College Sex: 50 Shades of Black and White

College sexual assault is a big topic in the news these days, but, unfortunately, it’s being covered by a lot of people who have exchanged reason for polemic, so I’m jumping into the fray again to share a piece I wrote about the sexual climate at Harvard when I was “co-master” of one of the twelve undergraduate residences on campus. Bring on the vituperation:

A while ago, I wrote a 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: ‘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, occasional rape, too – continues 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 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. In theory. [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 criminally insensitive jerks) 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/author. 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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