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President Obama’s administration has launched a public awareness campaign, “It’s On Us,” against the epidemic of rape on college campuses. “It’s On Us” emphasizes the role other students can play in defusing violent situations before they start. “It takes a village” becomes “It takes a student body.”
The campaign is well intentioned, may do some good, and will leave the root causes of the problem unaddressed.
The issue of “rape culture” on college campuses swept into public consciousness through the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which states that nearly 20% of college women in its survey experienced rape or attempted rape.
Whether that high a percentage of young women are being victimized is much debated. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, using a standard rule of thumb for reported versus actual cases (12%), ran the numbers for Ohio State. He came up with the far lower percentage of 2.9%.
Still, a serious problem exists.
To their credit, the young women who have been victimized are refusing to be ignored. They have used the Title IX prohibition against sexual discrimination in university life to report the inadequate and frequently hostile responses of educational institutions to their allegations.
The autobiographical essay, “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,” by Angi Epifano, details her Kafkaesque treatment at the hands of multiple deans and counselors, all of whom seemed more interested in preserving Amherst’s stellar graduation rate (95%) than in her welfare. The essay resonated with young women across the nation who had been similarly treated.
At present, more than seventy major universities and colleges are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for such Title IX violations, a list that includes Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and UC Berkeley.
Naturally, the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses has prompted a search for remedies.
Every examination of this issue has noted the close relationship of “hookup culture” with violent sexual assaults. Over the last four decades, dating and romance have gradually vanished from college social life, replaced by parties where college men and women meet, drink heavily, and then, in Lady Gaga’s words (from “Do What U Want”), “get naughty.”
Universities countenance, and—in their non-judgmental way—even affirm the desirability of casual sex. A women’s counselor at Dartmouth, for example, explains that what’s important about a hookup is that “each person gets something out of it. If it’s to get off, then that’s great. . . . If it’s to work some issue out—like sexual assault—then that’s great. It’s basically to get pleasure and enjoyment out of it . . . the hookup culture is good for experimentation, and what someone does for experimentation is up to them." The counselor does admit, however, that she never got much out of her own hookups.
At Yale University (and I would guess elsewhere), vats of condoms are put out each Friday in the dormitories to keep the weekend’s romps “safe.”
Universities do add some cautions. During orientation week, a dean of students will typically warn about the “red zone”—the weeks between the start of fall semester and Thanksgiving when freshmen, indulging in newfound freedoms, are often preyed upon.
Obviously, the incidence of rape is rising, at least in part, because encounters that may begin as friendly hookups can turn violent. Young women may decide they’d rather not have sex, even if they do not say so (panic and terror can result in silence as well as screams), and young men either miss the woman’s protests, because they are drunk and oblivious, or simply do not care.
What constitutes “consensual sex” hinges on the definition of “consent.” The California legislature recently passed a law establishing an “affirmative consent” standard at California campuses. Each partner must say “yes” at each stage of a sexual encounter. Silence cannot be taken for a “yes,” although a nod, a smile, or another gesture may substitute for a spoken “yes.” The legislature seems to imagine that every sexual encounter will proceed like Molly Bloom’s famously ecstatic ending to “Ulysses.”
Awareness campaigns, federal investigations, legislation, and other palliatives have hardly curtailed debate about “rape culture” on campus. Feminists point to lingering patriarchal attitudes and the self-protective nature of educational institutions that often result, they believe, in the victim being blamed for her own assault. In turn, organizations like FIRE have sprung up to protect the rights of young men accused of rape and they point out that (as in the famous Duke lacrosse case) claims of rape can be false.
Almost no one is saying that perhaps bringing thousands of young men and women together in freely accessed dormitories or frats, turning a blind eye to unlimited alcohol consumption, and proclaiming “the hookup culture is good for experimentation and what someone does for experimentation is up to them,” may not be the best idea. (Nathan Harden in “God and Sex at Yale” is a notable exception.) After all, what could go wrong?
Maybe spawning an epidemic of rape?
No one wants to say this, because that would truly mean “It’s on us”: that we as a society are responsible for the epidemic. That does not mean that individuals are not fully responsible for their own actions. It does mean that by accepting flawed—indeed, poisonous—ideas about the nature of human destiny, we have created the hookup culture that predisposes both young men and women to exploitative and violent behavior. The very people who are most involved in the debate over rape culture, particularly feminists, are among those most deeply implicated in creating hookup culture and its unintended consequences.
It is not hard to find frank defenders of hookup culture. These range from the eternally blithe Dick Cavett, who praises the “effective consent” policy of an Ivy League school (likely Yale, again), and the relief from sexual tension today’s students enjoy through casual encounters. “I am always shocked that there are still a handful of defenders of the dubious practice of abstinence, surely the worst idea since chocolate-covered ants.”
