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 Way of Hope

the way of hope

The Way of HopeMelissa Fisher. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Through a narrative of her own experiences, the author proposes ways in which the church might offer hope to LGBT persons without condemning or condoning.

“I used to want to be a boy.

Seriously, literally, have the surgery. Change the name. Live from the new identity. Be a boy, not a girl. That’s what I wanted.

It seemed to make sense with how I felt on the inside. At that point in my life, my feelings had been all over the map. After all, I grew up in the church, left the church, dated boys, then left the guy scene and ended up in the same-sex lifestyle, and a same-sex marriage. Somewhere, in the midst of all of that, I contemplated becoming a boy.”

This is Melissa Fisher’s introduction to her life journey. It is one that begins with a response to shame of perfectionism–“pretty is as pretty does.” She learns to keep secrets, about witnessing her mom’s affair, about sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult, about the pain of her parents divorce, about discovering pornography, and more. She describes the “monster” of dating guys and then falling in live with one of her girlfriends, the struggle to deny her attraction to women, her attempts to medicate herself against her struggles, and her surrender to them. She marries a woman, has what seems an ideal life as an athletic coach, and then comes to an end of herself when she loses it all in an impulsive affair. On a car trip near the Arkansas border, she stops in tears and comes to the realization that even though she doesn’t want God or church in her life, she does.

She describes her struggle to even show up at church, and eventually a small group, which is important for any church to understand that is committed to ministering with LGBT persons. She finds one, Gateway Church in Austin, a church that was committed to a ministry that neither condemned nor condoned around issues of sexuality, but loved people and allowed them the space to struggle and take steps at their own pace toward God. They offered community to the isolated. She narrates her steps to believe that first one woman, Karin, really wanted a friendship with her, and then that she could be part of a community of PBM’s (Pottery Barn Moms).

Later chapters chronicle the further work of coming to terms with her past, her perfectionism, her secrets and shame, and all her strategies of dealing with these, including her drive to perform could be laid aside as she learned to behold and believe in Christ, and allow him to shape the way she lived. She writes, “if I never felt safe enough to be a girl, I would never feel safe enough to do the more work needed to become a healthy woman.” Yet as she did so, she found herself opening up to the possibility of being with a man (although she is careful to not make herself a norm or example for others). Like several other LGBT writers like Greg Cole or Wesley Hill, she talks about all this in day by day terms of trusting God in this day.

The epilogue is fascinating because it includes interviews with her mother, her father, and her former spouse, Kristi. Life isn’t all put together in any of these situations, but there was really healing, and real reconciliation. What is striking throughout the narrative of this book is Melissa’s honesty about herself, whether she was exulting in a same sex marriage with Kristi, or struggling to put life together. Equally striking was the church she found and the loving way they cared for people like Melissa, neither condoning their choices nor condemning them, but loving them, and providing a space where they could encounter and behold Christ, where they could be as honest as they were ready to be, and where change was something that was not enforced from on high or by social pressure, but allowed to occur from within if and when the person was ready.

Others who identify as LGBT may not struggle with their orientation or identity and may be critical of Fisher’s narrative, and may contend that she is self-deceived. Perhaps the practice of a kind of golden rule here may help in honoring the narratives of others as you would have them honor yours. She joins a growing number who tell a similar story, and of churches that have made a safe and good place for them. Perhaps rather than arguing with them, we might learn from them, whether we agree or not.  Perhaps even this may be a first step on the way of hope…


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

My Response to #MeToo

Don’t usually post twice in one day but wanted to get this out there:

I’m deeply grieved to see so many good friends posting #MeToo. One is a colleague on my work team. Others are dear friends, or those who I deeply respect as gifted, intelligent women. I suspect there are also men out there who have been abused at the hands of men. I’m deeply sorry for the ways my fellow males have acted and that the world is so unsafe for women, children and other men.

