Sex and Consent on College Campuses

Sometimes lost in the discussion of the statutes, acts and regulations that govern Title IX/Clery Act/VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) campus sexual assault investigations and adjudications is a consideration of the cultural forces at work on campus and in society in general. In an excellent book review entitled “Tom Wolfe and College Sex” (posted on Inside Higher Ed -www.insidehighered.com) Professor Jonathan Zimmerman made the following observation about sex on college campus:

“We are trying to be casual about sex but serious about consent, and it isn’t working.”

There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. Title IX Campus Sexual Assault cases by necessity take consent very seriously. They are almost always consent driven. That is not at all inappropriate. Yet, one could argue that the very filing of such a charge against a young person represents a multi-party tragedy. And a multi-party failure. The complainant, usually a young woman, feels that she has been violated. Sometimes she has been. Sometimes she has not. But almost always she sincerely feels that she is the victim of something bad. The respondent, usually a young man, feels that he has been thrown into a system designed to protect his accuser and that no matter what he says, and no matter what really happened, he is likely to be found responsible. If he is correct he will likely suffer the consequences of either academic suspension or expulsion, transcript notations and the interruption of his academic course of study (sometimes permanently) as well as his career goals and aspirations.


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How did we get here? How did two young people who were bright enough and hardworking enough to get into college find themselves in this situation? It would be easy to reach for an easy answer: “many women are claiming sexual assault just to explain away a regretted hook-up” or “most of the young men charged are sexual predators who finally got caught”. Neither of these describes the typical situation or the typical complainant or respondent. I think Professor Zimmerman is on to something here. Sex is complicated. We all know that. It is a primal urge, hardwired into human beings by the evolutionary process. In some religious traditions it is deemed sacramental. It impacts brain chemistry. It engenders bonding and emotional connection. It miraculously is the mechanism by which new life is created. Yet it also has dark history.

It has been used a means of control, especially of women. It has been used to dominate, again primarily women. It is tied into societal social mores across many different cultures and time periods. It has been regulated, by both church and state. It is directly associated with the ugliest word in our culture: rape. It has been commoditized, glorified, idealized and promoted – not only to adults but to adolescents as well. And yet, to Professor Zimmerman’s point, we are casual about it. We discuss its biology in high school health classes, parents sometimes discuss it with their growing children – but often it is a taboo subject that is usually not comfortably discussed across the generational divide.

Perhaps that needs to change. Perhaps we need to introduce mandatory courses into our high school and college curriculums about this complex, life-changing and all so important subject matter. Courses that consider the biology of sex, the history of sex, the physical and emotional consequences of sex, the danger areas of sex, etc. You get the idea. Perhaps if we educate our young people better, perhaps if we discuss it more frequently and more freely we can avoid the tragedy of Title IX situations. Perhaps we need to stop being so casual about sex and start treating it like the important topic that it is. We owe it to our young people before they make a mistake and are placed into “win-lose” or “lose-lose” situation with one another. Just a thought – thanks to the wise observation of a college professor.

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