by James A. Bacon
Emotions are running high in the discussion of the “epidemic of rape” at the University of Virginia. I get the sense that we’re wandering in a fog. Not only are there wildly conflicting numbers regarding the incidence of rape (a worthy topic for another blog post), making it difficult to gauge how extensive the problem is, people are talking past one another. There is considerable conceptual confusion about what is happening on college campuses and why.
As I see it, there are three broad frameworks for approaching the issue of sexual relations and sexual assaults at UVa. The first reflects the perspective of traditional morality, which recognizes the flawed nature of mankind and applies traditional norms for regulating sexual behavior. The second, the Darwinian outlook, seeks to understand the relationship between the sexes from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this view, the male and female sexes have evolved different reproductive and mating strategies to maximize their genetic fitness, and often want different different things from sexual encounters. The third, the deconstructionist view, strips God and biology out of the equation and asserts that gender and sexual norms are purely social constructs.
In the United States, I would argue, we have transitioned from a set of institutional arrangements based upon traditional morality (pre-marital sex on campus is to be stifled) to institutional arrangements based upon the deconstructionist philosophy (anything goes… except for violence against women) without paying much heed to the biological basis of human behavior.
Traditional morality recognizes the power of the sexual impulse, generally framing it as a temptation to be resisted outside of marriage. The emphasis on chastity, especially female chastity, made sense in the era preceding the sexual revolution when sex was inextricably joined with procreation. Chaste women did not get pregnant, they did not bear children out of wedlock and they were not saddled with the financial and psychological obligation of raising a child (or children) alone. Traditional sexual morality was entwined with the traditional view of the family: that children are best raised in the same household as their biological parents. Traditional morality extended to the campus as well. Men did not always act behave like chivalrous “gentlemen” towards ladies, but society expected them to and condemned them when they didn’t. While rapes did occur on campus, they were relatively rare and they were regarded as scandalous. As a consequence, there was no “epidemic of rape.”
The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought an end to traditional morality on campus. Once upon a time, men and women lived in segregated dorms, colleges restricted men’s access to women’s dormitory rooms, fraternities had house mothers and parties were chaperoned. All of those restrictions and inhibitions have been cast away. Much to the delight of students, colleges got out of the business of enforcing traditional sexual morality. The attitude of college administrators became one of moral laissez-faire: What the students did was their own business.
Reinforcing the relaxation of traditional standards were pervasive changes in society at large. Divorce became common. Out-of-wedlock births were de-stigmatized. Acceptance of gay sexuality spread. Perhaps most important, many proponents of traditional morality updated their values for the age of birth control. When men and women frequently delay marriage until their 30s, it is unrealistic to expect them to remain chaste for 15 years or more. Most Baby Boomer parents of college-bound children are comfortable with channeling sexual relations channeled into loving monogamous relationships outside marriage. These neo-traditional relationships need not be life-long but they are underpinned by a strong conviction that committed partners do not cheat on one another. Promiscuity is frowned upon. Among families of college-bound men and women today, the ideal of serial monogamy is arguably the dominant ethos. Thus, serial monogamy is the default moral setting for most college-bound kids when they arrive on campus.
But college culture is very different from the culture of broader society. For one, colleges are jam-packed with 18- to 22-year-olds at the peak of physical attractiveness and desire. They have more freedom and less responsibility than at any time of their lives, and many have every intention of taking full advantage of the fact. They are ready to party and have fun. They are also much more precocious about sex than their Baby Boomer parents. While Boomers learned about sex by sneaking peeks at “dirty magazines,” young people today are exposed to ubiquitous online pornography. To a significant degree, relations between the sexes has been pornofied. Because the dominant market for pornography is sex-obsessed young males, the id-driven fantasies of sex-obsessed young males has become the template for modern-day sexual coupling. Women are treated as objects whose purpose is to provide sexual gratification to men.
Concurrent with the revolution of ubiquitous pornography has been the feminist revolution, asserting female rights and prerogatives in a male-dominated society. In society at large, feminism was associated mainly with such workforce issues as equal pay, sexual harassment and the glass ceiling. Many women deemed themselves feminists even while adhering to neo-traditional norms of serial monogamy. But colleges and universities have become a petri dish for all manner of radical offshoots. Rejecting traditional morality associated with an oppressive male patriarchy, one strand of strand of feminism insisted that women should be free to explore their sexuality as freely as men supposedly do — seeking a variety of partners in expectation-free, guilt-free encounters. This strand of thought is underpinned by the conviction that traditional gender roles and sexual preferences are purely social constructs. There is no “human nature.” Men and women should be free to define their own sexuality however they please, whether they are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. (I would hasten to add that some feminists abhor pornography for its objectification of women. The feminist movement is hardly monolithic.)
So, three broad cultural trends have intersected in college campuses: the laissez-faire approach of college administrations; the pornofication of sexuality, especially though not exclusively among young men; and the spread of feminist views of sexuality among young women. This would be a combustible mix under any circumstances. But colleges add two more ingredients: binge drinking and a fraternity sub-culture that celebrates male bonding and solidarity, which at its best can lead to long-lasting ties of brotherhood but at its worst can descend into misogyny. Continue reading