Campus sexual assault is a serious problem. It is not a new problem, not an emerging crisis, but rather a part of a serious ongoing problem of sexual assault and rape culture in the United States. Campus rape is the current moral panic about young people and sexual behavior. Women on college campuses are actually safer, statistically, from sexual assault than are women who are not college students. Regardless, right now there is a great deal of focus on campus assaults: Vanderbilt. UVA. Stanford. And those are just the big names that have been in the news over the past couple of months. Whether because of a conviction, an accusation, or a retraction, there is no question that this issue has captivated our sexual policy-making attention.
There are two primary policy changes being used to address the problem of campus sexual assault. One approach falls under the umbrella of affirmative consent. Affirmative consent policies require that all parties to a sexual interaction must verbally or otherwise actively communicate consent to any sexual activities in which they participate. The other falls under the umbrella of bystander intervention training. Since many campus assaults are thought to start at parties where there is lots of drinking going on, ideally these trainings would prevent assault by encouraging peers to stop potential assaults before they happen. A third strategy, one that is not being widely discussed or considered by campus governance bodies, but which is necessary if the first two are going to be effective, is ongoing sexuality-affirming sex and relationship education for young adults.
Ideally these three approaches would be used in concert and would reinforce each other to create a culture of enthusiastic consent on college campuses. Unfortunately, because the third piece is so frequently missing, we end up with a paradox: Policies demand affirmative consent in a cultural context where many men and women feel ashamed of or lack confidence about their sexual desires. Alcohol is often the social lubricant that eases internal conflict around sexual interaction, although other drugs are used as well, and the prevalence of drugs and alcohol at college parties complicates bystander intervention and affirmative consent alike.
None of these approaches on their own will solve the problem, and some are more problematic than others. There are no harmful or complicated side effects to providing sexuality-affirming sex and relationship eduction to young adults on college campuses; there is only the lack of political will to do so in an ongoing serious way. This cannot be said for the other two methods which are much more frequently adopted.
Bystander intervention training is a very promising approach, and has the added benefit of being useful in addressing many other kinds of social interaction problems as well. Bullying comes to mind in particular. But educating and training bystanders is complicated by the kinds of judgments – judgments related to other people’s sexual behavior – that must be made in the moment. In addition, since many campus assaults are thought to originate in alcohol and other drug consumption that begins at parties, intoxication may reduce the ability of bystanders to make good judgments too.
Affirmative consent policies are especially problematic. Given that they must be are enacted in a culture that doesn’t support women’s ability to enthusiastically own their sexual desires and doesn’t teach men to communicate about desire, emotion, or sexuality, they really articulate a social change goal more clearly than they represent a strategy for getting there. One particularly thoughtful defense of affirmative consent policies, written by Tara Culp-Ressler and published on ThinkProgress last June, inadvertently perhaps highlights exactly why affirmative consent is better thought of as a cultural change goal than as criminal justice policy. She writes:
Making sure someone else is enthusiastic about what you’re doing with them requires you to consider their wants and needs, think about how to bring them pleasure, and ultimately approach sex like a partnership instead of a means to your own end.
It’s admittedly somewhat of a departure from the way our society often approaches sex; recent studies have found that most college students feel uncomfortable voicing their desires during sexual encounters, and there’s a gender imbalance in whose pleasure is prioritized. But the emphasis on getting consent isn’t an effort to turn everyone into rapists. It’s just about encouraging better communication across the board.
It is, indeed, admittedly a departure from the way our society teaches us to be sexual, and while the intention behind affirmative consent policies is not to turn everybody into rapists, it doesn’t on its own, teach the self-awareness and communication skills it demands of young sexually active college students.
What does teach that self-awareness and those communication skills? Sexuality-affirming sex and relationship education. Such classes and workshops teach us how to put our desires into words without being ashamed and how to think about sex as a way of providing pleasure to others. They teach us how to set and maintain boundaries, and negotiate power. They teach us to affirm each other in our differences rather than stigmatizing those whose sexualities or desires don’t match our own. Unfortunately, as Aida Mandulay documents, these kinds of programs are routinely attacked by anti-sex feminists who illogically believe that teaching young people that sex and pleasure can go together safely encourages, rather than deters, assault. As a result, these programs are often relegated to “Sex Week” style events, which are also frequently attacked. And while those weeks are enormously valuable, they are limited to college campuses, which is not where women are most at risk, and they continue to segregate sexuality from other areas of inquiry, making it seem frivolous, or at least not very serious.
If we are truly concerned about addressing the problem of sexual assault, whether on campus or in our off-campus communities, we need to commit ourselves to increasing, rather than decreasing, access to sexuality-affirming sex and relationship education. Few things could be more serious.