Sexual Assault and College Practices

To effect a real change in behavior, colleges must not only change the messages they send—they must establish new patterns for college life.

Several weeks ago, Public Discourse published a pair of essays written by Adelaide Mena and Caitlin Seery La Ruffa addressing sexual assault on college campuses. The first outlined the relationship between “hook-up culture” and “rape culture,” and the second proposed several potential solutions to the problem. Specifically, the second article advocates changing the messages college administrators send to students about sexual activity on campus, particularly during freshman orientation programs. Mena and La Ruffa write that “if we can change the conversation, we can change the culture.”

Mena and La Ruffa correctly suggest that a change in both message and tone are necessary if we hope to reform the campus cultures that enable sexual assault. They offer several practical suggestions that will go a long way toward encouraging students to adopt a mindset of respect for each individual’s human dignity.

Unfortunately, however, changing the way people think often does not lead directly to a change in the way they act. Even if colleges begin to send students the correct messages, students will find it all too easy to fall into the patterns of college life that they have been taught to desire and expect for years before entering college. To effect a real change in behavior, colleges must fundamentally reshape the desires of their students by establishing new patterns for college life.

How People Are Formed

James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom that our day-to-day cultural practices play a more fundamental role in shaping what kind of people we are than our thoughts or beliefs. This conclusion is based on an Augustinian philosophical anthropology, which classifies human beings as ultimately loving, desiring creatures, rather than primarily thinking or believing creatures. While we may also be thinking and believing creatures, and while our thoughts and beliefs unquestionably shape our lives, our loves and desires play a preeminent role in determining our identity. As Smith writes, “who we are . . . is what we love,” and “what we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like.”

If we begin with an improper philosophical anthropology—that is, an erroneous view of what makes us human—we will inevitably develop insufficient solutions to the human problems we seek to solve. Smith argues that philosophical anthropologies that construe human beings as primarily thinking or believing creatures are both “stunted” and “reductionistic,” because they present an incomplete picture of the human person. Such stunted anthropologies lead to an emphasis on messages and ideas that neglects the role that our daily cultural practices play in shaping and forming us individually and communally. This does not mean that messages and ideas are unimportant or without consequence, but they are less formative than we like to think. For this reason, we can often live our lives in ways that are wholly incommensurate with our intellectual picture of the good life.

By beginning with a philosophical anthropology that acknowledges the importance of our embodiment, we come to see how our daily cultural practices can impact us in profound ways. Because we are concrete individuals who inhabit the physical world primarily as doers, we are unconsciously influenced by the things we do each day. Most of our actions do not arise from conscious deliberation or intellectual consideration, but from the habits we have formed over time. These habits include patterns of thinking—since thinking is something else that we do—as well as patterns of physical behavior. The things we repeatedly do serve as formative “pedagogies of desire,” capturing our imagination with a certain picture of the good life and shaping us into certain kinds of people.

Students Enter College Pre-Formed

The problem of campus sexual assault is complex in part because students enter college with pre-formed desires for a particular vision of the good life and human flourishing. They have been engaged in formative cultural practices for many years before moving into the dorm or joining a fraternity or sorority. Many have already been taught to see the college experience itself—with all of its parties and accompanying sexual escapades—as a vision of the good life. The students have imbibed countless Animal House-style stories that have done far more to shape their desires and affections than whatever rational discourse they may have received from parents or mentors. Such stories tend to portray sexual fulfillment as the ultimate expression of the good life, even at the cost of instrumentalizing fellow human beings for one’s hedonistic ends.

Paradoxically, this incredibly high view of sexuality is presented in harmony with a view that treats sex as an inconsequential recreational activity, as Mena and La Ruffa explained. This vision of sexuality has permeated the imaginations of most students entering college and taught them to desire that lifestyle. It should be unsurprising that after entering the unsupervised college environment, they live out those desires. It should be similarly unsurprising that such a discordant view of sexuality leads to the devastating consequences of sexual assault and rape.

Unless we restructure the campus practices that reinforce students’ disordered vision of the good life, campus sexual assault and rape will not diminish. Reframing the dialogue over sexual activity on campus—as Mena and La Ruffa suggested—may introduce just enough cognitive dissonance into the lives of students to spur some change, but if we are to hope for significant reform, dialogue must be reinforced by restructuring the formative aspects of college life.

Restructuring College Life

Colleges train students through a multitude of different pedagogies of desire, not just inside the classroom, but through the students’ daily activities in dorms, fraternities, sororities, dining halls, and sporting arenas. These activities form college students into certain kinds of people, whether they (or their parents, or the faculty and administration) realize it or not. Current campus practices—particularly the weekend routine of parties and hook-ups—serve only to reinforce a sex-saturated vision of the good life.

Life at college is built around personal fulfillment, whether through academic achievement, personal athletic accomplishments, or a host of other activities. Even community service is often done with the intent of building a résumé for personal success, not simply for the sake of helping those in need. Coupled with the view that sex is integral to living the good life, these practices create a dangerous environment in which students may be blinded to the damage they can cause when they use others as a means to achieving personal fulfillment.

Thus, one of the most important ways we might go about reforming both campus culture and students’ desires may be to engage students in activities that do not center on their own personal fulfillment. Integrating service projects into college life is one possible avenue for such reform, provided that the projects can be decoupled from students’ personal objectives so the focus is truly on those being served. This could be accomplished by making these projects both mandatory and regular. In making service projects mandatory, the field would be leveled such that students could not use service as a competitive advantage over others. In making the projects a regular fixture of college life, students—even those reluctant or unwilling to participate—will, over time, be formed by the practice. Faculty members should be encouraged to participate in projects alongside students. This would set up faculty members as examples for students to emulate as well as provide a link for students between the classroom and the rest of college life.

This suggestion may seem odd, since it does not directly address college hook-up culture, sexual assault, or rape. However, the key to its potential effectiveness is that it would do more than send a message—it would constitute a way of life. It would serve a pedagogical function that runs counter to the pedagogies of desire many students have been shaped by for most of their lives. In this way, the college could serve as a counter-formative institution, reshaping students’ desires for a vision of the good life where the dignity of each person is upheld. In fact, the college may be ideally suited to such a task, since, as Mena and La Ruffa note, change can happen very rapidly as the student body turns over every four years.

Of course, this is just a start. But the main point is this: additional solutions will need to address the messages students are sent about sexual activity on campus, but they will also need to do more. They will need to aim at students’ hearts, seeking to capture them with desire for a picture of the good life in which human dignity is respected and the welfare of others is a chief concern. We will never be able to find a foolproof solution, but we can certainly improve the situation college students face. While current campus practices are doubtless part of the problem, they can—indeed, they must—be part of the solution.

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