College Sex: 50 Shades of Black and White

A few days ago, I wrote a TIME.com column arguing that allegations of sexual assault on college campuses are hard to adjudicate (and even harder to prosecute) because, unfortunately, these cases often contain shades of grey: What to do about He said/She said reports where there are no witnesses and no evidence? Do you turn a rapist loose in the community or ruin the life of a falsely accused person? What about the cases where it’s not clear if consent was communicated? What about the cases where one person says, “I didn’t want this” and the other person says, “But you unrolled the condom for me?” What about the cases where alcohol clearly played a role but it’s unclear who was impaired (one? both?) and, if so, were the parties so impaired that they couldn’t give or understand consent? This kind of thing happens with dismaying frequency.

A lot of people took issue with my column and the outrage stems from my suggestion that there can be ambiguity in sexual assault claims, particularly the ones that are made on college campuses. One commenter wrote:

“This article was the most disgusting, condescending, apologist, victim-blaming piece of drivel I have ever read, and the author should take personal responsibility for the exclusionary Stone Age garbage that she has shared with us in her pathetic ignorance.”

But my “Stone Age garbage” was an attempt to acknowledge the potential ambiguity in some of these sexual situations. When we fail to recognize this potential for ambiguity, we lose sight of the bigger picture: Why is college sex that falls short of “assault” nonetheless so unbelievably dysfunctional? Why are women’s bodies still such a battle zone on 21st century campuses? Why aren’t we addressing the risk factors that create sexual misconduct at college (including rape) in the first place?

I’ve written publicly about women’s issues on many occasions and I just need to put that ‘out there.’ You can read some of my published work about women here. But my street cred on women’s issues doesn’t stop me from seeing that there can be a grey zone when it comes to sex.

But let’s back up a little. Can we agree that there are all kinds of non-sexual things that fall under the category of “wrong” that have shades of grey? I’m pretty sure there are degrees of bad parenting, for example. Feeding your child a bottle of grape soda every day is clearly wrong but it’s not quite in the same category of “bad parenting” as forcing your kid to drink bleach. Spanking a child once is not quite in the same category as covering your child’s body in 2nd degree burns and welts. There are gradations of all kinds of bad things: vandalism, incivility, bullying, cruelty. Stealing a sandwich – even stealing someone’s car –  is not the same as stealing a child.

I want to be clear: acknowledging grey zones in sexual situations is NOT the same thing as saying there are different kinds of rape. I entirely reject the distinction between “forcible” rape and other rape. Rape is rape! Memo to Todd Akin: there is no “legitimate” or illegitimate rape. Nor can we make statements about what ‘kind’ of rape inflicts the worst consequences; only the individual involved can know how the rape affects her; one person’s non-violent acquaintance rape could be much worse than another’s physically devastating stranger rape. I’ve said so here. I’ll say it again: rape is rape.

But to say that “rape is rape” is not the same thing as saying that “all rape allegations are rape.” Nor is it the same thing as saying, “all rape allegations should be prosecuted as rape even when to do so would violate basic due process and common sense and legal precedent. I’m sorry but this must be said:

There is a grey zone where sex is concerned and it is not always the job of college administrators – it can’t always be the job of college administrators – to adjudicate every single demeaning, sleazy, regrettable, wrong sexual experience.

What concerns me about the current “sexual violence” climate on campus is this: I think by over-reaching and putting, essentially, all sexual behavior under the authority of the ‘grown ups’ (the deans and resident advisors and judicial board members and sexual assault response folks), we are in a very profound way communicating – as always – Hey, kids! (and I use that term advisedly because, let’s be honest, you’re not actually kids): ‘We don’t trust you to act or think like adults. Let us do the heavy lifting for you. Behave however you want and when things go in the wrong direction, we’ll step in and take your statements and have some hearings and at the end of the day, guess what? Nine times out of ten, we’re not going to do anything because we don’t actually have any real evidence  one way or another. And one or both of you are going to feel really angry and abused by the whole process.’