To my brothers:

1. Having “your way” with women is not the way to obtain your “man card.” It just shows how much you still have to learn about real manhood which is measured not by your sexual exploits but your self-control and service to others,
2. I never want to hear another man use the idea of “it was her fault.” or “she wanted it” again. “No” never means “yes” and all this tells me about you is how weak and immature and self-deceived you are. It says nothing to me about the woman.
3. Don’t tell me that you can’t control yourself. If that’s true, you need to get help fast! You risk losing your job, destroying your marriage, suspension from a university if you are a student, and criminal charges and a sex offender label.
4. Don’t think porn is a safe alternative. Objectifying and having sex with what you think are virtual women (or others) only contributes to distorting your views of real human beings and feeds the lust for more. And the women (or others) are real people–and often are experiencing exploitation. There are groups to help you escape porn addiction.

For churches and other institutions. When these things occur (and sadly they will) in our midst, we need to realize that the only protection that should be going on is of the victim. The only protection alleged sexual offenders should have is of due process rights under law as part of a criminal investigation.

Men, we need to take responsibility to watch out for each other in this regard, and call each other out at the first hint of disrespecting women. There are a number of ways from words and jokes, to visual materials, to looks and gestures, in which we disrespect women and create a threatening atmosphere or discomfort that fall short of crimes and these also need to be called out. It saddens me that so often it is the women who are doing the calling out. They shouldn’t have to because as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends, we are doing it first.

That’s all.

Review: Sensitive Preaching to the Sexually Hurting


Sensitive Preaching to the Sexually HurtingDr. Sam Serio. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2016.

Summary: Explores the different kinds of issues that arise around sexuality in our post-sexual revolution society, and how pastors and others extending pastoral care might counsel and preach with sensitivity that may open the door to the healing of sexual wounds.

Sam Serio proposes that pastors are often out of touch with the issues around sexuality of the people sitting before them each Sunday. Married couples who have not had sex in the recent past. Someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction. A daughter who “checks out” of the Father’s Day sermon because of her past history of being molested by a father. The wife who has discovered sexual abuse between her husband and one of her children. The pro-lifer trying to atone for the abortion she had in her youth. The college student who is a date-rape survivor.

Serio begins the book with a list that includes these and many other instances of woundedness around sexuality that people in our congregations or parishes may be struggling with. He contends that often we preach and speak in such a way to preclude most of those who struggle from ever coming to us for help. He writes:

    “Most ministry leaders usually do one of two things when it comes to this kind of delicate preaching on these most difficult topics–we are either negligent or negative. We either say nothing or we say mean things. We ignore, or we abhor. There is rarely a happy medium….Do you have that rare biblical balance? Do you preach truth and grace? Do you preach love and law? Facts and feelings? Proclamation and consolation? When is the last time you actually smiled as you preached about sex and offered hope and restoration, healing and wholeness, forgiveness and transformation?”

Serio recognizes that many really don’t know what this looks like. After helping pastors assess their own and their church’s readiness for this ministry, and a brief chapter on the Bible and sexuality pointing out its frankness about the things we often are reticent to discuss, the next chapters address the different kinds of issues pastors may need to address in preaching and pastoral care. First he opens with a chapter titled, “How You Can Preach About Sex, and Still Keep Your Job.” His subsequent chapters discuss pastoral considerations that help one enter sensitively into sexual wounds of members and then gives texts and language he has used to preach on each of the following topics:

  • Casual Sex
  • Abortion
  • Sexual Assault and Rape
  • Childhood Sexual Abuse and Molestation
  • Pornography
  • Same sex attraction and homosexuality
  • Sexless marriage

The facts and sensitive counsel he gives under each of these topics was, I thought quite helpful. It may just be me, but his own distinctive voice in the language sections just felt different from mine and sometimes the connections to the passages felt exegetically forced. However, the example of candor and charity that invites people to healing conversations was refreshing. I would have liked more focus on sexual and physical abuse between partners, which also must be named and is startlingly prevalent in our congregations. The concluding challenges to churches are one a church leadership board should consider as well as every pastor. One I found particularly striking was to ask about sexual history and behavior in any counseling situation. The extent of woundedness in our post-sexual revolution culture warrants this and often is a significant contributing factor in many of the issues we confront.

