Review: Consent on Campus

consent on campus

Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, Donna Freitas. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An argument that current approaches to consent education as an approach to combating sexual assault on campus are inadequate both in the time devoted to deal with the complexities of sexuality, and the absence of campus leadership, faculty, presidents, and other university leaders, from the discussions.

Much has been made in recent years of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, with statistics indicating between 20 and 25 percent of women will be subject to assault, and smaller numbers of men, during their collegiate years. Colleges and universities, under pressure from the federal government and Title IX enforcement, have stepped up their efforts at “Consent Education” with programs like “Sex Signals” and “Partying with Consent.” These programs, often part of an hour long session in new student orientation, allow campuses to check the box that they have exercised due diligence in consent education. The other side is Title IX enforcement when a student or other member of the university community files a sexual assault complaint, with mandatory reporting requirements when university officials learn of a sexual assault, opaque investigative processes, neglect of due process for the accused, and pressures on the accuser, depending on who the perpetrator might be.

Donna Freitas, who has been studying student sexuality and the hookup culture on campus for the past ten years since publication of Sex and the Soul, believes these institutional responses to be utterly inadequate. She begins with a preface directed to all university presidents, and it is her hope that they all read this book. Their personal engagement, and not simply written statements, is vital in communicating that campus leadership prioritize thoughtful, honest discussion of sexuality on campus.

She surveys the landscape of campus efforts to deal with sexual assault. She offers a helpful explanation of how Title IX works, the “Dear Colleagues…” letter in 2011 that has triggered the growth of Title IX offices, reporting, and enforcement, and the failure of a campus-wide approach to address the sexual culture on campus that is implicit in Title IX proceedings. She also describes the thin efforts at consent education that fails to deal with the complexities of what “yes” means. Particularly, this is problematic with the party culture of campus and the complications alcohol bring to consent for both male and female students.

It goes deeper though and perhaps one of the most important part of Freitas’ book is the exploration of the inherited “scripts” that shape student behavior, often pressuring them to act in ways that are far from sexually free. Women have to project an air of indifference toward men, that sex doesn’t really matter that much, to avoid any sense of appearing “needy” or “clinging.” Men face pressures to perform sexually, even when they don’t want to. Their masculinity is at stake. Hookups are defined as over when the man “comes” (no real consideration of the woman’s experience). Women also face pressures around body image and various forms of “slut shaming.” All of this, in combination with the presence of alcohol, undermines any real giving and receiving of consent, as well as destroying any sense of sex as something deeply intimate, powerful and empowering for both partners. These inherited scripts are problematic, and often supported by a prevailing assumption on campus that “everyone is doing it” that doesn’t support those who wish to abstain, or wait for a different kind of relationship.

Freitas advocates for a concerted, widely owned effort to re-write these scripts, shared between students, student life personnel and faculty and university leadership. She observes that students often have high ideals of social justice and human dignity, but have never been able to connect those ideals to their sexual and partying behavior with each other. Freitas argues that any sexual encounter is an ethical act. She suggests using campus mission statements, which often are intended but rarely applied as expressing the ideals to which the community aspires. She contends that both existing scripts need to be codified, and critically examined, and that alternative, “interruptive” scripts need to be enacted. She sites the example of Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, an assault survivor who raised campus awareness by carrying her mattress with her wherever she went, which became a senior thesis, “Carry That Weight.” Most of all, she pleads that discussions of sexuality not be confined to large, one hour orientation sessions led by over-burdened student life personnel, but be integrated into classroom discussions. She challenges the value of intellectual detachment, proposing that where course content is relevant, that discussion on how this bears on students personal lives and behavior is appropriate and needed and that faculty and university leaders actively engage what happens after the classroom hours as well as during them.

I found much to be commended in this “manifesto” that “named the elephant” lurking on every campus. I appreciated her contention that what is needed are not trigger warnings but honest, even painful discussion (while never forcing students to share personal experiences they are not ready for). I appreciated her descriptions of Title IX and existing consent education efforts and their inadequacy. This needs to be honestly faced, and she helps us do that. I was glad for her contention that student beliefs and choices not to engage in the campus hookup culture need to be affirmed for whatever reasons, including religious belief, that they embrace these choices.

At the same time, she writes dismissively of  “values voters” and conservative “one size fits all” ethics in a way that seems to suggest that this is the only alternative currently on offer to hookup culture or her own “script rewriting efforts.” The truth is many campus religious communities are having thoughtful discussions of the kind she writes about that go beyond “what not to do and who not to do it with” to explore the meaning of sexuality, the significance of our gender and identity, how we deal with desire and respect and honor others. She leaves this group out as potential allies, despite their influence with a significant percentage of students on many campuses.

Finally, in urging greater faculty involvement, I wonder whether she reckons with the institutional support necessary for such conversations, from training of what is and is not legal and appropriate in classroom discussions, access to counseling when discussions raise unresolved issues for faculty who also have sexual lives and histories, and good linkages between faculty and student services personnel who might follow up with students in need of further counsel.

