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Casual Sex and the Crisis of Campus Sexual Assault

Many critics of the new Title IX revisions regarding campus sexual assault think that a healthy hook-up culture is achievable. However, they must contend with the fact that sexual assault and casual sex share an underlying premise: sexual desire takes priority over other considerations.

The latest attempt to reaffirm due process in Title IX proceedings has drawn vehement opposition from advocacy groups, politicians, and various media outlets, who claim that the Department of Education’s new revisions will reverse progress that has enabled victims of sexual assault to bring their offenders to justice. The ACLU has also claimed that such changes would “inflict significant harm” and “dramatically undermine” the civil rights of victims, while Syracuse University’s The Daily Orange denounced the complex, 2,033-page document as a “step backward,” and Jess Davidson of the Washington Post accused it of “sweeping rape under the rug.” While underestimating the necessity of the changes, these critics fail to observe that sexual assault and casual sex share an underlying premise: sexual desire takes priority over other considerations.

 New Title IX Regulations

Title IX simply reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Discerning how Title IX should bear on sexual assault is a thorny business, especially as disagreements about the definition of sexual misconduct, and of what constitutes fairness, abound. Few would disagree that Title IX should remain intact, but the questions of who needs its protections, and to what extent, have been the subject of contentious debate. The new regulations are intended to bolster fairness by protecting accused students’ rights to due process, but Title IX professionals and victim advocates argue that the new regulations will traumatize victims and dissuade them from coming forward.

Some of the most controversial provisions include the replacement of a single-investigator model with a cross-examination model by representatives for the accuser and the accused, the shift from a “preponderance of evidence” standard to a “clear and convincing” standard, the exclusion of study abroad and off-campus homes from college jurisdiction, the end of “mandatory reporting” by designated faculty and staff who hear of allegations, and a definition of harassment narrowed to misconduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to deny equal access to the school’s educational program or activity.

Addressing a symptom, however well-funded and resourced we may be, will not repair the root of the matter. A campus culture in which casual sex is unequivocally accepted, or at least free from judgment, will inevitably cause immense pain and sorrow.

 

Since the execution of the law is often imperfect, and its agents are themselves imperfect, we cannot expect Title IX proceedings to solve every form of sexual misconduct under the sun. Addressing a symptom, however well-funded and well-resourced we may be, will not repair the root of the matter. A campus culture in which casual sex is unequivocally accepted, or at least free from judgment, will inevitably cause immense pain and sorrow. In a campus culture where dialogue is eschewed for dogma on matters of sex, it is no wonder that so many students, especially women, find it difficult to articulate their experiences of assault. If sex is so unequivocally good, to be protected at all costs, then why are so many college women subjected to sexual violence?

If sex is so unequivocally good, to be protected at all costs, then why are so many college women subjected to sexual violence?

 

New Standards, New Methods

Given how unfortunately common sexual assault has been in the unique setting of a college campus, the question of how to address sexual assault there, as opposed to in a normal civic setting, has plagued and challenged colleges for years. The irate responses of students and administrators to what they perceive as a grave threat to victims’ sense of mental, emotional, and physical safety reveal the severity of sexual misconduct on college campuses and the frustrations students feel in articulating the changes that need to occur. As with ordinary legal disputes, there is a high potential for conflicting narratives between accuser and accused in campus sexual assault cases. To balance moral outrage at the lack of due process with the harsh realities undergirding victims’ horrific experiences, we must both acknowledge the difficulties faced by victims who are expected to bring their cases forward, and recognize the legal rights of the accused. Beyond these important considerations, we should also be critical of campus authorities who proclaim a gospel of absolute sexual freedom, but overlook the dangers that arise from its practical and logical inconsistencies. Such a status quo enables rapists to prey on unwitting victims, and obscures the reality of use and abuse inherent in a sexually preoccupied culture.

In May 2019, a group of Princeton students, dissatisfied with their University’s implementation of the Title IX process, started Princeton IX Now, listing eleven demands to make Princeton more “non-violent, non-carceral, accountable, [and] people-centered.” On May 11 of this year, Princeton Students for Title IX Reform (PIXR) reiterated a number of these proposals in an article for the Daily Princetonian, stating that Princeton “can prevent violence by tackling destructive campus norms”—by training and educating students, faculty, and staff on “violence, gender, and intersecting systems of abuse via increased funding to the Gender and Sexuality Studies program.” The primary assumption underlying this approach is that casual sex is not the problem, but human motivations are.

While it is true that the inordinate desire for sex is an enormous problem in the case of sexual assault, blind acceptance of the blasé culture that casual sex creates brushes off the obviously nefarious forms of use and abuse inherent in it. This simple fact renders PIXR and Princeton’s initiatives futile. Pouring increased funding into a “healthy hookup” culture will only end in disappointment and heartache, because such a culture is unattainable. The students’ proposed method will fail to get at the root of sexual misunderstandings, and will fall short of curbing sexual misconduct in the university setting. Rather, the university should focus on promoting healthy, committed relationships—a solution that requires little funding and much less interference from a pseudo-parental campus bureaucracy.

