Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Changing campus sexual culture: more than just students

Education, SexualityAndrew Smiler

Last week, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released its first report. Focused exclusively on colleges and universities, the Task Force’s primary recommendation was that institutions assess their own campus sexual culture. To facilitate this process, they also provided guidance on how to survey students in order to gain a better understanding of how common sexual assault is, students’ perceptions of sexual assault, and some of their related beliefs regarding sexuality and sexual assault.

It’s a limited start. To be sure, the White House deserves credit for drawing attention to campus rape and other forms of sexual assault. We all understand that having sex, possibly with strangers, is part of the college experience and that there may—or may not—be a “Hookup Culture.” We also understand drinking, sometimes excessively, is part of this culture. And we all hear seemingly annual stories of bad sexual stuff, like rape and sexually-based hazing. So the White House deserves a lot of credit for encouraging universities to do something.

But we need to understand that the recommendations are minimal. The Task Force recommends surveying students, but it says little about reviewing institutional policy. And that’s what Brown University Junior Lena Sclove needs.

She was assaulted and raped by a fellow student at the beginning of the 2013 school year, filed the appropriate complaint with the University Judicial system, and the perpetrator was eventually found “responsible” and suspended for a full academic year. (This is not a legal court, so it’s not about guilt.) He appealed, lost, and left campus before Thanksgiving, but will return in Fall 2014. Sclove, who won’t graduate until spring 2015, fears for her safety; with a population of 6,000 undergraduates, the university cannot guarantee that they will not have class together. I think Sclove expected more than that for her nearly $45,000 per year in tuition.

It’s not at all clear to me why this case was handled entirely by the university’s judicial system, but I do know that’s common. In this system, the requirement is that a “preponderance of the evidence” indicates responsibility; a preponderance often means 51% certainty, not the 98% you’d see for “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Then again, universities don’t have much in the way of teeth to attach to these penalties: removal from university housing, suspension, and expulsion. Those are severe penalties, to be sure, but for students who aren’t paying directly out of their own pocket, these penalties are an inconvenience and a potential embarrassment, nothing more. There’s always another college.

The Task Force discussed university judicial systems briefly. Their only substantive suggestion was that universities may want to explore the possibility of having a single hearing officer instead of a panel. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has expressed substantial concern about this change.

But I find no other discussion of university policy. There’s no discussion of the need to report felony level sexual assault or rape to the local authorities, even though it’s hard to imagine the university would refrain from reporting any other felonious behavior, such as assault, murder, theft, or arson.

The Task Force also failed to address the breadth of campus actors that are involved in both sexual health and sexual assault. As Sociologist Rebecca Plante and I described elsewhere, a broad swath of campus actors address sexuality, including residential life, student life, health centers, counseling centers, Women’s and LGBTQ centers, faculty (who teach human sexuality and related courses), and student organizations that sponsor events like “Take Back the Night.” Those folks should be at least reasonably on the same page regarding their messaging and should have department-level policies that don’t conflict with each other. And they should all have an understanding of young adult sexuality that includes what’s typical and what’s problematic.

There are other issues universities need to grapple with. In March 2014, Duke University student and porn star Miriam Weeks announced that she would return to campus to complete spring semester despite receiving death threats. Back in 2010, another Duke student, Karen Owen, compiled a senior thesis detailing her sexual experiences with student athletes; it became a viral hit after she sent it to three friends. How far does Duke need to go to keep Weeks safe? to keep Owen safe if one of her “subjects” had become violent after having his sexual history made public? As Forbes pointed out, there were also some interesting privacy issues regarding the Owen incident. And if that was truly meant as a senior thesis and not just Owen sharing a joke title with her friends, it certainly seems like a major failure of the Institutional Review Board (IRB), her thesis advisor, and the department’s ability to maintain research ethics regarding informed consent and participant confidentiality. Colleges may—or may not—need to have policy to guide their responses to future events like this. It’s not as though the internet.

In many ways, sexuality on campus is where alcohol on campus was thirty years ago. The 1980s saw sweeping changes in the way our nation and our campuses thought about alcohol, including the Reagan White House threatening to withhold federal highway money from states that failed to adopt “21 for everyone.” Universities haven’t stopped students from drinking, but they have made it harder for that to happen in university owned space and among university-affiliated organizations. They have no control over off campus spaces, and those may—or may not—be worse three decades later.

Personally, I think that universities should have as little involvement in their students’ sexual lives as possible. Or their choices regarding alcohol, for that matter. Our institutions of higher education are in the difficult position of housing thousands of young adults who seek both an education and a good time, while being on their own for the first time. It’s not an easy balance to strike.

Rules and cultural beliefs regarding alcohol were changed by involving everyone, not just the students, and it’s time to do the same regarding both healthy sexuality and sexual assault. The White House has taken a small first step. It’s time for the rest of us to walk with them.