Rape culture has reared its ugly head in the media once again. The culprit most recently is former Stanford University athlete Brock Turner, caught in a heinous act of sexual assault against an unconscious “Emily Doe” behind a dumpster.
The facts of this case are unambiguous, the victim’s statement heart-rending, Turner’s efforts to dodge justice deplorable, and the judge’s sentence dissatisfying. In no other case has the narrative of a toxic campus rape culture been so compelling.
This incident raises the usual questions. Is this horrendous crime symptomatic of a larger social trend? Or is it an aberration, disturbing but with few implications for decent people? There’s no easy answer to this. But it will help if we zoom out and examine our sexual campus culture as a whole.
College Through Freshman Eyes
Let’s start with the obvious premise that our sexual behavior depends in part on our sexual attitudes. Consider, then, what typical incoming freshmen might think about sex. They’ve probably been on a steady diet of raunchy sitcoms, “How I Met Your Mother” or whatever the 2016 equivalent is, full of apparently successful and attractive characters who hook up with strangers and joke about it over brunch the following morning.
Their Spotify playlists, almost regardless of the genre, will consist of overtly sexual lyrics sometimes bordering on pornographic. Their sex education in school was probably focused on how not to have babies—and that’s about it. Many will already have active porn habits. Suffice to say, their attitude is likely at the permissive end of the spectrum.
Freshmen are still teenagers, with raging hormones and undeveloped brains. This is no less true for being cliché. Some of them may have had moral foundations, in family or faith or community, to promote some sexual restraint. But now, for the first time, they’re largely free from adult supervision and subject to a very different set of influences.
Most of them will be eager for their first taste of the fabled college party scene. College parties, stripped down to their raw components, are about booze and sex. To make it more palatable, these are encased in elaborate ritual festivities. Students get dressed up (or undressed, as the case may be), and maybe pre-game a little with their friends before stepping into frat houses where cheap beer stains the floor and the most responsible person presiding is the 22-year-old who bought the keg.
Games like beer pong turn drinking into a pursuit in and of itself, enticing even the reluctant to imbibe. Jell-O shots and Long Island Iced Teas mask the taste for those unaccustomed to it, allowing the effects to work more insidiously. People laugh at the antics of the puking freshman. Sweaty, black-lit dance floors vibrate to Top 40 songs with lyrics like “Take a dive inside this liquor, got me pulling on your zipper” while adolescents grind on each other in what looks more like simulated sex than dancing.
Everything about the college party environment is designed to wear away at inhibitions, to normalize debauchery. All this is overlaid by a shallow communal spirit, a sense of celebration of freedom and youth and good times, that covers the event’s sinister foundations. People make friends, exchange numbers, fall into inebriated flirtations, pleasures that seem innocent until suddenly they’re not.
Most people will make it home, exhausted and less-than-sober but otherwise safe. A few who went too far might catch drinking tickets or hospital stays. Some—the “lucky ones”—wake up the following morning next to strangers.
Certainly, not all college freshmen will lose themselves in this scene right away, or at all necessarily. For various reasons, they might not be ready to sink into full-fledged hedonism. But most keep going back to the parties, weekend after weekend, because it’s just what you do. Each time, they’ll find themselves slipping a little farther down that slope.
Party Culture Meets Hookup Culture
Thus emerges the hookup culture, in which unattached casual sex becomes a lifestyle. The party scene is the launching pad for hookup culture, but not the crux of it. As students age and mature, they might—might—grow out of these freshman thrills. But the parties work to strip away former mores and foster an appreciation for carnal pleasures. The more we cross a line, the less we like to acknowledge it was ever there.
So students move on to more sophisticated forms of hedonism, less “Animal House” and more “Friends.” They won’t need to go to trashy parties for sex. They can just go through the numbers in their phones. Hookups more often occur within a network of exes, maybes, “it’s complicated’s,” or friends with benefits than drunken strangers.
We crave intimacy as much as we fear it, and with sex familiarity breeds pleasure. So students move from the raucous party life to a less extreme, yet more deeply entrenched, dynamic of sexual semi-attachments. Here students develop the habits they’ll likely carry into their young adult lives.
Universities enable these destructive behaviors. For practical reasons, seriously addressing the party problem is a difficult undertaking. It’s deep-rooted in college culture, and administrators don’t want to take serious disciplinary action against large portions of their student bodies. The party scene attracts students and the tuition fees they bring.
More importantly, though, universities simply lack the sense of mission to crack down on the party and hookup culture. They don’t tackle drinking, co-ed dorms, or Greek life, or implement curfews, because they have no philosophical basis for doing so. The principles of diversity, autonomy, and individual expression they prioritize don’t, on their own, lend themselves the development and enforcement of healthy norms.
The Ideology of Hooking Up
Far from facilitating healthy behavior, universities provide top-down intellectual support for students’ bottom-up carnal pursuits. Sex is taught as a morally neutral biological need, “as basic as breakfast,” as a fellow student once informed me. In human sexuality courses students watch porn and then discuss it, under the guidance of tenured professors. Students are encouraged to write about their sexual fantasies and share them with the class.
“Sex positivity” tells them sexuality is just a form of expression, to be explored and indulged with few restraints. Empirically invalidated, yet much espoused, feminist theories teach that women’s sex drives, motivations, and reactions are the same as those of men. In the unlikely event students hear anything about chastity, it will only be as an arcane historical artifact, met with some combination of amusement and contempt.
