The XX Factor

A Sex Scandal from 1960s Yale Is a Window Into a World With No Internet 

Beinecke Library, 1963.
Beinecke Library, 1963.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Before Emma Sulkowicz hefted her mattress across Columbia’s campus in protest of an alleged rape, before the captain of Yale’s men’s basketball team was expelled for alleged sexual misconduct—even before the Department of Education issued its 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter urging colleges to take sexual assault more seriously, precipitating hundreds of investigations across the country—there was the case of Suzi, a 14-year-old from a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, who offered blowjobs to an unknown number of men at Yale in 1959 and 1960.

In a new feature for Tablet Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer—who teaches at Yale and has contributed to Slate—tells the story of what he calls “the original American campus sex scandal.” The case differed from the kind that has become so common today: Suzi didn’t accuse the Yale students of rape or assault—or, in fact, of anything. “I was not a victim,” she told Oppenheimer. “I pursued these people.” At 14 she was a minor and, in her own words, “very sexual”; some of the men told Oppenheimer they thought she was older, though many also remembered her, troublingly, as seeming “confused” or “disturbed.” She looked up the men’s dormitory phone numbers in the New Haven Whitepages and, as both she and the men represent the story, essentially invited herself over.

Examining our present-day efforts to reform campus culture through this midcentury lens, Oppenheimer finds many things that have changed for the better—and some that have, arguably, changed for the worse. In particular, he questions how a saturated media culture and an omnipresent Internet have made it harder for both men and women to move on after shame and trauma experienced in youth. Though twenty male undergraduates were convicted in court of “lascivious carriage” and forced to take some time off from school, most eventually graduated from Yale; Oppenheimer, who tracked many of them down, writes, “After graduation, no Google search had informed prospective employers about their criminal pasts, and they went on to lead lives of distinction: several architects, a doctor, a small-business owner, a painter.” Oppenheimer also wanted to know whether anonymity had benefited Suzi. “It occurred to me that maybe, if you came of age before everyone talked about trauma, there was less of it,” he muses. As his piece makes clear, our heightened debate over sexual culture—despite forward progress—has cost all involved “the luxury of forgetting.”

In tracking the lives affected by the scandal across almost sixty years, Oppenheimer is able to show how hard it is to predict who will experience trauma as an indelible mark and for whom it will slide off the surface. One man who agreed to speak with Oppenheimer—identified by a pseudonym—seems to have felt that the incident, and the hiatus from Yale, did him good. “I took the time and went into the Army, served my two years there, came back, and was a much calmer, more studious person,” he said. The man who, in Oppenheimer’s estimation, “suffered the most from the episode” expressed regret about its impact on his relationship with the woman he was dating at the time, whom he later married, and who has since died of breast cancer. “We were married twenty years. But first we were separated, married other people, partially as a result of this,” he said.

Oppenheimer seems fairly certain that the Internet would have amplified the damage on everyone—and perhaps especially on Suzi, who seems to have lived largely unencumbered by this history. She found her way to San Francisco in the Haight-Ashbury days, fell in love, and, as Oppenheimer writes, is “in a longer, more stable marriage, as far as I can tell, than any of the men I talked to who were arrested for being with her. Insofar as she thinks about her mental state, she judges herself to be well.”

This is not to say that the impulses toward privacy that have allowed Suzi and the men to move on with their lives are entirely or even primarily good ones. Oppenheimer writes that, for Yale, “[i]t was not a paramount concern that the men who had received oral sex from an adolescent be prosecuted or even shamed. On this matter, it was left to their fellow students … to be the university’s conscience.” Many aspects of the story, from a Time Magazine quote that calls Suzi a “nymphet,” to the very charge of “lascivious carriage”—a catchall criminalization of any sexual behavior that offended the era’s decorous prudishness—bespeak a time when the identities of sexually predatory men were protected for all the wrong reasons.

By contrast, current media practices reflect, at least in part, a growing awareness that publicly naming and shaming accused men can provide prophylactic protection for women, and that telling individual stories provides opportunities for precisely the education and discussion that Yale men lacked in 1960. That national conversation wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. Oppenheimer doesn’t say that the loss of certain privacies constitutes a bad trade. But his piece does express the ways that social progress is far from a straight line, and how, in the lives of individuals, the public nature of our current conversation about sexual culture can make it exceedingly hard to move forward.