Some geniuses at an Old Dominion University frat house rang in the school year by draping bed sheet banners out the windows during orientation. “Rowdy and Fun, Hope Your Baby Girl Is Ready for a Good Time,” “Freshman Daughter Drop Off,” and “Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too.”
The outrage was nearly instantaneous – from the university president, CNN, the BBC, the Washington Post, and well, you get the picture. Just as reliably, some commentators suggested that while the banners were clearly “crude and distasteful,” the response was overwrought. “It staggers me that this is an international news story covered by scores of outlets,” wrote Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.
They’re asking the wrong question. The proper response to the fraternity’s vulgarity is not to condemn men, or “rape culture,” but the sexual revolution itself. The agonies college campuses are now routinely experiencing are the result of a hyper-sexualized culture that has robbed the young of romance, courtesy, privacy, and, yes, love. The feminists call it “rape culture” and blame “traditional masculinity,” but they forget, if they ever knew, that “traditional” men were never encouraged to behave like this.
According to the Left (and that very much includes the federal government under President Obama’s leadership), we are in the midst of an epidemic of rape and sexual assault. According to the Right, we are in the throes of a “moral panic,” or rape hoax, that has led universities to railroad innocent young men in kangaroo courts while failing to hold women accountable for their behavior.
Hair on fire anti-rape activists insist sexual assault is epidemic. A recent Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” tells their side in chilling terms. Critics reply that the numbers are absurdly exaggerated.
To settle the question, the Washington Postrecently teamed up with the Kaiser Foundation to poll 1,053 young men and women between the ages of 17 and 26 who are now or recently were undergraduates at four-year institutions. The conclusion? It’s one in five, just as President Obama proclaimed at a White House event in January 2014.
If only it were that simple. The poll does shed some light on the sexual ecosystem at American colleges (56 percent, for example, believe alcohol and drugs are a problem, and 37 percent say the same about sexual assault) but, far from resolving the question about the prevalence of rape, the poll merely repeats the sloppiness of earlier surveys. “Twenty percent of women and five percent of men reported being sexually assaulted either by physical force or while incapacitated” the Post headline declared. The implication was clear: Criminal sexual violence is epidemic on college campuses.
But that is not what the survey proves. Deep into the Post’s coverage, we learn that the new Post/Kaiser poll used an extremely broad definition of sexual assault—much broader than the common understanding of the terms “rape” or “sexual assault.” While the poll included questions about forced vaginal and anal intercourse as well as forced oral sex, it also defined “forced touching of a sexual nature” this way: “Forced kissing, touching of private parts, grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way (even if it is over your clothes).”
Further, the poll encouraged students to include under “coercion” situations in which they had sex in response to “verbal . . . promises.”
These are exactly the sort of ambiguities and overly broad definitions that have yielded previous high estimates of the prevalence of rape. The Post/Kaiser survey acknowledged that it used questions and definitions similar to those of the now-famous 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study—the one that gave rise to the “one in five” statistic that has since become official government writ.
To be clear: None of the named behaviors is proper. All should be strongly condemned in a civilized society. And there is, in my judgment, no doubt that college campuses do have a problem with bad behavior of a sexual nature, and even rape in some cases. But is an unwelcome hand on the buttocks sexual assault? What about an unwelcome kiss on the lips? If the Post had run a story about gross behavior, the survey would have served as validation. Instead, they are representing the results as proving widespread, serious criminality—and that leads only to more confusion.
The new survey also reflected the ambiguity of earlier studies about the role of alcohol. The questions seemed to imply that if one or both students were drunk when the sexual contact happened, it could be sexual assault. But as one “survivor” told the Postin a follow up interview, “Whether the other person had the capacity to consent either is something to take into account. So it’s like we’re both raping each other.”
So here we go again, plunging into the same tail-chasing, unhelpful debate. The Left cries havoc, and demands that more men be punished and more civil liberties be curtailed. The Right cries foul, and objects that the “rape culture” is contrived. It’s not that the truth lies somewhere between these two poles—it’s that seeing the truth requires a different perspective entirely.
College campuses, like the rest of American society today, are struggling to contain the wreckage of the sexual revolution. Neither men nor women are happy with the chaotic and utterly unromantic world they’ve inherited. It’s a culture of drunken hook-ups and “booty calls,” where traditional courtship is dead and even dating is rare.
In pop culture, in entertainment, and even in redoubts of “higher” learning, crudeness and vulgarity have become commonplace. “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal,” shouted a bunch of Yale University undergraduates marching past women’s dorms. Our kids grow up bombarded by what feminist Ariel Levy has called “raunch culture,” just as a hormonal fire hose drenches their bodies. At the same time, a thousand spiky barriers stand in the way of mutual respect between the sexes. As for romance, it is like a transplanted tropical plant, struggling to survive in frozen soil.
Managing the transition to adulthood has never been easy or straightforward, but it is hard to think of a time when the path into the world of sex, relationships, and love has featured fewer rules or common understandings. Nor has there been a time in American history when so much of what the young are taught to prepare them for this stage is a product of ideology rather than our best understanding of the truth.
We’ve told the young that sex is “no big deal,” except for those with non-traditional inclinations, in which case, sex is their whole identity. They’ve been instructed that the crucial moral lesson they should take away from sex education is hygiene. They’ve learned that anything goes so long as both (or all) parties consent; and, most crucially, they’ve been schooled that there are no differences that matter between the sexes.
That last one especially is at the heart of the current chaos. Men have been invited to assume that women are neither more nor less sensitive than themselves when it comes to sex. Women have been encouraged to believe that engaging in casual hook ups is another step on the ladder to full equality. As the Roman poet Horace said, “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will still hurry back.”
The mess on college campuses is part of the larger chaos between men and women that characterizes modern America. This failure is no orphan. It can count among its fathers the sexual revolutionists and the feminists.