In an email to the student body, President Christopher Eisgruber announced an “Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Climate, Culture, and Conduct,” whose membership will include a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and post-docs. Vice President of Student Life Rochelle Calhoun also consulted Dr. Jennifer S. Hirsch (who gave a talk on campus earlier this year) and Shamus Khan, co-authors of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, to “learn . . . about climate and culture and conduct on this campus” and to “look at the implications of prevention and community building on our campus . . . as foundational work for the fall.” Like countless campus sexual health counselors, Hirsch affirms “healthy hookups,” in spite of her chief insight that people’s different “sexual projects” inevitably conflict, leading to sexual misunderstandings and misconduct. Somehow, this leads her to imagine that a healthy, non-vampiric hookup culture is achievable. The problem is, it isn’t.

The False Promises of Sexual Liberation

Sex by its nature is a gift of oneself to another, properly reserved for marriage because it finds its fullest, most meaningful expression in a committed relationship that involves the total sharing of life. Spousal sex is coherent with the premise of marriage: to share life totally with one another, for the sake of one another, and of all that their union may bring. Spouses give themselves to one another in sex knowing that their union may result in new life in the form of a child, and in a renewed sense of unity and purpose.

Spousal sex declares, “I am for you. You are for me. We are for each other.” Outside of marriage, and in the absence of a life fully given for each other—where family, finances, and futures are bound together by vows—sex can only be a chimeric glimpse of the possibility of a deeper promise. Committing to casual sex means giving the lead to sexual desire, whose naturally voracious appetite leaps at the most meager sign of interest rather than heeding the ends envisaged by sexual union: total gift, one for another, for our delight and for the delight of our friends, our family, and society.

We have heard so many stories of encounters gone wrong. The New Yorker’s “Cat Person,” and an anonymous account of a bad date with Aziz Ansari for Babe.net, are a couple of notorious examples. The former, described in Slate as the story of “how two people who don’t know or seemingly even really like each other can end up in bed,” somewhat applies to the Babe.net story. Readers of either story find both female narrators tracking the red flags that lead to these unsettling encounters, yet none of these red flags interrupted the inertial combination of curiosity and desire that drove each woman toward a disappointing conclusion. Without a doubt, the women in each of these stories experienced sexual misconduct. Such misunderstandings and misconduct are apt to occur more often than not in a climate of sexual permissiveness, such as ours, because, as human beings, we are bound to feel short-changed and degraded by false promises.

The balance sexual health counselors have sought to achieve, between absolute freedom of sexual expression and reasonable restrictions on sexual behavior, cannot be squared with the reality that one’s supposed right to “sexual autonomy and pleasure” may, and often does, conflict with the rights of another. As rates of sexual assault and sexual dissatisfaction are alarmingly high, both students and administrations should recognize the implicit, pernicious mindset that underlies them: that the unfettered and unbothered pursuit of sexual desire is more important than the consequences.

Most would agree that this mentality motivates the behavior of an abuser, but it also foments sexual misunderstandings, which lead to dissatisfaction even after a casual, consensual sexual encounter. In addition, what begins with consent may quickly take on a coercive character. One participant may feel that a healthy, well-considered, non-violating pursuit of sexual pleasure conflicts with that of his or her hookup partner during or after the encounter. That sexual desire would take priority over other considerations should come as no surprise, since it is the very premise on which casual sex is based.

How to Respond

Eliminating sexual misconduct ultimately does not come down to mere education on the subject of sexual assault, because specialized education does not address the often misguided motivations for casual sex: loneliness, a longing for adventure or risk, or just reckless fun. If these motives were properly addressed, students could have the opportunity to reflect honestly on them, on the nature and limits of human sexuality, and on what it means to be a good citizen and a respectful, worthy lover. In accordance with the reality that human beings are emotional as well as physical beings, university-sponsored freshman orientation events should distribute resources for healthy dating practices as often as they host panels on sexual practices and sexual health. If students and administrators alike deem sexual issues worthy of public discussion, then questions about love, relationships, and marriage, which so often emerge during or following sexual encounters, are also worthy of public discussion. If the university is willing to dole out advice and education on matters of the body and personal integrity, is it not a great failure of the university to educate its students about the implications and, yes, the meaning of sex?

For students who have already decided to embrace casual sex as part of the college experience, freshman orientation events geared toward better dating practices might still have a lot to offer. Students might learn to appreciate a more cautious, deliberative approach to sex and relationships as a result of hearing a personal testimony, or of reading about the risks surrounding casual sex. If universities devoted even a fraction of the time, focus, effort, and finances to relational health, and the meaning of sex, that they devote to distributing condoms and sex toys and bolstering sexual health services, students could benefit enormously. Voices from a number of institutions, including Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, have already recognized that ethical considerations are an integral aspect of sexual education and have been severely neglected. While most would agree, along with this Harvard author, that “schools and families need to talk about relationships, caring, and consent,” how exactly those ethical considerations should be approached is still up for discussion.

We should applaud the fact that many are looking to shift the focus of sex education from matters pertaining purely to physical health to those of relational health, but we should remain cautious about the motivations backing this shift. Many universities, researchers, and sexual health advocates have an agenda beyond simply “giving students a foundation in relationship-building” and paving the way for “healthy intimacy in the future”—including, but not limited to, reinforcing gender ideology against the will of parents through state-imposed, comprehensive sex education. While this is not the end of the fight for the truth about sex and marriage, we have cause to hope that a renewed interest in sexual ethics will open up much-needed dialogue about relationships, personal responsibility, and the benefits of a deliberative approach to sex in the long run.

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