Meanwhile, the repulsive sexual climate on campus – a climate the enables demeaning, sleazy, regrettable sex and, yes, rape, toocontinues as ever before. Women are treated like sexual objects. Men act like dogs. People are shocked, shocked that when you head over to a fraternity so drunk you can’t walk straight and then find yourself in a dark room (Were you led there? Did you walk on your own accord? How can we tell?), you might wake up wishing you hadn’t given consent for sexual intercourse. Why are we surprised to discover that the same college culture that encourages young men to think of women’s bodies as trash receptacles for their semen would also encourage young men to mistreat or actually rape women?

To speak of these things invites accusations of victim-blaming and  missing the point. What does alcohol have to do with sexual misconduct? Well, actually, a lot. I can’t think of a single sexual misconduct case on campus that doesn’t involve alcohol, and I challenge anyone to disagree with me substantively. I know, I know: women shouldn’t have to take steps to prevent rape. They should be able to walk down the street naked. They should be able to be drunk at frat parties. Yes. I agree. And let me reprise the hilarious-but-trenchant satire of rape prevention dogma that I posted a while back:

And yet… back in the reality based world, we all know that the exercise of bad judgment sometimes results in consequences. The truth is, people generally don’t like risk factors; they suggest a path to prevention that might carry some kind of judgment or personal responsibility. But to pretend that there are no known “risk factors” for having some degree of bad sexual experience is a lie.

We tell ourselves a lot of lies about sex and one of the most pernicious is the claim that “sexual misconduct” is always intentional, that it’s black or white. You either gave consent or you didn’t. If a person says it was rape, it was rape (and the rapist knew he was raping and wanted to rape.) I don’t know what planet you’re living on but on my planet, people don’t always communicate their sexual expectations and experiences clearly to one another. Especially, I might add, young horny drunk people who are ‘hooking up.’

I return to my main point: there is a grey zone where sex is concerned. And it’s not only impossible but on some level dangerously naïve to think that outside parties (those notorious college administrators who are apparently such a-holes) can always find truth, much less justice, where sexual misconduct is concerned. There is no magical process where that will happen! Not on college campuses, and even less so in the real world of police reports and courtrooms.

So what do we do about sexual misconduct? Assault? Rape? We have to change the dysfunctional culture that makes is so prevalent! We shouldn’t be responding; we should be preventing.

Some kind of social contract has broken down between young men and women. Most of us would laugh out loud if we heard phrases like “ungentlemanly behavior” and “taking advantage” of a woman. But those words are pretty effective at describing a lot of the creepy stuff that goes on every day on campus. There was a deal not too long ago – after the sexual revolution of the 1960s but back when people still occasionally went on ‘dates’ and could answer the question, ‘Are you in a relationship?’ with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There was a deal back then that in exchange for men’s greater physical strength and more consistent ability to have a quick orgasm, they were supposed to agree not to act like animals. And women were supposed to understand that, yes, it’s cool to have as much sex as you want, but seriously, ladies: it might not be such a great idea to drink nine shots of vodka before staggering over to the frat house on a Saturday night unless you really planned on having some kind of ‘congress’ with a guy. There was a time when people understood that most horny young men really did want to get in your pants. And if you didn’t want that – because, to be honest, how many women are actually getting off, sexually, from these ultra-informal sexual escapades? (Some women are, undoubtedly, but not everyone, if we are to believe the statistics on sexual satisfaction from casual sex encounters.) Well, then, maybe it wouldn’t be such a smart idea to take your clothes off in front of a young man and send him out to buy condoms.

There was also a time when people accepted that you could be a sexual jerk or an idiot once in a while without concluding that a catastrophe had taken place that would mark you forever. (By the way, one of my commenters called me a “skank” yesterday, and the thought did cross my mind briefly, ‘If you only knew…”)

I’m NOT defending or suggesting a return to 1950s sexual norms. I’m not saying women are the guardians of male sexuality. I’m not saying women don’t like sex (although, I think they’re not enjoying hook up sex as much as the media think they are.) We don’t have to go back in time to move forward. But we do have to move forward. We need realistic and respectful sexual norms for a new century.

I think our too-encompassing definitions of ‘sexual violence’ and our nannyish approach to human sexuality are doing a disservice to the very young people (women and men) we are trying to protect. Let’s get serious about preventing, not just responding to, the chronic sexual degradation and abuse of college women.

