Campus sexual assault remained in the forefront of higher education’s concerns last week when a St. Paul’s School graduate, Owen Labrie, was tried for, as a senior, raping a 15-year old classmate who accompanied him to an unoccupied building amid rumors of a school tradition requiring graduating seniors to take the virginity of younger female students.
For colleges and universities, the case seemed in many ways too close for comfort as a New Hampshire jury issued a divided verdict acquitting Labrie of aggravated felonious sexual assault but guilty of felonious illegal computer use to meet the 15-year-old.
Once again familiar issues were raised: the need to define and discover ways to prove consent, disagreements over “no means no” vs. “yes means yes” standards of proof and preponderance of evidence vs. beyond a reasonable doubt standards, plus the necessity of evolving definitions of rape.
The Internet was on fire with comments.
Meanwhile the greater concerns went largely unaddressed. What motivated the decisions these two made and what have educators, especially those in colleges and universities, done to discourage or encourage the hypersexual culture in which students live?
Seventy percent of Americans report having had intercourse by age 19; 6 percent of children have had similar experience by age 13. MRIs have taught us that adolescent and postadolescent brains are prone to engage in risky behaviors, yet these numbers seem disproportionate given all we have tried to teach about the dangers of premature sexual activity.
Shouldn’t we wonder then what, beyond testosterone and peer pressure, makes a bright young man about to enter Harvard University on a full scholarship choose to participate in a school tradition that he must know has the potential to destroy his future?
And what does it mean when a teenager, sobbing on the stand, tells the court, “I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl …. I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him.” How did we get to the point where she would say she laughed during their encounter because she “was trying to be cool”?
If I had a hundred-dollar bill for every young woman who has visited my office in the last 15 years with statements like hers or complained about a roommate who tied strings or rubber bands on the doorknob to signal “keep out -- sex in progress,” I could finance a very opulent vacation or two.
For years we have talked about alcohol, unscrupulous males and disengaged institutions as instrumental in the crises on campus. People like me have added “lecherous professors” to the mix. Much of that is true. But not all sexual violence involves alcohol, not all males are sexually aggressive and not all institutions are disengaged.
And, whether some like to admit it or not, the majority of young women are capable of taking responsibility for their own decisions and safety. The protests on campus demonstrated that collegians can have the strength and courage to stand up for themselves and can act as role models for those less likely to do so. Infantilizing emerging adults is itself a form of victimization.
So what have we missed about the sexual assault problem while the number of college sexual violence complaints has increased more than 1,000 percent since 2009?
Despite the growing number of response and prevention efforts by colleges, we have overlooked the realities of change and culture. The values many of us knew as graduate students and young professors are gone forever, and our students are reaping the rewards -- and the dangers -- of a hypersexualized culture. Nothing will ever be the same.
Our responsibilities are to cope with what we have been given and attempt, insofar as we are able, to serve as adult role models and behave like professionals. Professionalism demands that we respect and protect students by differentiating between legitimate and shock curriculum and pedagogy.
The times are especially precarious for the young. In Breaking Her Fall, the poignant story of a father struggling to come to grips with his drunken teenage daughter’s giving oral sex to a group of males, Stephen Goodwin’s protagonist ruminates on the lives of contemporary girls:
“Buffalo jumps. I’d been reading about Montana. And I kept thinking about the Buffalo jumps, the cliffs over which the Plains Indians drove the herds of buffalo, slaughtering them in great numbers. That was what was happening to the girls … I saw them acting out the roles defined for them in the thousands of commercials and TV shows and popular songs and movies … When I tried to make sense of it all, it seemed to me that the girls were as helpless and confused and panicky as the buffalo must have been as they stampeded over the precipice, that in all the noise and din they lost their bearings, that they had no idea of the dangers of the plunge they were about to make.”
Author Rachael Simmons once commented, “In a culture that can’t decide who it wants them to be, girls are being asked to become the sum of our confusion.” And if we are truthful, that observation also applies to young men who, like contemporary females, struggle to understand what is expected of them in a culture so hypersexualized that a 15-year-old girl alone with a physically aroused boy recalls she “didn’t want to come off as inexperienced.”
The young people we see today are light-years removed those in the 1920s who took the first steps toward our sex-frenzied society when the automobile made it possible for dates to leave parents behind, and we will never gain control of the assault problem unless we come to terms with the changes that have occurred since that early time.
Alcohol and male libido are not the heart of the problem. Whatever Owen Labrie did, he did because he believed he could. When the girl agreed to meet him, she believed she should. And both acted, at least in part, because, as Marshall McLuhan declared in 1964, “The medium is the message.”
Since concerns about sex-related problems emerged on campus in the 1970s, we have traveled through time and I Love Lucy, Happy Days and All in the Family to messages from Sex in the City, Dating Naked and Mad Men -- to say nothing of erotic vampire activity in productions like True Blood. Millennials have never known a culture without media like this, and whether or not they act on what they have seen and heard, they bring cultural messages with them to campus.
Many of my current freshmen have recently seen The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a film adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel. Wildly praised by critics, it depicts a 15-year-old who offers her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend sex and enjoys the experience so greatly she sets out on an erotic romp -- all with no seriously adverse consequences. Mom’s boyfriend isn’t sleazy or degenerate. The men to whom she gives oral sex while pretending to be a prostitute aren’t dangerous or dissolute. Friends welcome the self-confidence her awakening sexuality produces. In the end the she turns out more or less OK. No disease. No violence from strangers. No humiliation. She’s discovered her sexuality. She’s fine. The message is clear.
