Op-Ed: Sexual assault on campus and the curse of the hookup culture
Survey students about the problem. Train victim advocates. Urge bystanders to intervene.
You can find these suggestions — and other equally sound ones — in the report issued last week by a White House task force on sexual assault at U.S. colleges. But here’s a recommendation that you won’t find in it: Challenge the hookup culture that dominates undergraduate life.
Although about 40% of female college seniors report that they are virgins or have had sex only once, many others are engaging in sexual activity. At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey.
The culture is marked by a lack of commitment and especially of communication between partners, who rarely tell each other what they actually want. So it has also brought with it an appalling amount of unwanted sex.
Consider a study of 2,500 college students published last year by Donna Freitas. She confirms what we already knew: Many students engage in casual sex. More than that, though, the book shows that students feel a great deal of pressure to keep the sex casual; that is, to remove themselves emotionally from it.
“It’s just something that I feel like as a college student you’re supposed to do,” one woman told Freitas. “It’s so ingrained in college life that if you’re not doing it, then you’re not getting the full college experience.”
A double standard still governs here because a woman with too many hookups can be deemed a “slut” or worse. But both sexes are supposed to keep their feelings out of it, as best they can.
“My college friends … are constantly warning me about guys getting too attached, or keeping myself at a distance,” another woman told Freitas. “They advise me to hold my cards close and play them strategically to get what I want.”
What most students of both sexes really want — as my own students often tell me — is a long-standing, romantic relationship. But the hookup code works against that, encouraging them to remain isolated and detached.
And a good way to do that is to get drunk. According to a 2007 study, more than half of college sexual encounters with someone who is not a steady partner involve alcohol. Many people don’t even talk to their hookups afterward; instead, they stumble home to tell their friends.
Given this context, should we be surprised that one-fourth to one-fifth of female students are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault during college? “Consent” requires both parties to talk to each other about their feelings and desires. And the hookup culture discourages precisely that kind of rapport.
I’m not calling for a return to the days when universities barred women from entertaining men in their rooms, or required them to keep their doors open — and their feet on the floor — when they did so. Students protested against such invidious rules, which fell away in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Now they’re demanding a new set of rules, not to prohibit sex but to prevent the coerced kind. Much of the new attention to the problem has been generated by college women, who have used social media to call for more accurate information about sexual assault, better treatment of victims and so on. Too many women still feel that they can’t report a rape or that universities don’t take it seriously when they do. Of course we need to change that.
But we also need to change the hookup culture itself, which replaced one set of flawed instructions with another. We’ve gone from “just say no” to “just say yes,” from “don’t do it” to “everybody does it.” Actually, they don’t; remember that 40% cited above who didn’t? But there’s still a perception that college is about sex, and that you can’t have one without the other.
There’s also a feeling that sex should be devoid of feeling, at least of the emotional or romantic kind. That’s a formula for misery and, yes, coercion. If you don’t really connect with your partner, you won’t know what they want. And you might end up doing something they don’t want.
“Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” said Vice President Joe Biden last week. “We need to provide survivors with more support, and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice.”
He’s right. But we also need to provide our students with an altogether different model of sex, one based not on impersonal hookups but on human intimacy. It’s not enough to say that no means no. What are we saying yes to, and why?
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is completing a history of sex education, which will be published next spring.
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