It’s very hard to think when you’re having sex. But who else can do it for you?

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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14 Responses to College Sex: 50 Shades of Black and White

  1. misslisted says:

    Complex issues indeed…we need to not be afraid to have these discussions, and not allow others to shut us down. These are difficult conversations to have, but the more we have them, the easier it will become for all of us to build consensus on what is right behavior.

    You are absolutely right that these are nuanced situations. Of course rape is rape, but that does not mean we cannot have intelligent discourse on the complexities and realities of real life “grey areas”. This is coming from a woman who just finally published her own rape story. Thank you.

  2. Jef says:

    What would you consider getting serious about preventing Sexual Violence? The poster you’ve inserted here in my opinion isn’t. It shows me how far the Navy has to go. If our definitions are too encompassing what would you reduce it to?

  3. Aimee says:

    Excellent, Erika. I think this is an incredibly complex issue. I especially like the part about definitions about dating and decent behavior that were intact in my “dating” days in the late-80s/early-90s. What surprises me the most is how it sounds like college women do not “stick together” in party situations as much as we (my friends and I) did. It would have been unthinkable to move on to another party and leave a girlfriend behind in questionable circumstances. Even if we noticed she had wandered out of our midst for too long, and in quite a state of inebriation ourselves, we’d go on a friend-finding mission.

    Besides changes in social norms between men & women, have the “Standard Operating Procedures” shifted for women looking out for their female friends? (That’s not a rhetorical question – I’m truly curious.)

    • Thanks, Aimee.

      I think that the “sexual police” administrative culture of college campuses has totally disempowered women (and men). It’s politically incorrect to operate from the assumption that you (a woman) have to ‘watch yourself’ at a party or be cared for by others.That reeks of ‘victim-blaming’ — even though it’s common sense. Since young people are entrained to believe that their sex lives are not really in their full control, and are subject to regulation by authority figures, they don’t really have to think through the steps that would lead to a good or less good or bad choice in the same way that young women (and men) did all the time in the olden days.

      That said, my sense is that women do really care for one another, from what I see in non-party settings, but whether that translates into sticking together at a party, I don’t know. A lot of women students have told me that guys they like will text them at midnight, asking if they want to “hang out” and of course that means, ‘would you like to come over and give me a …?” These women say they don’t always know how to respond to these requests, which they understand to be one-sided and ungenerous and not moving toward something ‘legitimate.’ Nonetheless, they want/like the sexual attention and are often interested in these guys, hoping it will result in something more. I mention this because I think that technology has enabled more casual interactions (which are often hidden from other people.) Back in the Jurassic era, you did have to make a bit more fac-to-face (so to speak) effort to arrange a one night stand. Yes, we had telephones, but we didn’t use them to arrange hookups! So I guess it’s possible that a lot of the sexual malfeasance has its roots in more virtual (and more private) settings – less subject to the supervision of friends?

      I don’t really know. I’m not a sociologist, so take my musings with a huge grain of salt.

  4. NJ says:

    As a rape counselor, resident adviser and then resident director at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 1979 to 1981 I can tell you that we stressed education concerning topics of concern for students newly away from home (some young people have never been taught common sense dealing with many and different types of people in close quarters and/or in a communal living environment). Knowledge and understanding different points of view goes a long way towards prevention of harmful or illegal activity. Sometimes we had to force certain people to attend classes. Don’t know if it helped them – but at least they had no excuses if they crossed certain lines!

    I think this is a legitimate part of the university educational environment. Especially with young adults on their own for the first time who may not have thought of how to handle freedom and sexual situations. Some even experimenting and coming to terms with their sexuality.

    But, when I remember those days, what I really think about most is Becky. The girl who accepted a ride back to her dorm from a friend of a friend. She thought he was nice – and friendly. He looked normal and even handsome and seemed popular. Because it was snowy, cold and he was her friends good friend and she desperately wanted to leave – she accepted the ride. When he gallantly offered to walk her to her room, she thought he was being kind and thoughtful because of the late hour. Until he pushed her into her room and raped her.

    HE LIKED it so much – a month later, he waited outside her room and did it again. His coming back and doing it a second time on my floor irked me as I was her RA. We looked out for each other as much as we could, but if someone WANTS to harm someone – they’ll find a way.

