A very important opportunity is going to waste in talks about the campus rape culture. Rolling Stone reported on a gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and has recently admitted “discrepancies” in the victim’s account. Today’s Inside Higher Ed analyzes this situation, with observation from various experts. The attention always falls on familiar topics – Title IX, school policies and procedures, whether schools should get out of the investigations of sexual assault altogether, and the inevitable murkiness of “he said, she said.” People are working hard to make sense of the whole mess. In the UVa case, Inside Higher Ed also explored whether the victim “maliciously lied” or whether, because of the trauma, she simply didn’t remember all the details clearly. And, of course, lawyers weigh in, because the possible consequences for everyone involved – personal and institutional – loom ominous.
Let me state the obvious: sexual assault is a heinous crime. No one who goes to a college party should have to worry about being assaulted. But what conditions are in place that help to create the perverse sense that such behavior at college parties is somehow OK? How did college men ever get the idea that this behavior was OK? This is a moral question that goes beyond laws, policies and police action.
I have an adult daughter who, after graduating from college, admitted to me that guys “hit on her” because she was the chaplain’s daughter. Apparently, the idea of “scoring” with the chaplain’s daughter was some kind of cool thing to imagine. “Hitting on” a girl is certainly not the same as sexual assault, but it stems from the same culture. It’s a tiny illustration of a much larger problem.
I am constantly aware of and surprised by the fatalistic logic employed to help “explain” this problem and to assuage our feelings of helplessness. “College students have always partied,” the saying goes. Of course, they did, and do. I was a college student. I had a great fraternity experience. I abstained from alcohol, but most of my fraternity brothers enjoyed, sometimes excessively. We partied. Yet, no one went to the hospital. No one died. No one was accused of rape. (Yes, something could have happened that went unreported, but the environment was clearly different than the current debauchery.) It’s true that college students have always partied, but not to the extreme and not with such devastating consequences in such large numbers.
Some people explain by dividing the problem. College parties aren’t the problem. Rape is the problem. Yet the statistics abundantly show that alcohol is almost always a significant factor and the context in which most of these tragedies occur is the college party. Dividing the problem in order to focus on rape only divides the problem. In the middle of the usual references to attention on legal questions and enforcement practices, we find this telling comment from the Inside Higher Ed column:
Indeed…this year has seen devastating portraits of fraternity culture that involve dangerously excessive drinking, deadly hazing, reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment — and efforts to cover up all of the above.
“Devastating portraits of fraternity culture…” One word covers a multitude of sins. “Culture.” A culture has an ethos, a character. “Fraternity culture” is wedded to “campus culture” and campus culture is about ethos – the character of a place. Fatalistic logic about students having always partied tacitly supports dangerous attitudes about what is permissible, what is de facto morally OK. We tacitly admit that party behavior can be as extreme as students want it to be as long as no one gets hurt and no laws are broken.
I’ll give you an admittedly mild, but apt, example from a recent conversation I had with a student. His questionable action involved filming an event that probably constituted hazing (alcohol was invovled), though nothing even remotely violent or ugly took place. The student put the video on social media, which stirred up a lot of backlash. My conversation with him was enlightening. In making and sharing the video, he had actually given it quite a bit of forethought. He had gone down the list of “risk management” questions that he thought he should ask. He had followed “rules” he thought applicable. He had not thought, however, to ask himself a basic question: “Is this a good idea?” He had not considered the appropriateness of his action, even if he had carefully examined potential risks. So far as I could see, he had no categories or terms for asking that basic question.
Students are taking calculated risks. The party/rape culture is based on a moral vision. Students want to have a good time and a good time is associated with a potentially very dangerous environment. Some students take what they want without consideration of the personhood of the other. The law clearly has something to say about this matter, but even before the behavior rises to the level that the law becomes applicable, much bad has already occurred. Too many students believe that acting responsibly means managing risk. After that, it’s Katie bar the door.
When I think of the tragedy playing out on college campuses across the country, I think of a trenchant observation John Wesley made for entirely different reasons, but which I find apropos to our present crisis. In his Journal from 1763, he referred to the lack of gathering people into small groups for sustained doctrinal and moral formation as “begetting children for the murderer.” I think of this statement often. We’re forgetting a fundamental mission of higher education – to help awaken the heart to moral sensitivity, to the vision, character and virtues for personal flourishing and the common good.
It’s more than training. A certain attitude must be awakened and certain dispositions practiced in students’ hearts to transform the rape culture. It’s a huge challenge, but absolutely worth the effort. The right kind of moral formation is extremely hard work, but some sort of formation will happen one way or another, even if we don’t notice. No more fatalism. Nor more fixation on a narrow range of utilitarian and legal problems. No more begetting children for the murderer.