The issue of sexual assault on college campuses has become an important conversation in the media, academia and among students themselves—including Duke students.
According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college whereas 90 percent of sexual assaults will go unreported. Duke’s Student Affairs has conducted its own research to evaluate the prevalence of sexual assault cases in the undergraduate and graduate student bodies. It has found that in the year 2015-2016, 16.8 percent of undergraduate women report having been sexually assaulted; 39 percent deemed their assault “upsetting” and 11 percent “very upsetting.”
The dominant narrative regarding this widespread problem argues that although sex should remain completely free, it must also be consensual. In other words, although no code of morality should regulate sex—other than the code of morality one prescribes to oneself—the prevention of rape and sexual assault relies on the fact that both sexual partners agree to the same sexual act.
The problem is that what consent means has been subject to debate in recent years. Initially, a “no means no” consensus developed. If a person said “no” to performing a sexual act and the partner still went ahead with the sexual act, this behavior would be considered sexual assault or rape.
However, in the early 2010s, feminists and social activists started arguing that women often feel pressured or intimidated to comply with the sexual advances of males, rendering them unable to voice a clear opposition to performing certain sexual acts. In order to put an end to all ambiguity, activists pushed for a more stringent definition of consent: “yes means yes.”
So far, this has been fairly successful; for example, the state of California adopted Bill SB967, which defined legal consent according to the principles of “yes means yes.” In California, if someone has sexual intercourse with a partner and that partner files a complaint against him or her, the accused is considered guilty until he or she can prove that the complainant provided continuous affirmative consent. This entails saying “yes” or showing clear “enthusiasm” for each and every sexual act the partner performs.
DB967 and other legislations based on “yes means yes” were widely criticized by numerous legal scholars and practitioners across the country. Apart from the problem that the government now codifies the way people performed their most intimate act—sex—“yes means yes” represents a flagrant breach to due process. Due process establishes that a person is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise, not that a person is presumed guilty unless proven otherwise.
Even if cases of victims falsely accusing perpetrators of sexual assault are extremely rare, and even if many victims face the stigma of not being believed for their testimony, we should still trust the tradition of the rule of law. Indeed, since our elders drafted the British Habeas Corpus Act in 1679, they understood that the best protection against tyranny does not rely on emotions, assumptions or dogma; it depends on reasonable evidence.
However, the bigger questions remain. How do we protect women and men against the risk of sexual assault and rape? How should we define consent in a way that legally protects people yet respects the rule of law? Is consent even enough to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assault?
First we must understand that sexual assault on colleges campuses do not happen in a vacuum; rather, it occurs in the context of the “hookup culture,” as many scholars have noted. “Hookup,” as sociologist Lisa Wade notes in American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, can be defined in a variety of ways ranging from mere kissing to vaginal penetration. However, it often implies a sexual encounter that is free from sentimental or romantic entanglements.
According to Wage, students today do not have more sexual partners than their parents had during their time in college. The difference between both generations lies in the emergence of the hookup culture, which makes students believe that hooking up is the norm—even the desirable norm. Men feel pressured to hook up with as many girls as possible, especially girls that match the societal understanding of “hotness,” in order to uphold their masculinity. Women gradually feel pressured to forego their feelings of attachment and give way to men’s sexual demands and fantasies. The main takeaway is that this culture loathes attachment, relationship, sacrifice and love; instead, it glorifies immediate pleasure.
Working within the hookup culture, college administrators and lawmakers have come up with the concept of consent. They have thought, “Just like people involved in a business deal, you students only seem interested in short term personal gain, not long term relationships. Therefore, we’ve got to make sure that both parties agree to the terms of the deal, which means signing—or agreeing orally to—a document that specifies all the terms of the deal: consent.”
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Here arises the fundamental contradiction of consent in the post-sexual revolution era. “Alright, would you like me to introduce my penis in your mouth, and then later in your vagina?” “That’s cool, honey, I only agree to vaginal penetration.” These interactions are supposed to express people’s most intimate feelings and desires, ones they might even hide from their closest friends or siblings. For partners to be straightforward about what kind of sexual acts they are willing to perform, they must build relationships of trust, respect and sacrifice: relationships that are unambiguous about the shared love upon which they are built. This is incompatible with the hookup culture.
This column is driven from a very personal story. It took me awhile to free myself from the expectations of the hookup culture that were alienating me; it took me awhile to realize, through my readings and experiences, what this culture truly is: a recipe for greed, betrayal and rape. Thanks to my renewed Catholic faith, I now view sex not as a way to attain immediate pleasure, but as a way to express love for a partner and to bridge a long-lasting, deep relationship. Indeed, as Jesus said in the Gospel, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
But I also would like to open a conversation on campus. I believe the ideology of moral relativism has shown its limits. In order to truly tackle the problems of sexual assault and rape, we must combat the hookup culture itself. We must go back to the wisdom of religions and ancient philosophies, which uphold that what is legal is not necessarily ethical. Most importantly, we must figure out ways to foster a campus culture where students treat each other not as meat, but rather as human beings worthy of esteem and love.
Emile Riachi is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “the voice of dissent,” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.