    But lets give HIM the benefit of the doubt with the so-called “grey” area for a moment. Perhaps he thought she wanted it because she got into his car and agreed to let him escort her to the room. Maybe for him that meant she was inviting him for sex. Maybe it was a grey area for him – but it was not for her! She did NOT want sex – only the kindly offered ride and escort that he offered!

    Of course, we know HE didn’t misunderstand a thing when he came back and snuck up on her the second time. He ruined her romantic relationships for years (she put her boyfriend at that time through hell). She just couldn’t trust a man after that. This handsome young rapist nearly ruined her college career as she had trouble concentrating also. I pray that she’s learned to cope all these years later…

    I also think of the cold snowy night that I went to the store and upon return along the same route – not more than 10 minutes later – found that awful fresh trail of blood. I followed it through the rear doors into Alice Lloyd Hall, through the hallway into the elevator. I don’t know how I ended up at the sixth floor – but that’s where she was. Cut head to toe. Beaten and raped.

    She had gone to the store 10 minutes before myself for a few glass bottled Pepsi. I had also done a Pepsi run – but I was lucky and she wasn’t. She ran into drunk members of a certain sports team (not football or basketball…). They wanted to have a little fun and broke her Pepsi bottles and cut her up before they gang banged her. The University tried to protect those animals. Fortunately, her family was such that she got justice. If justice was possible when one thinks of the plastic surgeries necessary to repair her scarred face and body (not to mention her psyche).

    My daughter is now a junior at a well-known top college. I pray everyday that she learned just a little from my experiences. That she chooses friends well – WOMEN as well as men. Your lady friends can lead you into just as much danger as any guy. That she doesn’t take risk like over drinking or accepting rides – especially from “friends of friends.” That she doesn’t put her drink down and some idiot dopes her. That she doesn’t go into some guys room or an enclosed library room out of sight with the intention of studying and ends up with her shirt off and in a situation she didn’t want and no way to get out of it (as tough and as knowledgeable as I was and am – it happened to me).

    I counsel the same with my son. Girls aren’t all sweet angels – which can lead to misunderstandings. Also, one guy I know of was drunk and raped by his friend at a party. He was devastated that it could happen to a tough guy. Well, anything can happen when you’re passed out drunk! I’ve even seen the case of a girl pushed too far by another girl!

    Again, part of the solution is education. I truly believe that some “grey” area misunderstandings (especially involving acquaintance rape) could be possibly avoided if the young men and women speak about expectations and appropriate solutions. If they can come to an understanding of what is and is not okay. One can’t count on everyone having learned it at home (some of the kids come from some pretty sick homes…). And…for those who don’t seem to “get it,” the other students will know who to be watchful of and to avoid them.

    But, I also think there should be tough no tolerance policies about unwanted attentions. Define the clear lines not to be crossed, and if people cross them – axe their butts. Perhaps it will stop a few.

    As for evil – that can’t be stopped – just good sense used to try to keep it at bay.

  5. wildhog says:

    “the same college culture that encourages young men to think of women’s bodies as trash receptacles for their semen”

    Apparently college culture has changed a LOT since I was there. Or someone’s view of college culture is way off base.

    • Hi, thanks for writing. I’m pretty sure I’m not off base, though that was a deliberately provocative phrase. But to be clear: I don’t mean that’s the prevailing college culture, in general. There are many college cultures. I mean it’s the prevailing sexual culture on college campuses and the lack of interest in relationships has mutated into a tremendous amount of immature, insensitive, and intoxicated behavior. It does encourage men to see women as receptacles and not real human beings. It’s not a cliche: people really don’t “date” anymore and very few seem to want relationships. Time and again, I heard students say they didn’t have time for a relationship and seemed to view it as a huge hindrance to their development. I also had many women students who told me that a guy would text them at midnight to “hang out,” i.e. come over and perform oral sex on them etc. Why the women complied, I have no idea, since they don’t seem to be getting a lot of sexual satisfaction from these encounters, according to data I’ve seen. In the old days, people had to communicate in a somewhat more civil fashion if they wanted to get laid.

