“It is going to take time for colleges to catch up to the epidemic of sexual assault,” so argues a recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even though the study noting 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault on college campuses was published in 2007, colleges and universities only now seem to be responding because of the Department of Education’s investigation into several institutions of higher education for Title IX violations. As a result, they are just now grasping the difficulties of responding to sexual assaults.
One the key problems they will face emerged in articles by the Chronicle and NPR about men who feel that colleges are now biased against them, judging them guilty of rape when the act was consensual. The crux of the issue is consent. It is what California was trying to clarify in its “yes means yes” policy. It is what will make this process tough.
Consent is not simple or straightforward. Action involves understanding and affectivity, draws on past experiences and projects future possibilities, and emerges from some understanding of self and world. Moreover, all these dimensions are not created in people ex nihilo but are formed and constrained by other people and culture.
Think about choosing what to have for lunch. We are driven by hunger. We are driven by memories of what food tastes like as well as past associations we have with food. We project into the future about what foods will and won’t satisfy us. We are driven by health concerns, body concerns, or athletic concerns. We are limited to the food we have at home or the restaurants around us or the time we have. We are constrained by being at work or by our families or social lives. Even something like lunch entails a surprising amount of variables and discernment. And this is just a choice. It is, at most, only half of what goes into consenting to do something with someone.
In sexual assaults on campus, in the midst of hookup culture, consent is even more complex. The situation is usually that. . .
two students involved knew each other before the sexual encounter. Some were in relationships, but most were just acquaintances who shared a group of friends—and maybe had had sex before. Typically, both were drinking, often to excess, and what actually happened . . . . is an ambiguous he-said, she-said muddle of events.
This is not to say sexual assault does not happen—it clearly does—nor that consent is not important—it is clearly important to choose what one does and does not do. It is just that consent in situations like these is not only difficult to discern but also fails to sufficiently explain what is occurring.
Hookup culture operates in so many ways. It has pushed from campuses almost every other option for meeting people , and, as a result, opting out of hookup culture is a kind of opting out of campus life. Hooking up becomes the first step to see if someone likes you or if you really like another person. It is risky, so almost every act is saturated with alcohol to encourage or shield participants.
Add to this that students are told that college is transitory, not real life, and so they should not take it seriously. Also, it is over in four years, and everyone is expected to move on. In the midst of this, students are still trying to figure out what they want to be or have just begun preparing for their future professions. In short, everything is in flux: what they want, who they are, and their role in the world.
Trying to understand a sexual act in the midst of all this through a single “yes” or “no” consent, an existential choice of the will, cannot help but be insufficient. Consent can clarify egregious cases of sexual assault but cannot handle the more complex ones. Nor is it able to explain the epidemic of assaults that continues afflicting campuses.
At the very least, a decent understanding of sex, incorporating but going beyond consent, is need. It is an understanding that indicates sex has meaning and purpose because it involves people, whole people, with selves as well as bodies, with hopes and beliefs as well as desires and needs. It is an understanding that even at its most basic level, because it is connected to people, eschews sex with those unable to consent, those whose consent is unclear, and even those whose level of interest is uncertain. It would imply not just the minimum expectation of avoiding assaulting someone but a positive norm that sex should nourish those involved. It would imply both “do no harm” and “care for another”. This understanding would aid in handling ambiguity and thwart the epidemic of sexual assault as it provides more means for evaluating sex than a single word before an act.
I am not sure how secular institutions can articulate such a theory, even though I think they need one to deal with sexual assaults. Catholic colleges and university are part of a tradition with countless resources for developing such an understanding of sex for campus life. I hope this advantage makes these Catholic institutions foremost in stopping sexual assault.