this former student remembered in a 1984 interview,

The control was rather tight. Of course, that was in those days when . . . when the separation of the sexes was very strict, and the . . . the regulations were . . . dress regulations and so forth were quite strict.

Did students find ways to get around these rules? Of course. It’s harder to find, but as I delve into the archives of these colleges I find examples of students being punished for drinking, smoking, attending movies, and, of course, hooking up. One student at Bob Jones College was caught climbing out of his girlfriend’s dorm window at midnight. He said they had been praying together. A student at Wheaton remembered his roommate speaking to his girlfriend through a system of prison wall-taps.

All in all, though, the draconian system of student rules meant a different campus experience than at non-fundamentalist colleges. Over the years, the rules have loosened up, but they remain more restrictive than at other schools.

What has been the result? On the one hand, the system of sexual policing seems to pushed sex on campus into dangerous and degrading directions. Bob Jones University, for example, admitted its terrible and terrifying record of ignoring and even tacitly encouraging sexual abuse and victimization.

But we can’t help but think that stricter rules against drugs and alcohol must do something to protect students, as well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for evangelical universities. I’m not evangelical myself; I don’t work at an evangelical college; I don’t dream of a school in which students don’t use drugs or have sex.

However, there seems to be demonstrable evidence that drinking and using drugs leads to risky behaviors. The researchers at Oregon State found direct connections between smoking pot, binge drinking, and unhealthy sexual practices. Students who used more drugs on any given day were more likely to have sex without a condom, for example.

The stricter rules about drugs and sex at evangelical colleges were put in place to protect student morals, not their health. As I’ve argued before, if we want to understand conservative attitudes about sex, we need to shift out of the medical mindset. However, perhaps there has been a positive side-effect.

I would love to see a study like this in which researchers looked at student behavior at a variety of schools. Did school rules against booze and sex discourage risky behaviors? Or did the added illicitness simply push students to take more risks?

Leave a comment


  1. If you find such a study, I hope you publish the results. As a former Fundie, I can assure you that policing of sex, drugs, and alcohol had everything to do with religious morals and not medical safety. After all, the Catholic Church and most conservative Christians still object to easy access to condoms and birth control in schools. Even in the face of AIDS, the Church still objects to condoms, even in marriage.

  2. Patrick

     /  October 12, 2015

    “One student at Bob Jones College was caught climbing out of his girlfriend’s dorm window at midnight. He said they had been praying together.” Ha! You’ve gotta love the stuff you dig up doing this kind of research.

    “But we can’t help but think that stricter rules against drugs and alcohol must do something to protect students.” Yes, and I think anyone would be hard pressed to argue with this point, which ought to be painfully obvious.

  3. I think the BJU sex abuse report makes it very clear that the key enabler of the dysfunction there was “sexual naivete.” Strict rules enforced with reasonable discretion will tend to drive the risk-takers and thrill-seekers “underground,” but it probably becomes more of a self-selecting group of “rebels” who are going to do what they do no matter what. These are not typically the kids who are naive about sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. — or not for long. If you’re going to an illegal off campus party you know what you’re getting into, more or less, so any “innocents” doing that are probably doing so to lose their innocence. That doesn’t mean they’re entirely at fault if they are victimized, but it is not the school’s fault.

    That seems like the typical religious college scenario. The problem with the extremely patriarchal fundamentalist schools like BJU is their repression and ignorance about (mainly male) sexual deviance because they consider anything sexual outside a marriage to be deviant and anything sexual inside a marriage as licit or at least ambiguously acceptable. At the same time they may not recognize certain abusive behavior as sexual at all.

    The BJU report describes predatory pederasts operating rather openly because nobody understands what is happening. Too many people at places like that have no experience or knowledge that certain behaviors are 1) sex/ual and 2) a crime — and then there is a regime of equally ignorant and repressive authorities whose inclination is to blame victims and protect victimizers to bury a scandal.

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