      • wildhog says:

        Its the “encourages” part of your quote I have the biggest problem with. Who is “encouraging” that view? Males have been interested (to say the least) in getting laid for millions of years. Texting may provide a new means of communication, but the male attitude towards sex is the same as it ever was. For it to be otherwise would require a shift in human nature (or at least “male nature”) and that is not a reasonable hypothesis.

        Your quote also seems to imply that wanting uncommitted sex and respecting women are mutually exclusive. Thats a popular view, but I dont see any logic to it.

  6. Barry says:

    Excellent, and yes, these are tough things that need to be said and dicussed. I have to admit though, I am still confused when people say “rape is rape.” It seems to me that you have explained very clearly that rape can be very difficult to define in certain situations, and that is exactly what people mean when they say things like “rape is not always rape.” It seems obvious to me that there are myriad situations where one person thinks rape and the other thinks great mutual fun, or even romance!
    I befriended a beautiful woman who lived in my dorm my junior year in college. She cried on my shoulder for hours on many occasions as she relayed her rape experience from the privious year. Imagine my confusion, and even anger when she ended up in a relationship with her “attacker” and eventually married him.

    • wildhog says:

      Wow, thanks for sharing that story. Even though Im already familiar with the confusing and contradictory attitudes women have about rape, that story blows me away.

      I read a post once by a guy who told about sitting with several female coworkers outdoors by a pond on their lunchbreak at work. They watched as a male duck pursued a female duck around the pond for some time. Finally, the female landed, exhausted, and the male mounted and raped her. The guy was shocked when his female coworkers erupted in cheers and applause.

  7. jbrisby says:

    I have to quibble on one point, re: memo to Todd Akin. Of course there is such a thing as legitimate and illegitimate rape. Legitimate rape is a rape that actually occurred. Illegitimate rape is a rape that didn’t actually occur.

  8. Yes, I fully agree with this and have the same frustration dealing with the topic. A couple of points:

    #1) Even you make an assumption that I think is very troubling about alcohol, which is that you seem to take this view that women shouldn’t have to be responsible for their behavior while drunk, but men should be. Yes, women are more likely to consent to sex that they wouldn’t otherwise when drunk, and also MEN are more likely to PURSUE sex when drunk that they wouldn’t otherwise. If both parties are drunk, then how can only claim that only one is too drunk to consent to sex? If there is such a think as being too drunk to consent to sex, then it applies to both parties.

    #2) I fully agree about the “risk factors” thing. And this is an issue of major frustration with rape activists. Basically, their position is, that NO behavior by women should be considered “high risk” behavior for increasing the chance of being raped or having “bad sex”, and that any discussion of such behavior is wrong and anti-woman and victim blaming.

    Yet, YET, NO ONE takes this position on ANY other type of crime! In fact, for some types of crime the LAW actually proscribes rules regarding putting one’s self at risk. For example, if someone leaves their car unlocked with the keys sitting in the driver’s seat, and the car get’s stolen, then pointing out the fact that the person made themselves a likely target isn’t “victim blaming”. Yes, it was wrong for someone to steal the car, even with the keys in it, we know that. IN fact, in some places it is illegal to leave your car running unattended precisely because of the risk of ti getting stolen.

    You don’t leave you house door unlocked and open while you are gone, because it invites crime, even if you should be able to do it and the thieves are still in the wrong.

    If someone leaves their front door open all day while they are at work and they get robbed, it’s not absurd to say, “Man, you shouldn’t have left your door open!”

    And the bigger point is that if we can’t tell our children not to leave their keys in the car with the car unlocked parked on the side of a city street then we are just setting our kids up to be victimized, just the same as not telling girls that stumbling drunk into a frat house or staying late at a party after all the other girls have left is a bad idea is just setting them up for victimization.

    I think of the case of the girl from Stubenville. Her friends told her not to stay out and get drunk and she didn’t listen to them and they went home. They didn’t get raped. Not to be able to say that her friends used better judgement does nothing but setup children to be victimized.

  9. While sure, there may be cultural tendenciens that make rape happen, both among men and women, I also feel like people should be made generally aware that not all people are nice. Period. No matter how much you “change the culture” there are going to be some assholes who will do anything to get what they want from you. And the only way to protect yourself from them is to be careful.

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