Or the far more earnest Hanna Rosin, who argues for hookup culture on the basis of sexual politics. Writing in The Atlantic, Rosin considers Caitlin Flanagan’s counter-argument in “Girl Land” that sexual liberation has mainly freed men to act like cads. “But this analysis downplays the unbelievable gains women have lately made, and, more important, it forgets how much those gains depend on sexual liberation. Single young women in their sexual prime…are for the first time in history more successful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”
It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that young women are as responsible for hookup culture as men. In her explosive New York Times Magazine article, Kate Taylor examined the lives of women at the University of Pennsylvania. She found that these gifted young women thought in narrowly careerist terms. “They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.”
So many of the women Kate Taylor interviewed preferred to have “hookup buddies,” young men with whom they could have regular sex without any emotional attachment. One woman admitted that, “We don’t really like each other in person, sober.” Others said that they purposely chose hookup buddies they thought of as inferior–men with whom they could never have a deeper relationship. Yet, they were aware of drawbacks. “Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.”
The relationship of hookup culture to rape culture on campus remains unexamined because no one wants to re-think the “unbelievable gains” women have made because of sexual liberation. This goes beyond women’s ability to compete for the best and most lucrative jobs. It extends to their ability to enjoy sex with no strings attached, just like men. Oddly, casual sex, divorced not only from marriage and procreation but emotional attachment and even basic compatibility, has become the sine qua non of feminism for thinkers like Rosin. For them, it gives the lie to traditional arguments about the differences between the sexes and their implications for how we arrange society. It’s proof that freedom means the ability to do anything you want as long as it “doesn’t harm anybody else.”
Hookups are harmful, though, for both men and women, because they are by nature exploitative even when consensual. That both partners are willing to treat each other as sexual objects, without regard for the other person’s emotions (those “strings”), does not make such encounters any the less degrading–it just means that each partner has volunteered for his or her own degradation. Conscience witnesses within us that no one should be treated as a mere instrument of our own pleasure. Using another human being in this way is in itself a form of violence as it deprives the other person of his or her full humanity. Consent does not change this. If someone volunteered to be my slave I would still not be right in putting a chain around his neck. Even if Planned Parenthood recommended that I add bondage to my sexual repertoire.
The incipient violence of exploitation all too easily becomes the outright violence of rape. If I am the typically half-civilized Neanderthal most 18 – 22 year-old young men are, and I am in a mini-society in which it’s normal for people to exploit one another as sex objects, I might not be as careful as we would all like in seeking a young woman’s affirmative consent at each stage of a sexual encounter.
Why can’t—or won’t—people see this?
Partly, because there’s an antinomian in us all. We want what we want because we want it and no one had better get in our way.
More sensibly, because of the truly good things Hanna Rosin and the young women at Penn desire: interesting work and financial stability.
It’s clear, though, that for Rosin and many others the feminist ideal of liberation consists solely in power. Career becomes a god—the be-all of human destiny. The good things Hanna Rosin & Co. want have become idols.
Idols that demand sacrifice. President Obama’s argument for abortion proceeds along exactly the same lines, as he believes that abortion enables women to compete on an equal footing with men. The President has even worried aloud that its restraint could impede the career ambitions of his daughters. Again, career is everything. That’s why “It’s On Us” will have nothing to say about how the hookup culture violates human dignity and leads to sexual violence. No one wants to think very hard about underlying assumptions and the god being worshipped.
There’s an ultimate sense in which “It’s On Us” applies to Christians as well. We must think more deeply and concretely about the changing roles of men and women. It’s a good thing that women are being more effectively educated in Western society than ever before and prepared for its complex responsibilities. This presents challenges, though, in the length of the training required to assume these responsibilities, and the competing goods of marriage and family. If left unaddressed, these challenges will keep disposing people towards promiscuity. We cannot simply restate Christian principles.
Pope Francis has been reminding the world of the joy and importance of family. He has called on everyone, especially young people, to put family ahead of materialism. To start having children instead of pets!
His message seems obvious, but it’s one young people are conditioned not to hear. I watched Neil Cavuto’s young panelists, the “Hexed Generation” on Fox News, respond to the pope’s advice. While far more conservative than most 20-somethings, Cavuto’s panelists could not imagine following Pope Francis’s advice. They had no frame of reference for what he was saying, because they considered financial stability a must before they could even consider marriage.
It’s on us to help young people imagine a future in which career and family find their proper balance. That’s a big and important project, and one we have hardly begun. Pointing out that secular thinking makes a wrathful god out of career can only be the beginning of the discussion. People strive for what they believe to be in their best interests.
We must present Christianity as a bright vision of human fulfillment, with specific application to what’s being asked of young people today. We must create once more the imaginative possibility that men and women can marry at a reasonably early age, and build their lives together as they begin to have children. That means real changes in our educational and economic systems.
Otherwise, the ravaging of our humanity will continue.
Harold Fickett is publisher of Aleteia’s English edition.