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?