College Sex

More bad news: Sexual assault is more than just another crime on college campuses. It is a crime that has been woven into the fabric of college life itself. Will it cause an exodus to conservative colleges?

The Washington Post recently released the findings of its new poll of college life. After surveying 1,053 students and interviewing fifty, the pollsters concluded that a quarter of college women had suffered “unwanted sexual incidents in college” and a fifth had endured “sexual assault.” That is bad news. The worse news is that the cause of these alarmingly high numbers is college itself. Part of what Americans want out of college has long been a licentious student atmosphere. For Frank the Tank and millions of other Americans, the allure of college includes binge drinking, casual sex, and “streaking the quad.”

These numbers have become—like most contentious issues in education—something of a culture-war football. As the Washington Post report points out, different polls have come up with very different results. The Post poll used a broad definition of sexual assault. Victims are those who have experienced

five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object. . . . assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.

It is this last phrase that has caused the statistical battle. Last year, a government Bureau of Justice Statistics claimed that only 6.1 out of 1,000 college students experienced sexual attacks, a lower number than non-college students of the same age. But the BJS poll did not include sex that occurred when people were too drunk to give consent.

These days, there are orthodox positions on campus sexual assault. Progressives generally push for harsher punishments for perpetrators. Conservatives often lament the absence of due process on campuses. Hardening culture-war positions can be tested with high-profile cases: Do you think Emma Sulkowicz is a hero or a kook? Do you think Lee Bollinger is a monster?

All sides agree, however, that today’s student culture contributes to the problem. It is normal for students to binge drink. It is normal for students to engage in casual sexual encounters. In such an environment, it can be devilishly difficult to determine if and when students crossed a line from casual drunken sex to incapacitated sexual victimization.

For college leaders, this situation presents an unsolvable puzzle. As historian Roger Geiger has argued, by 1890 most schools participated in the emergence of the modern student lifestyle. Instead of days packed with required chapel visits and several recitations, modern colleges and universities offered students an array of possible majors and a much freer daily schedule. As a result, now-familiar student organizations such as fraternities and athletic teams became important parts of college experiences.

What Geiger called the “collegiate revolution” soon became an expected part of a full college experience. University leaders these days might huff and puff about fighting binge drinking. They might offer counseling and classes about appropriate sexual behavior. But if school leaders really cracked down on the drunken partying that leads to so much of this sexual assault, they’d quickly find themselves out of a job. Alumni donors insist on it. Potential students look for it. Like it or not, one of the expected parts of a college education these days is irresponsible behavior.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book these days about a dissenting group of colleges and universities. These conservative evangelical schools—schools such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones University in South Carolina—have often participated in many elements of modern academic life. For example, like mainstream schools, fundamentalist colleges divided their work into academic disciplines. They encouraged faculty research. They insisted that students complete high school before entering college. All of these things seem obvious to us, but they all came as revolutionary changes between roughly 1870 and 1920.

But fundamentalist schools resolutely refused to accept some of the revolutionary changes at mainstream colleges. For instance, they did not agree to the emerging concept of academic freedom for faculty. At fundamentalist colleges, professors had to agree every year to various school creeds. For students, fundamentalist college life also looked very different. Though most fundamentalist schools allowed student clubs and athletic teams, most of them banned fraternities. They also banned smoking, drinking, and sex.

Fundamentalist colleges have plenty of problems of their own when it comes to sexual assault. Most egregiously, as we’ve noted in these pages, some schools have accused victims of causing the problem. Others have participated in the kinds of shameful cover-up common among mainstream colleges as well.

Yet students at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges will not likely suffer from the same sort of drunken, incapacitated sexual assault that seems so depressingly common at mainstream schools. I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out in the past.

I still can’t help but wonder, though: If the sort of sexual assault reported in the WP poll really shocks people, will the teetotaling atmosphere on conservative campuses begin to seem more attractive? Will secular or liberal Protestants think about enrolling their children at conservative schools just to avoid drunken hookups and assaults?

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  1. I think it is the degree of adherence to religious principles that will primarily drive the discussion. I just don’t see a secular student being happy at schools such as BJU or Liberty University.

    • collin237

       /  June 25, 2015

      I agree. I’d wager that most people who go to a university go there for what it uniquely offers, specialized hard-to-find knowledge, either out of curiosity or for use in a highly skilled job. An enforced creed would limit what could be taught and learned, in unpredictable ways.

      I’d also wager that people interested in learning about highly technical math and science are unlikely to drink a lot and have rough sex, and also unlikely to hook up with (or even talk to) anyone except those who share their narrow interests, and vice versa.

