“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.
Thank you for this post.
While I agree that the sexual culture of college campuses makes addressing sexual violence incredibly difficult, I would want to argue that the push for clear consent (yes means yes!) can do more work than you’re granting.
Apologies! I accidentally hit the submit button before I intended to.
First, as you note, putting the emphasis on affirmative consent will help to adjudicate clear cut instances of sexual assault on college campuses. However, I think it’s also worth noting that many of the cases that have raised the ire of activists and politicians are exactly these kinds of clear cut cases that schools have failed to take seriously (both in terms of justice for students have been assaulted and in terms of keeping campus safe from known rapists, who statistically are likely to continue to assault).
It seems to me that what we’ve been calling “hook up culture” needs to be more carefully analyzed for patterns of sexism that instrumentalizes women’s bodies and normalizes violence as a typical part of sexuality. A great many accounts of this culture include instances that indicate that not only does “hooking up” instrumentalize sexual partners, but instrumentalists women in particular: women’s sexual pleasure is presumed not to matter while men’s is taken for granted as a necessity; women’s outfits at theme parties include only options that indicate their sexual availability; accounts indicate that men go to such parties explicitly looking for women who are drunk enough to have sex with; and many cases of the so-called “blurry” case of sexual violence include instances where male students simply did not bother to ask for consent, but presumed that the bodies of their classmates were available to them. In short, the sexual consumption of female bodies (in ways that is on a continuum with violence if not always meeting the explicit policy standards for rape) is a condition that is taken for granted in the “hook up culture.” As such, I think is is a mistake for us to attend to “hook up culture” as constituted by promiscuity; rather it is constituted by normalized patterns of violence against women.
As such, pushing for a standard of “yes means yes!” can, I think do a great deal more work than simply help adjudicate cases. It also has the power to, at least begin, to shift away from standards in which women’s bodies are presumed to be available (and the same goes for not presuming the availability of men’s bodies). And this presumed UNavailability of potential sexual partners can begin to shift, if unable to completely transform, the patterns of sexual violence and power on campuses.
Jason, thank you for this post. While I agree the problem is bigger than consent, I completely agree with Megan McCabe’s points. Part of why “yes means yes” is crucially important and a necessary step to dealing with basically any of these bigger cultural questions – is because of the normative patriarchy at play. Many of these cases, and all of the ones involving scandalous inaction by the universities, aren’t “both were too drunk.” The studies show that often both are not equally drunk and the mixing of alcohol and use of other drugs are designed to incapacitate and lower the ability of the young woman to say no, to resist…and the cultural assumption is that this somehow implies consent (cue horrific CeLo Green twitter incidental of this week).
A “Yes means Yes” standard would place responsibility upon the men, who thus far evade most responsibility as the culture places the responsibility of avoiding rape on women – its her responsibility to not get raped and therefore the victim is blamed when she is -she didn’t fight hard enough, she didn’t say NO clearly enough, she couldn’t stop him (the presumption here is as Megan stated above that women’s bodies are available to men, unless its forcibly proven otherwise)…….Yes means Yes moves a clear responsibility upon men NOT TO BE RAPISTS. (This is an important and necessary step, in my opinion, for both the dignity of women and the dignity of men).
The danger I see is in thinking yes means yes is sufficient to solve the problem. It isn’t – but I do think it is necessary. Lets start with “yes means yes” and then keep moving to create a culture where violence and sexual exploitation is not normative.
I tell my students all the time that Catholic moral theology requires MORE of them – that its not about the minimum required….but that “minimum” still needs to be ensconced in law and enforced — And I’d like to see our Catholic colleges and universities step up and make clear that they will first enforce these laws and second set about building a more just community (but that first step has to come first).
I chime in with Meghan and Megan. There isn’t much to add to their comments, but I will say that in a post that is meant to broaden the discussion to issues beyond consent, it does not help your point that you compare the choice to have sex to an act between an adult and lunch meat.
Megan and Meghan,
Thanks for the comments. I consider them welcome expansions of what I was trying to say. Let me quote two comments for emphasis:
From Megan: “I think is is a mistake for us to attend to “hook up culture” as constituted by promiscuity; rather it is constituted by normalized patterns of violence against women.”
From Meghan: “The danger I see is in thinking yes means yes is sufficient to solve the problem. It isn’t – but I do think it is necessary. Lets start with “yes means yes” and then keep moving to create a culture where violence and sexual exploitation is not normative.”
Yes! And Yes!