Survey students about the problem. Train victim advocates. Urge bystanders to intervene.
You can find these suggestions — and other equally sound ones — in the report issued by a White House task force on sexual assault at U.S. colleges. But here’s one you won’t find: Challenge the hookup culture that dominates undergraduate life.
There’s still a perception that college is about sex, and that you can’t have one without the other.
At colleges nationally, by senior year, four in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey.
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The culture is marked by a lack of commitment and especially of communication between partners, who rarely tell each other what they actually want.
Consider a study of 2,500 college students published last year by Donna Freitas. She shows that students feel a great deal of pressure to keep sex casual; that is, to remove themselves emotionally from it.
“It’s just something that I feel like as a college student you’re supposed to do,” one woman told Freitas. “It’s so ingrained in college life that if you’re not doing it, then you’re not getting the full college experience.”
But both sexes are supposed to keep their feelings out of it, as best they can.
“My college friends … are constantly warning me about guys getting too attached, or keeping myself at a distance,” another woman told Freitas.
What most students of both sexes really want — as my own students often tell me — is a long-standing, romantic relationship. But the hookup code works against that.
And a good way to do that is to get drunk. According to a 2007 study, more than half of college sexual encounters with someone who is not a steady partner involve alcohol.
Given this context, should we be surprised that one-fourth to one-fifth of female students are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault during college? “Consent” requires both parties to talk to each other about their feelings and desires. And the hookup culture discourages precisely that kind of rapport.
Much of the new attention to the problem has been generated by college women who have used social media to call for more accurate information about sexual assault, better treatment of victims and so on.
Too many women still feel that they can’t report a rape or that universities don’t take it seriously when they do. Of course we need to change that.
But we also need to change the hookup culture itself.
“Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “We need to provide survivors with more support, and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice.”
He’s right. But we also need to provide our students with an altogether different model of sex, one based not on impersonal hookups but on human intimacy.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. JLZIMM@aol.com