  2. Agellius

     /  June 16, 2015

    My son attended a small, conservative Catholic college where alcohol is prohibited on campus, except at school-sponsored events, where ID is checked. You’re not allowed to buy your own booze and consume it on campus even if you’re of legal age. But in fact there are regular drinking parties in the woodsy areas of campus, and everyone knows it. In other words the school is not hard-assed about enforcing the alcohol ban, so you can drink. However if you get sloshed and start getting rowdy, then the school will come down hard on you.

    This type of loose enforcement seems like a reasonable compromise to me. You’re allowed to drink, but not get out of control. It allows students to have a good time, but also teaches the virtue of moderation. I can’t say that no sexual assault ever occurs there, but eliminating the context of general moral abandon and restraint cast to the wind, has to have an effect on the number of incidents.

    The point is taken that a school’s clamping down on alcohol use is liable to narrow its appeal to incoming students. But I wonder by how much. There has to be a good number of parents who would be glad to know that their kids will be spared exposure to some of the more egregious excesses of college life, while also not being forced to live like monks.

    • A drunken crowd off in a woodsy area. How could anything go wrong? smh

      • Agellius

         /  June 16, 2015

        As I said, if people get sloshed and things get rowdy then the school clamps down. The result is that the parties are kept relatively quiet and low-key, and small.

      • I live near Philadelphia. I have lost count of how many students at Philadelphia-area college students have died from alcohol poisoning. It seems to me that the schools do not intervene when a group gets drunk and rowdy. When my husband was stationed in IL for his Air Force National Guard training, one of the troops in the barracks was found dead Tof alcohol poisoning. This was way back in 1982. I don’t believe those who are in authority over these young lives are doing enough.

      • Agellius

         /  June 16, 2015

        I totally agree that generally, schools don’t do enough.

    • sorry about the mangled sentence. I can’t edit here.

    • Most moderate evangelical schools probably see continual attempts by a few individuals to start a party culture every few years and tamp it down again and again. They’re not walled garden of innocents. Tamping down normal adolescent behavior when it gets to a certain level is all it takes to nourish a good campus culture, and any school can do it, with or without a religious basis. Prohibition and eradication of vice is not the goal — just the pragmatic suppression of behavior using the kind of discretion cops use when they’re tamping down rowdies but most concerned with major, flagrant criminality — and keeping it rare, not finding it everywhere and pinning it on the first person they see running.

      I think that kind of prudential “live and let party a little” culture you’re describing Agellius used to be the norm and still is at the better, smallish Catholic and Lutheran colleges as well as some of the bigger Catholic and Southern Baptist ones. They enjoy both diversity and a certain confidence of culture and identity that is not particularly moralistic or dogmatic. These are all huge denominations with an established history and position in the culture. Apart from the Baptists they usually have European roots and may maintain those connections. They were never just schools for teachers, missionaries and seminarians. Maybe a semblance of elitism, class, and high culture can still fortify a college against being overtaken with animal house barbarism, but you can’t really have it without the flipside.

      The schools Adam is looking at are the opposite in these respects; they are much younger and were forged out of missionary purpose and theopolitical reaction from groups that had largely lost or never had contact with a confessional tradition that provides a certain catholicity usually seen as “secularity” and “worldliness” by those of a more pietist cast. That is not to say there will be no drinking, smoking or sex at Liberty, Bob Jones, or Wheaton — of course there is, but it is driven to the highest levels of discretion, taken well off campus, or else it ends with suspensions and expulsions.

      Adam: Liberal Christians are very unlikely to ever send their kids to Liberty or Bob Jones. I am sure many send their kids to Wheaton, but it depends what you mean by “liberal Christian.”

      The Patheos blogger you upset had a point about outliers like PCC and BJU, but today mainstream evangelical colleges seem very unlikely to handle sexual assault repressively or misogynistically.

    • collin237

       /  June 26, 2015

      Everyone — including me for a while — seems to have been taken in by the Conservative claims that Liberals are too weak to solve these types of problems.

      But of course, there is a Liberal solution! Take the places away! Get rid of the community-houses and woodsy courtyards, and you can expect no more drinking. Get rid of the dorms (all of them, not just the coed dorms), and you can expect no more sex.

  3. I was an undergrad during the late ’70s, when the freedoms fought for in the ’60s were a given. In the dorms, which were the most restrictive living environment in town, you couldn’t throw rowdy parties and you needed a key to get in the door after 10 pm. Booze and weed were against the rules, but easily obtained. In fact, I left the dorms because of the weed; the smell nauseates me, and on any given Friday or Saturday night, the corridors would be blue with the smoke.

    There were sexual assaults. They were rare and terrified people. Women traveled in groups, and looked out for each other. In fact, suicide was far more prevalent than sexual assault. But there was a different attitude about relationships then. Sex wasn’t an automatic assumption after a nice evening. Not that people weren’t having it, but it was pretty much consensual. And it was considered the mark of an advanced relationship.

    Maybe it *was* the weed.

  1. Are Schools Guilty in Sexual Assault Cases? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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