As Serio says, it is far too often that we ignore or abhor. Instead we need to sensitively care for and pastorally restore the sexually hurting. This book helpfully connects preaching and pastoral care for those ready for this ministry.

This book was the winner of the 2016 The Gospel Coalition Book Awards in the Ministry category.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


The Scandal of Domestic Violence


By Concha Garcia Hernandez [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been aware of the global prevalence of violence against women but have had my eyes opened to this afresh by No Place for Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark. The stark truth is that globally 1 in 3 women will face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from someone who is not their partner (Source: World Health Organization). The statistics are not much better in the U.S., where 1 in 4 women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in their lives. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds. (Source: Huffington Post, 30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics that Remind us It’s An Epidemic).

The authors of the book are writing particularly for church contexts, where the incidence of domestic violence may be nearly as high, and in some contexts may actually be exacerbated by theological teaching. Since a number of you who follow this blog attend churches fairly regularly, consider the possibility that roughly 25 percent of those present have experienced domestic violence at some time, and that it is likely that someone may be suffering this, possibly in silence, at present. I do consider this a scandal, one where real lives are endangered, where trauma is going unhealed, where oppression is allowed to go unchecked, where wrongdoing is concealed, and because of all this, the church is robbed of spiritual power.

A statement by the authors of this book caught my eye:

“Interviews and focus groups with large numbers of men who have acted abusively, women who have been abused and those friends and clergy who have walked alongside them reveal that when clergy preach a message condemning family violence, discuss abuse in their premarital counseling, offer support, give referral suggestions, provide ongoing encouragement and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact is profound.”

This is significant in light of a study by Sojourners cited in a Christianity Today article, that 65 percent of pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence and ten percent have never spoken about it. And sometimes church teaching can exacerbate the problem. While there is a divide between egalitarians and complementarians, thoughtful people in both camps would agree categorically in condemning spousal violence. However, teaching that emphasizes the need for husbands to assert their authority and their need to make their wives submit (the latter for which there is no basis in scripture) may encourage forceful means and be used to justify violence (most complementarians would not teach this). Likewise, the way divorce may be taught about in some contexts may lead women to stay in dangerous situations.

It seems that there are some important steps pastors and church leaders can take:

  • One is to educate oneself on the incidence of domestic violence, how lay caregivers can offer support (often other women in a church community can offer significant support), the resources available to refer both the abused and abusers for help, and how to implement plans to make these available to those suffering abuse.
  • The silence around domestic violence must be broken, and done so regularly, communicating the unacceptability of perpetrating violence, that one who is treated violently never deserves that treatment, and communicating avenues for both the abused and abuser to acknowledge what is happening and find help.
  • Offer training for all church staff and Sunday School teachers.
  • Include information and discussion about domestic violence in all pre-marital counselling.
  • Include training in youth programs on dating violence.

As a man, it seems to me that we could do more to talk about the fruit of the Spirit (the virtues that result from the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of all Christ followers) as virtues equally applicable to men, whatever our cultural ideals of “masculinity.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are qualities commended by a man (Paul) for men and women. Among the requirements the Apostle sets for church leaders is that they are “self controlled…not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3). Do we uphold people of both gender, and in particular, men who exemplify these qualities, as models for others? Are these the defining qualities of biblical manhood, indeed, biblical personhood?

It saddens me that the reality is that few women apart from very young children anywhere in the world live without the lingering fear and wariness of the possibility of sexual or physical violence against them. It disturbs me that simply because of my gender, I represent a possible threat. It says something of how broken is our fallen world and it staggers me. I honestly don’t know how to change the world in this instance. But I do want to work with others who share my faith commitments to change the church, so that, in the words of the title of the book I’m reading, it is “no place for abuse.” It would be no small thing for the global church to address itself to these matters, and if so, this would surely have ripple effects more widely. And who knows what power of God might be unleashed when our sisters know we are committed to their physical and emotional safety, and to fully respect their humanity and giftedness among us. May it be so!

