Campus Sexual Assault: Real and Imagined

Undeterred by data debunking the notion that college campuses have become what Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has called “havens for rape and sexual assault,”  the Obama administration is now investigating 90 colleges and universities for possible alleged sexual violence. Suggesting that “women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus,” Senator Gillibrand introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act last summer.

The only problem is that much of what is reported about a so-called “epidemic” of campus sexual assault is false. A study released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that the rate of rape and other sexual assault over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for non-students of college age than for students on college campuses. In fact, campus sexual assault has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013. Far from being a site of violence, the study found that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.

Yet, hostage to the largesse of the federal government through student aid and federal grants, campus administrators have been forced to implement mandatory sexual assault workshops for students, faculty, and support staff. These are new federal requirements under Title IX—the gender equity law created in 1972 to protect individuals from discrimination based on sex in education. These requirements are mandated for all colleges and universities—including Catholic colleges and universities. Led by attorneys and representatives of a newly created sexual assault industry of victims’ advocates, faculty are warned that when credible allegations of sexual assault arise, the alleged perpetrator is barred from classes and campus events. And, in the moral panic surrounding sexual assault, any allegation is a credible allegation as punitive policies are implemented infringing on the civil rights of men.

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Claiming that campus sexual assault is a common phenomenon, the promoters of the panic have attempted to deploy the allegations of campus sexual assault against political opponents in what they see as evidence of the “war on women.” Senator Gillibrand, a major promoter of the panic, moved on to campus sexual assault after targeting what she called a military culture of “violence and power” last Spring. In March, Gillibrand demanded that the military chain of command be replaced with civilian legal processes in cases of sexual harassment and assault in the military—claiming that the military leadership is unable to deal with these issues.  Citing the now-discredited statistic that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year, panicked prosecutors and military leaders initiated some of the most preposterous prosecutions we have seen—until the tide of false sex abuse allegations on college campuses began to reach its height last Fall.

Politics always plays the pivotal role in any moral panic—especially a panic involving women portrayed as victims of a patriarchal culture. Exaggerated claims by advocates like Gillibrand and her sexual assault industry supporters are coupled with incendiary headlines in the media. Promoting the military sexual assault panic, the New York Times editorialized that the sexual assaults are the result of the “military’s entrenched culture of sexual violence.”

Those who dare question the existence of the “epidemic” of sexual assault on college campuses and military bases are vilified. Following the publication last spring of a Wall Street Journal column suggesting the possibility of a panic surrounding sexual assault, Terry O’Neil, president of NOW, called on the newspaper to fire author James Taranto because he is “determined to maintain or even deepen the rape culture that pervades campuses and much of society.”

And, when columnist George Will published a column in the Washington Post last June suggesting that when campuses “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate,” he was uninvited from speaking at Scripps College. Will is scheduled to provide the commencement address at Michigan State, but MSU President Lou Anna Simon issued a statement explaining that he was selected as speaker before he wrote the controversial June column. Simon added that having Will speak “does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress.”

The Hook-up Culture is the Real Problem
With all of the attention focused on the exaggerated claims of a sexual assault culture, the very real problem of the hook-up culture on these campuses—including some Catholic campuses, is ignored. In “Hooking Up at College: Does Religion Make a Difference?” an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that appeared a few years ago, sociology professors Amy Burdette, Terrence Hill, Christopher Ellison and Norval Glenn described the results of a comparative study of the dating behavior of college students. Drawing from a national sample of 1,000 college women, the sociologists surveyed female college students in an effort to analyze the influence of both individual and institutional religious factors on engaging in casual sexual encounters. The results revealed that “hooking up” has replaced traditional forms of courtship on college campuses and appears to be a reflection of the changing norms in the dating and sexual behaviors of college students.

In their study. Burdette attempted to point to the role that “moral communities” have historically played in the lives of students. They hypothesized that those communities with shared moral convictions would have a strong moral influence on students. Predicting that Catholic campuses, for example, would have a moralizing influence on their students, Burdette and her colleagues were surprised to learn when they analyzed their survey data that this was not the case on the Catholic campuses they studied.

Although the goal of the study was to determine whether or not religious affiliation and activity would make a difference in the students’ decision to participate in casual sex, the authors found that “not all religiously affiliated colleges and universities constitute moral communities.” In fact on several of the Catholic campuses they studied a “moral community” was completely missing. While women enrolled in Evangelical Protestant colleges were much less likely to participate in the hook-up culture, women enrolled in Catholic colleges were more likely to have “hooked up” while at school than women at colleges with no religious affiliation.

While the sample size was not adequate to make generalizations about the hook-up culture on all Catholic campuses, and the authors did not control for “faithfulness” of the campus culture on hooking-up behavior, the results suggest that the hook-up culture is common on some Catholic college campuses. And, more importantly the women surveyed are unhappy with the role they have been pressured to play in the hook-up culture that has developed on their campuses.

The Hook-up culture is real—and it is likely that there is a link between the hook-up culture and the panic over sexual assault on college campuses. Sadly, the response to the sexual assault panic will do little to change this culture as the “protective” policies actually end up removing power from women—creating instead, female children unable to stand up for themselves and in need of protection by the now-entrenched sex codes created by college campus feminists. Re-moralizing the campus can happen. For instance, Catholic University has re-instated single sex dorms in an attempt to help students create a healthier culture. Other campuses are implementing similar kinds of programs. Creating moral communities should be the goal for all Catholic college leaders.

(Photo credit: Christine Baker / The Patriot News)


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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