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College students walking across campus, seen from above. Strong evening light is casting long shadows behind them.

Rape and the College Experience

Diane Scharper


Books and films discussed in this essay:

Nineteen-year-olds enter college telling themselves that they can party from Thursday night to Sunday night and drink to excess; that they can have casual sex without consequences; that these activities are all part of the college experience; and that all will be well because they’re adults and can handle their own lives.

But they can’t. There will be problems. Believe me, I have taught college students – from freshmen to seniors – for nearly thirty years. I’m a parent too.

One of the major problems is rape. Two recent films, The Hunting Ground (2015) and It Happened Here (2014), show how rape on college campuses can be attributed to alcohol and drug consumption and the promiscuous party culture. They also describe the impact of sexual assault on the intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being of victims, perpetrators, and their families.

For some college students, the trauma of being sexually assaulted can be especially severe. The Hunting Ground profiles a Notre Dame student who was raped by another student. After she reported the rape, the university seemed to blame her for the incident. It’s devastating to watch the girl’s father discuss the circumstances and the school’s lack of response, revealing only at the end of his comments that his daughter took her own life.

Conditions at some schools are worse than at others. William D. Cohan’s The Price of Silence suggests that pricey schools where almost everyone lives away from home are the most egregious. Although the book focuses on the Duke lacrosse scandal, which seems to have been fabricated, the final chapter offers a survey of sexual assault scandals at many other elite schools.

The hookup culture has come to dominate college experience. It has fueled an epidemic of alcoholism, campus rape, and suicide.

In December 2014, the Department of Justice reported that an estimated 110,000 American women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Many of these women are students in college. Those most at risk of being raped are college freshmen. Younger students tend to be overly trusting. They believe the myth that rapists are strangers, even though statistics show that 85 percent of rapes are committed by acquaintances.

Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town shows the misery heaped on girls who cry rape. Krakauer follows five rape cases that occurred at the University of Missoula between 2010 and 2012. Each alleged perpetrator was a member of the football team. Both victims and perpetrators had been drinking heavily.

Krakauer shows how reports of rape tend to be dismissed – unlike reports of other violent crimes – especially if the rapist is an athlete. Worse, when the women reported being raped, they were disbelieved. Football fans denounced the victims on Twitter – calling them sluts and liars. Defense lawyers used ad hominem attacks to vilify the victims. They said the women were drunk and did not clearly state that they did not want to engage in sex, or that they somehow asked for it, or that they didn’t feel appreciated because the men did not seem interested in having a relationship. No wonder that 80 percent of women who are sexually assaulted do not report the assault.

The five women in Krakauer’s book did report the rape – some right away, others who were more fearful of repercussions waited several months. The results followed statistical patterns. Only in one case was the rapist jailed, and that because of a plea bargain, resulted in little actual jail time.

According to professor, counselor, and researcher Donna Freitas, the hookup – casual sex with no commitment – has come to dominate the college experience. It has also fueled the current epidemic of alcoholism, campus rape, and suicide.

Religion has almost no influence on students’ behavior.

Freitas first examined the hookup culture in her 2008 book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. She continued her examination in her 2014 book, The End of Sex. In 2015 she published an updated edition of Sex and the Soul. According to Freitas, the sex scene on college campuses has grown even bleaker than it was seven years ago.

Freitas interviewed and collected journal entries from 111 students and surveyed more than 2500 undergraduates from seven different colleges: nonreligious private and public, Catholic, and Evangelical. What she learned was that religion had almost no influence on students’ behavior. Drunkenness, promiscuity, and the sexual hookup were the norm – except in Evangelical schools where shared Christian values predominated.

Many students said they felt demoralized and depersonalized by hookup sex. Almost all of them felt that they had to take part in what was considered the full college experience (i.e. the party scene). They also wanted to fit in with everyone else. Wanting intimacy and relationships, most of them said they had to settle for hookups. Interestingly, only one student out of the 2,500 in Freitas’ survey used the words “making love” when referring to sex.