This “wake up call” comes as another cohort of students is preparing to arrive on campus. The matters she raises are urgent. Will this next cohort face the same depersonalizing sexual scripts that have prevailed and receive the same thin gruel of consent training? Will both men and women feel strong pressure to conform to the gender stereotypes that prevail in campus sexual culture? And will 20 to 25 percent of these women conclude their college experience not only with a degree but a sexual assault? Much of the answer depends, in Freitas’ view, on whether university leaders, faculty, student life personnel and students come together to disrupt that culture. Her book is probably one of the best playbooks I’ve seen for doing just that.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Freitas’ earlier book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy was reviewed at Bob on Books on November 24, 2013.

Review: The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy

The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy
The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy by Donna Freitas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, Donna Freitas sees a pervasive hook-up culture of casual, impersonal sex, and at the same time an end of “good sex” and meaningful relationships. The title gives some clues to resolving this paradox and the early chapters help us see very quickly that hookup culture–the casual sexual encounter between usually highly inebriated students with little or no communication and (supposedly) no emotional connection is in fact a barrier to deeply satisfying relationships and sexual experience.

She chronicles the rituals of hookup culture on campuses including theme parties that all are variants of “pimps and hos” that require women to dress up in skimpy and skanky outfits that play to men’s pornographic sexual fantasies. (She wonders at points if this was what women like Gloria Steinem went to the barricades to fight for!) And through her interviews with both women and men, she discovers that many (not all, however) are ambivalent or deeply dissatisfied by this culture while feeling trapped in a “this is the way the game is played” world. A few escape either through a series of hookups with the same person that lead into a relationship, through opting out by some temporary or longer form of abstinence, or even through the discovery of the lost art of dating.

This last was stunning to me. On some campuses, the author describes either herself or student life personnel teaching students how to have a date, including asking the person out, who pays, what to do, where to go, refraining from alcohol, or physical interaction more than an “A frame hug”. She actually encourages parents and other adults to talk about their own dating lives, arguing that there are many in the campus culture that are actually clueless about all this–there is either “hanging out” or “hookups” but little else according to her.

I do not doubt the existence of the things she describes. At the same time (and perhaps it’s the circles I run in), I wonder if this is quite as prevalent as the author contends. Perhaps it depends to some degree on the campus and the particular options available to students. At very least, it seems there are plenty of alternatives and social opportunities for students dissatisfied with this form of interaction.

Freitas, without moralizing, is trying to initiate a serious conversation about sexuality on campus that goes beyond the “safe sex” and “no means no” conversations that typify much of the sexual guidance college students received that basically assumes hookup culture. While she assumes that many will engage in sexual intimacy outside the traditional structures of marriage, she contends for sexuality that is meaningful in relationships as the context for the best sex. What she does want is for students to be empowered to make their own decisions about their sexuality apart from the party, hookup culture that many feel compelled to participate in or be marginalized. At the same time she uses the language of virginity and abstinence, albeit at times redefined, in the context of strategies of “opting out”. She even asks (without spelling out her own views) questions about the meaning of sexuality–is there something that makes sexual intimacy “special”? If her project succeeds one wonders if some will even find their way back to a sexual ethic deemed traditional, prudish, and ethical, but one that allows relationships to flourish and even sexuality to flourish in the safest context of all, committed, covenantal relationships?

Stranger things have happened…

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Why Do We Do This to Each Other?

Freitas“Sexual freedom” is not a new thing on university campuses. At least since the 1960s and likely before, campuses were hardly celibate enclaves. What is a newer development is the “hookup” culture. Donna Freitas has been chronicling this first in Sex and the Soul and now in The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About IntimacyI’m currently reading the latter book. Working on a campus, I’m well aware of most of what she writes, but I still find her narrative extremely disturbing.

Two chapters in the middle of the book have been especially so, because of the misbegotten ways women and men are trying to conform to their perception of social expectations. She chronicles how women are accessing the internet porn men watch in order to present themselves in the ways they think men want them–basically as whores who exist to satisfy male sexual whims. By the same token, interviews with men reveal many are deeply ambivalent about “hookup” culture, doing “it” often as much to impress other men as out of any real sexual desire.

Freitas contends that in this hyper-pressurized world of social expectations, neither sex is able to connect these experiences with sexual desire or intimacy. It’s all about not feeling (which accounts for the role alcohol plays in this culture). The thing I wonder is why so many surrender their real longings and identity to satisfying what they think are the perceptions of others? I can understand this in high school, but why has this become such a powerful force at the university level? Is it the ubiquitous character of social media in which people tweet and post about their experiences and about others?

The serious business of this has to do with safety–physical and emotional. When not feeling and not communicating (which are the primary “rules” of hook up sex) govern relationships, where is the line between consent and rape? Where is protection from sexually transmitted diseases? And where is the protection of the heart, when so often one person really does want more from this? Campus campaigns for “safe sex” and “no means no” go out the window in this climate.

There is the hope that in reflective moments students might ask “why do I put myself and others at risk for what, in my most honest moments, isn’t actually that pleasurable?” An even deeper question is “what kind of person do I want to be and are my sexual choices consistent with that kind of person?” An even harder question is “what do I do when I fail to live up to my moral aspirations?” Of course, the challenge is unplugging from the steady stream of input from our smartphones, computers, and, oh yes, classes, long enough to engage in that kind of reflection.

What are your thoughts about campus hook up culture? Is the picture as negative as Freitas paints it? And how do we understand what drives it?