Let’s Retire This “Christmas” Song!

We’ve heard the song countless times. A duet between a suave, seemingly caring, and emotionally persuasive male and a reticent female torn between going out in the cold night, her sense that it would not be right to stay for that drink, and the seemingly caring overtures of her male host. The renditions all seem to be “in good fun” with a “wink and a nod”.

The song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has been covered by some of the most famous in the music business. According to Wikipedia, the song was first sung in the movie Neptune’s Daughter by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. In the same movie, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett also sing this “with the roles of wolf and mouse reversed” (telling language!). Since then, among others, it has been sung by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis and Carmen McRae, Dean Martin and a female chorus, Ray Charles and Betty Carter (later also with Dionne Warwick), and more recently by James Taylor and Natalie Cole, and Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles.

When you get past the performers and listen to the lyrics, the song is truly disturbing. It is a song about unwelcomed seduction. The female singer says the following at different points in the song, “I really can’t stay”, “I’ve got to go away”, “I ought to say no, no, no, sir”, “I simply must go”, “The answer is no” (notice the intensification of the “No” as the song progresses). But “no” is not accepted as “no” in this song. The man doesn’t lend his coat and escort the woman on a cold night back to her parents. He continues to pressure in these phrases that intensify from “listen to the fireplace roar” to “what’s the sense in hurting my pride” to “Gosh your lips look so delicious” to “how can you do this thing to me?” Even more insidious is the use of alcohol and perhaps a doctored drink (“Say what’s in this drink?”) to break down the woman’s resistance.

All this seems like it is just in “good fun” except that it isn’t. It is the script that is replayed in the acquaintance rape scenarios that occur over and over not only in our society but in many parts of the world. It is a script that doesn’t respect “no”, that doesn’t flinch at using alcohol to impair judgment, and tells a story that has an ending that says, “she really consented after all” as the singers in unison sing “Baby it’s cold outside.”

Another question that occurs to me is, what does this have to do with Christmas? What does a song that celebrates seduction and, implicitly, rape have to do with the Son of God who became the Savior of the world, other than by illustrating what needs redeeming? Even if Christmas is just a secular holiday for you, what does this have to do with any kind of “spirit of giving” other than the fact that “she gives in and he takes” (to put it bluntly)?

What can be done? Well to start, we could ask radio stations to remove any version of this song from their playlists. We could refuse to buy any selection of Christmas music that includes this song. And we could send a message to performers to find some other material for duets. Whatever we think Christmas means, I think we can all agree that it is not a celebration of rape. Let’s retire this song.


A Civil Public Square at Work

This past week, I had the chance to visit the beautiful campus of Miami University at the height of its autumn glory. However, I don’t have pictures of tree-lined walks and pleasing campus buildings. Instead of celebrating the aesthetics of Miami, I want to talk about Miami as an example of a civil public square at work.

Miami Code of Love & Honor

Miami Code of Love & Honor

During a meeting I was in, I was given a card that is given to all students and faculty at Miami known as the Miami Code of Love and Honor. Here are the fourth and fifth statements on this card:

“I respect the dignity, rights, and property of others and their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.”

“I defend the freedom of inquiry that is the heart of learning.”

I learned that these principles had been put to the test in the past week as Miami hosted George Will, Washington Post columnist for a lecture. Will’s lecture was heavily protested because of his June 6, 2014 op ed in the Post.  In this article Will makes the statement describing victimhood as “a coveted status that confers privileges”. He then goes on in this article to focus particularly on the growing discussion around sexual assault.

Understandably, anyone who has been raped or knows someone who has would be infuriated by Will’s inference.  One student is pictured in an article in The Miami Student holding a sign that reads “My status as a victim is so coveted that I moved schools because I was taunted by my rapist and his friends.” Another student sign is quoted in the article that read, “Sexual assault leaves you with scars, not privileges.”

The best construction that can be placed on Will’s article is that it was a badly executed attempt to raise a wider conversation about the language of victimhood and the dangers of abridging “due process” rights in allegations of sexual assault. Rather than focus on those issues, which are significant discussions in the higher ed world right now, I want to focus on what the administration at Miami did and didn’t do.

