I would hope that, after a couple of weeks of debating George Will’s column about campus culture and liberalism, we have resolved the question of whether being raped is a “coveted status” or whether anyone is actually trying to make it that way. But even if we managed to come to some sort of conclusion, the debate about our sexual norms are far from over. Given what others are writing here at The Post, I want to suggest a change in the terms of the conversation.
To return to the original column, Will quoted Philadelphia Magazine to highlight an incident that had resulted in a rape accusation. That accusation, he argued, represents a frivolous expansion of the definition of sexual assault:
“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’ ”
The leveling and adjudication of the rape charge in question are undoubtedly important. But I wonder if something can be gained by moving the conversation about it out of the realm of law and university administration and into custom.
One does not have to think that the male student in question is a rapist to wonder where he got his ideas about sex and communication. By what process does someone learn that a rejection of sex is an invitation to try again “a few minutes later,” in the absence of any outward change in preferences from his or her partner? And what possible sexual ideal makes intercourse with an unresponsive or unmoving person at all attractive?
Any truly serious inquiry into contemporary sexual ethics ought to pose these questions and to accord them equal weight with discussions about what might have led the young woman in the anecdote to bring this man into her bed in the first place.
Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, George Mason law professor David Bernstein writes a post that illustrates why such an inquiry would be so sadly difficult. In mocking a proposed California law that would require the state’s colleges and universities to look for evidence that partners had obtained “express consent” from each other before having sex, Bernstein has a field day tearing up the policy questions while treating the question of sexual communication as a joke.
“There is one type of sexual relationship that, as I understand it, involves primarily explicit consent — the relationship between a prostitute and her (or his) clients, with exact sexual services to be provided determined by explicit agreement in advance,” he writes, before pointing to a parodic video on the subject.
It is one thing to suggest that proponents of a particular social reform have overstepped by seeking out a legislative remedy. It is quite another to suggest, in rather nasty terms, that because the tactics are inappropriate the cause is ridiculous, or to misattribute the push in question to “the current moral panic over the hookup culture.”
Nobody seems particularly happy with the current sexual climate on college campuses, whether their priority is the sexual assault rate or the state of university disciplinary procedures. And it seems to me that people of all political persuasions could see many of their concerns addressed in a discussion about consent that focuses less on law and regulations and more on manners and customs.
If you are worried (statistics to the contrary) that men will be falsely accused of sexual assault, what possible harm can come to them from talking about how to communicate effectively with their partners, both to obtain their consent and to ensure everyone’s pleasure? If you are worried about the decisions that girls make, why not frame the discussion in terms of helping them assess their own comfort levels and asserting them confidently and clearly?
For more than 20 years, Antioch College in Ohio has enforced a code of conduct that requires students to use a standard of affirmative consent in their sexual encounters. Critics mocked the rules at the time, suggesting that they would turn sexual encounters into wooden exchanges. But at least they were an attempt to teach students what healthy sexual communication between new partners might look like.
Surely nobody is enthusiastic about a cultural framework that suggests that young men are so sex-mad that the only requirement for penetration is a pulse and that young women should silently submit to sex they do not really want to have just to be polite. That vision of sex does honor to no one and ought to be dispiriting to anyone who considers it.
Legislation and inaction are not our only options in response to these scenarios. And our conversations about sexual culture do not have to be confined to poles where young men are either rapists or victims of absurdities and where young women are either survivors or liars.