In an afterword to the 2015 edition, Freitas proposes that all first-year college students be required to attend discussions about sexual assault on campus. Navigating new territory between adolescence and adulthood, college freshmen often live in co-ed dorms, where their risk of being raped increases. If they drink alcohol or take drugs, their risk increases eightfold.

Freitas, Krakauer, and the others say little about the influence of parties on students’ coursework. Yet obviously students who are hung over or stressed or feeling guilty cannot function at their best academically. Alcohol, drugs, and sex affect students’ ability to think, concentrate, and even get out of bed. This can be seen in students’ grades and in the dropout rate, especially among college freshmen. In her memoir, Blackout, Sarah Hepola describes feeling less than human as she woke up in bed after having had sex with a boy whose name she didn’t even know. As she staggered bleary-eyed back to her dorm, she took what she calls “the walk of shame,” embarrassed to face her fellow classmates. One wonders how she was able to perform in class.

Colleges aim to teach students to think critically. Yet many of today’s college students are doing anything but.

Many students feel that they should avoid committed relationships. Parents often advise them to wait until their late twenties before entering into a serious relationship. So, many students take to the casual hookup. Some find themselves getting attached to the person with whom they’ve been intimate. But hookups are supposed to be unattached. One term for the hookup is “friends with benefits,” meaning that those having sex are merely friends. But then sometimes the woman becomes pregnant. Sometimes, she wants to bear her child but the man prefers abortion.

College students worry about drowning in debt. Even at state universities, costs for tuition, room, and board can run upwards of $35,000 per year for out-of-state students and $20,000 for those in state. Costs for commuter students are much less. Most of these students live at home and have jobs. They often help their parents pay their tuition. Although some of these students complain about not having the full college experience, circumstances like having jobs and living at home can help them keep the hookup culture at a distance. But since promiscuity is endemic in our society, the problem exists at least to some extent at most schools.

Ultimately, colleges aim to teach students to think critically and to become lifelong learners. Professors tout some version of Socrates’ ideal that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Yet many of today’s college students are doing anything but examining their lives. The hookup culture promotes the wasted life – to say nothing of wasted time and money. This is the disconnect that exists between colleges and many students. Freitas, Krakauer, and others don’t do much more than point out the problem, although that is a necessary first step. I agree with Freitas that the hookup culture damages students’ souls, and, like her, I think of soul in a broad sense as in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual self.

Until recently, colleges often ignored reports of sexual assault on campus. But allegations increased. Victims spoke out. Then the federal government expanded Title IX laws. As a result, colleges have been forced to become more concerned with victims (and those claiming to be victims) of sexual assault in order to retain their federal funding. In October 2015 the White House Council on Women and Girls announced a campaign against campus sexual assault. The campaign ranges from suggestions for bystander intervention to telling parents to ask questions about the college’s position on reported rape cases.

Parents must keep the doors of communication open. College kids need their parents to advise and help them.

But the government can only do so much. Ultimately, it’s the parents’ job to take care of their kids. They need to teach their kids basic values when they’re very young, if only to keep them out of the hospital emergency room and even out of jail. They need to teach them that too much alcohol makes people sick in more ways than one. It also “makes” people act irresponsibly towards themselves and others.

College students generally don’t yet have the judgment to succeed without help. Caught up in their newfound freedom, they tend to forget the true purpose of a college education. And they’re normal, red-blooded kids. Their hormones are raging. While they need a certain freedom, they also need their parents to advise them, help them, and keep an eye on them. They need to be able to go to their parents or another trusted adult for help, and parents must keep the doors of communication open.

People may say you’re a helicopter parent. Don’t worry about that. There are worse things to be. Worry about your kids – and pray for them. I believe that my own kids owe a large part of their success, health, and well-being to my prayers. Whatever else you do, stay in contact with your college kids. They may give you a hard time, argue, and insist that they’re adults. This is just bravado. If they’re adults, they’re very young, inexperienced adults. And they need you.

Diane Scharper has taught English at Towson University since 1986. She is the author or editor of several books including a collection of student memoirs, Songs of Myself: Episodes from the Edge of Adulthood. Portions of this essay were adapted from reviews of Missoula and The End of Sex that originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.

College students walk across campus, evening light casting long shadows behind them.
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