They did not rescind the invitation for Will to speak although heavily pressured to do so as have many other high profile colleges when they discover that an invited speaker holds views considered objectionable by at least part of the college’s constituency. Nor did they suppress protests against Will’s ideas and presence.

Instead, what they did was to allow him to speak and defend his ideas, which were questioned during a question and answer time. At one point, Will made the argument, “The First Amendment does not say, ‘Congress shall not abridge freedom of speech unless the speech annoys somebody,’” he said. “And if you’re not annoying someone when you speak, you’re not speaking properly.”

Miami University President David Hodge wrote a letter explaining the university’s decision to allow Will to speak in terms of the Miami Code of Love and Honor:

“Bringing prominent speakers to campus provides unique opportunities for our students and community to engage with high profile, influential individuals. Many of these individuals are controversial and their positions often challenge us, especially when they appear to clash with our core values. Our values also dictate, though, that we protect “the freedom of inquiry and the right to hold and express disparate beliefs.” While the urge to suppress the voices of those with whom we disagree may be great, it is instead our responsibility to engage and challenge those opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.”

He goes on to state how the university supported freedom of inquiry and the expression of disparate beliefs in this instance:

“The response of the Miami community was respectful and constructive. Those who disagreed with the choice of Mr. Will as a speaker expressed their disappointment with thoughtful letters and petitions. Some who attended the lecture challenged Mr. Will on his opinions during the allotted question period. Those who protested his lecture effectively expressed their points. A teach-in at Cook Field provided a great deal of information about Miami’s efforts to educate students about sexual assault, to support survivors fully and sensitively, and to take appropriate action against those found responsible.”

This, it seems to me, is a civil public square at work. Civil public squares do not suppress objectionable beliefs. They challenge them through argument, protest, and advocacy of what are thought to be better ideas. I suppose a number walked away unhappy on the different sides of the discussion. Reading the account of Will’s lecture, I find myself thinking, “there are things he just doesn’t get.” But considering disparate views is often uncomfortable. Serious inquiry doesn’t always make me happy. But if it results in sustaining our “first freedoms,” in sharpening our thinking about the challenging issues of the day, and in better policies in pursuit of the good society, then it will have been worth it.

Ending Sexual Violence on Campus

beerLet me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

If my language seems blunt, it is because of the history of blaming victims, usually women, for “wearing that dress” or “drinking too much.” It saddles victims with guilt and mitigates the responsibility of the perpetrator, both in court and in the public eye. Men often use strategies of “getting her drunk” as an approach to sexual exploitation. There is no excuse for any of this, and frankly, as a male, I think that far from demonstrating virility, it is a demonstration of a kind of emotional, if not physical, impotence.

All this said, The Chronicle of Higher Education raised what I think is a key barrier to at least reducing sexual violence on campuses in an article titled, “Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes to Sexual Assault.”  Why, you may ask, can’t we talk about alcohol even though at least half the sexual assaults that occur (and many go unreported) involve alcohol use by both parties? What it comes down to is that even attempts to educate about this in terms of safety and prevention, particularly with women, can be perceived as “blaming the victim.”

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

However, public safety officers often warn students at universities in urban environments about the dangers of crime and various safety practices from using campus escort services to avoiding walking alone in certain areas after certain times to locking doors and windows. If a crime against persons or property occurs, have these public safety officers been guilty of “blaming the victim”? No. Does any of this mitigate the responsibility of the person committing a crime against persons or property? No.

