Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Let's talk about sex on campus

Education, SexualityAndrew Smiler

Nonconsensual sex on campus has been a persistent topic of public conversation over the last few years. The current academic year has included a first-person account of rape published in the Amherst College student paper and a subsequent oversight-committee report, student protests that led the administration at Dartmouth College to cancel classes for a day, and claims that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill retaliated against a student who HAD spoken publicly about the institution's lack of response to her claims of sexual assault. And in what seems like an annual event, a high-profile athletic team was investigated for sexual assault; this year it was the University of Montana football team.

Administrators may think there is little they can do, because sexual conduct and misconduct reflect individual choices that are beyond institutional control—but we disagree. Campus-based awareness, educational, and support programs—including events to promote safety, rape-awareness activities, and counseling services for victims—suggest that the institution plays an important role. When sexual assault or rape occurs, campus police and the institutional judicial system often, but not always, become involved; local police and courts rarely do.

Critics accurately point out that most safety programs teach "don't getraped" instead of teaching "don't rape," and that other programs help victims but don't prevent victimization. They argue that campus judicial systems do not effectively handle subsequent concerns about safety: Victims are typically left to alter their course schedules and living arrangements to ensure that they don't come in contact with perpetrators. This creates neither a sense of safety nor a positive learning environment for those trying to cope. What's more, prohibiting victims from speaking publicly about their cases suggests that these judicial systems are more interested in protecting the college's image than in protecting students.

Several factors make this a particularly vexing issue, not least among them the propensity among administrators to view students' sexual behavior as a private matter. Perhaps reasonably, colleges encourage students to make informed decisions and be responsible for their own actions.

Nonetheless, sexuality is discussed all over the typical campus: Residential-life and student-affairs offices offer programs like "Take Back the Night," undergraduates lead organizations that educate students about sex, and women's- and gender-studies centers and LGBTQ organizations provide information and guidance. Faculty members teach courses on human sexuality, housed in a broad variety of departments. Student health centers deal with reproductive health, particularly with information on sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy prevention. The counseling center often helps survivors cope with trauma. Sexual assault is prohibited under conduct and honor codes, described in student-policy handbooks and enforced by institutional judicial processes and the campus police.

But sexuality is far broader and more complex than even that range of services would indicate. Although the vast majority of adults have sexual experience, most have little formal education on the topic and rely on fragmented information and broad cultural scripts to guide their beliefs about both sexuality and gender.

In some ways, the issue of student sexual behavior parallels several decades of concerns about alcohol on campus. In the past, campuses took a piecemeal and often reactionary position that encouraged students not to drink; penalties were applied intermittently and inconsistently. In response to cultural changes in the 1980s, like the increase in the minimum drinking age to 21 in all states and the enacting of stricter drunk-driving laws, colleges looked critically at their campus cultures, including the systems and programs that facilitated alcohol consumption, and made changes. As a result, undergraduates experience a different campus alcohol environment today than they did 20 years ago. Alcohol is not so easily available on campuses; many Greek systems work with administrations to deal with alcohol concerns; and treatment programs are more readily accessible, among other interventions.

It is now time to begin to understand sexual cultures on campuses and to begin a sustained, coordinated effort to create a sexually healthy population of undergraduates. It will not be comfortable, in part because of a general cultural discomfort with talking in public about sex.

Campus sexual cultures are composed of far more than the sexual assaults and traumas that make news, more than the contraception-and-prophylaxis pamphlets found in many campus health-center waiting rooms. Campus sexual cultures also include the many ways students meet, mingle, and become sexual with each other. "Sexual health" is more than the absence of sexual victimization, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies; it includes the emotional, physical, mental, ethical, and even spiritual aspects of well-being. Sexual health and well-being includes understanding individual desires, respecting self and others, and developing a sexual self that has boundaries, openness, and pleasure.

Understanding campus sexual culture means examining institutional structures that can facilitate sexual health, broadly speaking, as well as structures that respond to sexual misconduct, to determine what they're doing well and where they can improve. That also means developing comprehensive strategies that identify goals and promote coordination across a broad spectrum of the college: campus-life professionals; legal-affairs units; mental- and physical-health staff; student leaders; the campus police; and faculty, among others. It means examining the ways in which institutional structures respond to the heady mix of alcohol, drugs, and sex that are foundational to many campus sexual climates.

Understanding campus sexual culture also means talking with many students, undergraduate and graduate, about their sex lives and their perceptions of sexuality and the campus climate, both functional and dysfunctional. There are certainly methodological challenges in obtaining accurate information about these topics, as sexuality researchers know. In many cases, institutions are likely to hear about their failings, some of which may be dramatic. But these narratives and voices are necessary to create effective change.

One thing is clear: There is increasing pressure from students, the legal system, and public organizations to make campuses sexually safer and, ideally, healthier. So let's get started.

Authored by Andrew P. Smiler and Rebecca F. Plante. Originally published in the Chronicle.