In real-life terms, students learn that hooking up is the healthy and natural thing for them to do. If they want something, there’s no good reason they shouldn’t pursue it. Their sexual practices and proclivities, whatever they may be, are wholly innocent, basically human. If uncommitted sex hasn’t yet brought them satisfaction, well, they should just keep trying. They need to figure out what kinds of sex will truly fulfill them, and find the partners (one may not be enough) with the right kind of compatibility.
The only rule in their pursuits is that they be themselves, true to their own desires, as defined by each individual and nobody else.
Consent to What, Exactly?
The only constraint the libertine culture is willing to place on students’ behaviors is “consent.” As I’ve written before, this is a wholly inadequate standard to judge licit and illicit sex. Among other reasons, this is because “consent” based on a false view of human sexuality is uninformed, and thus really isn’t consent at all.
But there’s another problem here. We’re told that sex is an unmitigated good, right up until the second consent is withheld, at which point it becomes an unmitigated evil. This is at best confusing, at worst profoundly incoherent.
If sex has no inherent meaning, no significance other than what we assign it, how ought we to go about policing ourselves—and why should we? Short of a clear “No,” at what point should we ask ourselves if we’re going too far, if maybe we ought to slow down? What justification do we need to pursue any sexual whim, other than the mere presence of desire? We don’t have any reason to question ourselves, because any impulse we might have is made not only valid, but good, simply because we have it.
How our behavior might affect our partners is a moot point. We can’t possibly guess what kind of meaning they might assign a sexual encounter, if it’s all subjective. And it’s really none of our business, anyway. This is about self-expression and satisfaction. So let me do my thing while you do yours. The fact that we happen to be doing it with and to each other is merely incidental.
Hookup Culture Breeds Rape Culture
Subjective sex leads seamlessly from hookup to rape culture. This is for two reasons. One, an offended party can subjectively define herself as having been violated at any time, during or after a sexual act. In this case, a student may find himself the subject of a sexual assault investigation even when the legal criteria for rape are nowhere in sight. This danger is already much discussed.
Two, less obvious but equally problematic, is it makes no sense to tell someone any sex act he might desire is either innocent and laudable or heinous and deplorable, with nothing in between. Sex can’t be either meaningless or criminal. Sexual morality (yes, it is a real thing) exists on a spectrum. There are plenty of things we legally can do but still shouldn’t. To deny this is to remove a necessary guide to personal conduct. Subjective sexual ethics are hard enough to comprehend even on a theoretical level, and well-nigh impossible to implement in real life.
The ideology of the hookup culture sets everyone up to be a victim by luring students into the vast expanse of sexual gray area, then telling them it’s black and white. The line may be blurry, but trust us: it’s there. Get as close to it as you want, you’re just expressing yourself! But damned if you set foot across it, knowingly or not. Students are invited to frolic near the edge of a cliff.
From the safety of a classroom, employing the full use of our cognitive faculties, we can talk ourselves into this kind of incoherence. But at a behavioral level, subjective meaning is no meaning at all. We can’t buy something for $5, then upon finding it stolen declare it worth $5,000 for insurance purposes. Similarly, we can’t convince ourselves what was an act of innocent sexual expression with one girl has inexplicably morphed into an act of rape with the next, under mostly similar circumstances. Rape is a horrific crime, and instinctively we all know this. But from a perspective of sexual subjectivity, there’s no adequate explanation why this should be.
How to Teach Men Not to Rape
Now let me be clear: Brock Turner’s offense did not operate within any kind of gray area. His was a reprehensible, criminal act, without any excuse or justification, and should be treated as such. Conversely, “Emily Doe” is an innocent victim if ever there was one, deserving of all the support and solidarity we have to offer. The trial she was subjected to was nearly as unconscionable as the assault itself, and her courage in enduring it for the sake of justice is admirable. We should be grateful she was willing to write about it so publicly and powerfully. This is no case of a University of Virginia rape hoax or a mattress-wielding performance artist. This is the real thing.
So what can we learn from this horrendous crime? It’s possible Turner is simply a sociopath, who would have acted similarly under any cultural or social circumstances, had he had the opportunity. It’s more likely, though, that had he been instilled with a more substantive sense of what sex is and should be, this wouldn’t have happened. Had he not been invited into the gray area, he might not have pressed on into the black.
Feminists say if we want to address rape culture, well then “Teach men not to rape.” Fair enough. But we probably won’t accomplish that by drawing a stick through the sand and saying, “Here’s the line, don’t cross it, end of lecture.” Nor are we likely to have much success by creating complex codes and statutes of sexual conduct, and then expecting men to adhere to them rigidly in their most inebriated and hormonal moments.
If we really care about keeping women safe, we need to reshape (or rather, reclaim) our cultural understanding of sex altogether. Our youth need to learn that apart from legal and illegal, there are questions of right and wrong. At the university level in particular, we need to alter what we teach and what we condone. If we want to curb campus sexual assault, we need to target all the factors surrounding it, from alcohol consumption to dorm regulations to academic curriculum. As my activist friends would say, we need to make systemic changes.
If we want to tear down rape culture, we have to dismantle hookup culture first.