However, in the area of sexual assault, campus professionals tend to limit themselves to talking about “bystander intervention” and educating students about consent. I do think these can be important parts of a strategy to protect against sexual violence. My problem with this is in an alcohol-fueled atmosphere, will there be bystanders (designated bystanders?) whose judgment is unimpaired to intervene? And the giving and granting of consent involves sober judgment as well as restraint in the absence of consent–two things that tend to go out the window in an alcohol fueled atmosphere. What is even more insidious is that in most alcohol-related incidents of sexual assault, there is a greater likelihood that the parties do not know each other well.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

Yet it seems that until we find a way to talk with students candidly about alcohol in a way that educates for risk-reduction (including the risk to perpetrators of carrying a sexual offender status through life) without blaming victims, I don’t believe we will make a real dent in the incidence of sexual violence on university campuses. Sexual predators will intentionally use alcohol to perpetrate rape. Other perpetrators will simply make bad decisions and may end up with a criminal record they carry through life. And victims, even in the most accepting and supportive atmospheres, will carry the wounds of these encounters.

I’ve spent a career in collegiate ministry working with students. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of student life. In our work we seek to educate both men and women in the meaning of persons, including our sexuality, and the qualities of respect, responsibility, and restraint in the use of alcohol and the expression of our sexuality that leads to rich and joyful relationships and campus life. Sadly, we also sometimes deal with the victims of sexual violence, or even those simply bearing the scars of alcohol fueled hookups. And I get the “no-blame” thing. Victims blame themselves enough as it is. They need hope and support that life can begin anew.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

I just hope for the day where we don’t have to say this as much.

Why Isn’t This an Ethical No-Brainer?

There is a group of people who live in fear of violence or violation every day. They are exposed to jokes, gestures, innuendos. In some cultures they can be beaten, assaulted or even killed without legal consequence. They are even accused of “wanting it” or “deserving it.” And this group makes up more than half the world’s population. They are women.

Stop Gender Based Violence

In the last day, I saw a report of a 23 year old woman who as she is dying in her mother’s arms in India is apologizing because she was gang-raped–as if it were her fault. Reports of rape have tripled in Delhi in the past year. Closer to home, someone is sexually assaulted in this country every two minutes and 95 percent of rapists in this country will not go to prison for their offense. Roughly one in four women have survived rape or attempted rape.

In the sexually enlightened EU, things are no better. Twenty-two percent of EU women surveyed report having been assaulted by a partner. In Scandinavian countries according to the same report, the incidence is closer to 50 percent.

Roughly 80% of the victims of human trafficking are women and of those roughly 70% are trafficked into commercial sex industries. There are an estimated 27 million people in some form of involuntary servitude today according to the Polaris Project, from which these statistics come.

I could go on and talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, hookup culture and the dangers women face here or even the sometimes (not always) subtler abuses of women in the religious context where the exercise of their gifts and the expression of their love for God and humanity is limited.

What continues to trouble me as a man is that the vast majority of the perpetrators of these crimes are men. And the question that baffles me is, why are we at war with those who are someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife?  What troubles me is that my wife, my daughter-in-law, my sister, women who are my colleagues have probably not been able to live a single day of their adult lives without this lurking wariness of men.

I’m troubled that I cannot do more. I champion the gifts and skills of the women I work with. I try to model and teach respecting the dignity of the women in our Christian communities with the men I work with. I’ve participated in anti-trafficking efforts. What the pervasiveness and stubborn persistence of this stuff tells me is that human evil goes deep in our souls and as wide as the world.

But I am aware that there is also a community of men who recognize that the following are ethical no-brainers and I hope we will speak up and speak into this culture of violence against women that:

  • Unwanted flirting and propositions and sexual innuendo aren’t cool–they are threatening and in work contexts may be illegal.
  • “No” means “no” and is not a license to use alcohol and drugs to overcome lack of consent. Sex without consent is rape. Period.
  • Violence against a woman is never justified, never deserved.
  • Those in power who abuse women or children must never be protected by our structures, whether those are businesses, churches, or political offices.
  • Real manhood is never proven through domination of women. This only shows how little of a man you are.
  • Real men see women not as parts but as partners–partners not only in marriage, but in the workplace, in public life, in our churches–using our skills and gifts together to seek the up-building of the body of Christ and the body politic.

I don’t know whether we will ever achieve a time where our sisters will be able to live without wariness, which grieves me deeply. I do hope that we might see a movement of men who at least provide moments and glimpses of safety, of care, of affirmation that provide hope for a better day.