Vanity Fair recalled Salon’s review of Gloeckner’s novel as “one of the most brutally honest, shocking, tender and beautiful portrayals of growing up female in America” and added that when the teenage heroine “strides onto movie screens this weekend, it will mark the arrival of the first real-life, modern heroine for teenage girls -- ever.”
Stressing the “urgent need for films like Diary of a Teenage Girl,” other websites described the film as set “amongst a freer period of sex and drugs,” and Vanity Fair echoed that curious time warp observation: “Flash forward and today seems prudish, even downright hostile to sexually adventurous young women.”
Whose America, whose real-life modern heroine and what current “prudish” culture may be a matter of dispute. But sex makes money, and maybe most critics have either never had or taught teenage kids or don’t understand the effects the media has on adolescent behavior, especially for young people at greatest social and economic risk
The millennials with whom we have worked for the last two decades are about to leave us. The media is the message, and it has told them how to be. What will become of their successors remains a matter of speculation. Obviously, hypersexual culture and student physical urges are here to stay, but if today’s young people have become “the sum of our confusion,” we must at some point consider whether we are complicit with films, television, advertisements and other commercial enterprises that contribute to the confusing and even dangerous messages they have received.
Regardless of slight rhetorical variations, college mission statements are almost identical in expressing high-minded goals. We are all committed to inspiring students to reach the heights of intellectual and emotional development, to pursue excellence and lifelong learning, to exhibit tolerance and respect for diversity, to serve and sacrifice for their communities and mankind, and to develop the skills and abilities required in the workforce and our ever-changing global economy.
'All This and Hookups, Too'
All this and hookups, too. In The End of Sex, Donna Freitas observes that “friends with benefits” relationships allow students “to get sex onto the CV without addressing any additional burdens, ensuring that they don’t miss out on the all-American, crazy college experience they feel that must have. They have been taught to believe the hookup culture is normal, that everyone is enjoying it and that there is something wrong with them if they don’t enjoy it too.”
So what have some educators offered in classrooms? One fairly common lesson is close observation of speakers who are prostitutes and stripteasers. Another I don’t personally understand is how Northwestern University undergraduates watching a woman being stimulated with a motorized dildo or “fucksaw” were being taught to serve mankind and develop respect for diversity. Nevertheless, just like the movies, that experience too supposedly provided “ tender and beautiful [insight] into growing up in America.”
I must admit I had never heard of organized BDSM groups that engage in role-playing of bondage, dominance and submission, and masochism until I consulted on a case in which a student a quarter century younger than the professor with whom she had had a brief affair died from alcohol abuse in his condominium. His classes were, in part, popular because he entertained his undergraduates in psychology with a speaker from a BDSM group.
Then too I have difficulty comprehending how professors requiring students to keep journals of their masturbation and other sexual behaviors are teaching skills and abilities required in the workplace and the ever-changing global economy.
In humanities departments, where enrollments continue to decline drastically, there are often too few students to justify study of great philosophers or Shakespeare (even though the Bard could be quite bawdy), but there are seldom enough desks to accommodate collegians in human sexuality courses.
Some humanists are catching on slowly but surely, though. “It’s like that line from the movie: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” one professor told me. “Put sex in the title, and the kids will fill the seats.”
No one is suggesting that most courses concentrating on sex issues lack academic substance. I hope my own classes of that type have genuine merit. But the challenge institutions face in meeting students’ appetite for sexually oriented material is to prevent an overabundance of offerings that send a message that sex is the all-consuming focus of education and life.
The other task is to recognize that institutional review of course content and pedagogy are essential. Academic freedom is a red herring if it is used to violate the stated mission and ethics of an institution. Postadolescents freed from restrictions are vulnerable to the obsession with sex that already pervades their lives, so professors and administrators have an obligation to ensure institutional priorities are academic rather than driven by enrollment and finance.
If we care about students as much as we profess, we might also take second looks at dormitory situations. When we relinquished the burden of in loco parentis responsibility, we placed much of the weight on students themselves, and this does not always work well.
Sometimes the most unlikely student changes under peer pressure in the hypersexed campus culture. A character in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons offers insight into collegiate existence when she tells the novel’s heroine, “College is like this four-year period when you can try anything and everything -- and if it goes wrong, there’s no consequences …. College is the only time your life, or your adult life anyway, when you can really experiment, and at a certain point, when you leave, when you graduate or whatever, everybody’s memory like evaporates …. There’s no record and you leave college exactly the way you came in, pure as rainwater.”
She might be right about experimentation and lack of consequences. Greek housing and off-campus apartments offer invitations to “try anything and everything.” Dormitories should be different, but students everywhere tell stories of rules unenforced by youthful residence hall counselors, of vomit that decorates restrooms and halls after wild weekends, and of roommates' visitors who overstay their welcome for nights and days at a time.
The pressure to appear “cool,” to avoid “coming off as an inexperienced little girl” or an unsophisticated male means that compliant students are especially vulnerable and reluctant to protest being locked out for whatever time it takes roommates to complete the sex act. So they remain silent, however inconvenienced they might be. More egregious are the tales of those who engage in sex with roommates present.
This is not to say we have the right to eliminate so-called sexual expression. That would clearly cause student insurrection. But institutions do have the right and the responsibility to demand that students express their sexuality without inconveniencing or embarrassing others.
If our primary constituency is emerging adults and they wish to be treated as adults, then our message should be that while on campus, students must behave as adults. Simply put, normal adults do not require friends and neighbors to loiter on their porches and do not invite them into their bedrooms while they are having sex.
Owen Labrie and his unnamed classmate will inevitably be forgotten by the public, St. Paul’s School will recover, as educational institutions across the country have outlived sex scandals, and the media will move on to another sensational -- perhaps even more salacious -- story. But the messages colleges send will, for good or ill, have lasting effects.