Here's One Way to Curb Sexual Assault at Colleges

Built in 1887 as a dormitory for women, Baylor University's Burleson Hall now houses the administrative offices of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Built in 1887 as a dormitory for women, Baylor University's Burleson Hall now houses the administrative offices of the College of Arts and Sciences. (photo: Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Baylor University has come under fire recently, joining a long list of colleges that have been accused of failing to respond aggressively to student complaints of sexual assault.

Kenneth Starr was recently removed as president, and he subsequently resigned as chancellor, following reports that several Baylor football players and students were perpetrators of sexual assault. Whether or not each allegation against Baylor is justified, it looks especially embarrassing for a Christian university that teaches virtue, as Baylor has done steadfastly for 171 years.

Christian colleges — especially the Catholic universities that we monitor at The Cardinal Newman Society — and all colleges should be morally offended by sexual assault and the general disregard for human dignity that accompanies the campus “hookup” culture. But it’s not just a question of whether colleges help victims and diligently investigate complaints. Too many colleges risk their students’ safety and moral formation by simply accepting the secular norm of late-night socialization, when the risk of sexual assault is highest, in student bedrooms.

In February, the Associated Press reported that Baylor launched a $5 million effort to address sexual assault, adding a Title IX investigator, improving case management systems, and enhancing counseling services on campus. These are necessary steps to respond seriously to sexual assault claims, but college leaders at Baylor and elsewhere should also be asking themselves what else they can do to remove underlying factors that place students at risk.

There have been multiple studies documenting the tragedy of sexual assault at U.S. colleges. Both the Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study in 2007 and a Washington Post survey last year found that about one in five women said they had been sexually assaulted in college.

According to the CSA study, prior victimization and alcohol consumption are both major risk factors for students, and colleges have created policies and programming to address alcohol abuse. But one factor that is considered less often is the role of the so-called “hookup” culture in contributing to sexual assault. The Post survey found that women who describe their dating status at college as “hooking up from time to time” are more likely to report sexual assault. The CSA study also confirms that there’s a “positive association between sexual assault and both the number of sexual partners and an earlier age of initiation of sexual activity.”

The connection between recreational sex and sexual assault makes sense, and while most secular colleges have accepted hookups as a normal part of student life, it shouldn’t be so at Catholic and other Christian colleges. The hookup culture absolves both parties of responsibility for the other person and erodes student respect for sexuality and marriage. Why, then, don’t enough of our colleges confront this problem as diligently as other behavior that leads to sexual assault?

Baylor University, in line with its Baptist character, officially expects students to behave in accordance with the “biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.”

In taking such a stance, Baylor is swimming against the tide. Many other religious colleges (including several Catholic ones) fail to offer students much guidance when it comes to sexuality, even if the official church teaching of those institutions does forbid premarital sex. Consistency matters.

However, Baylor undermines its official expectation of chastity by joining many religious colleges in allowing students of the opposite sex to visit campus residences behind closed doors until late at night. At Baylor, many opposite-sex students can visit until 2am. The same is true for the majority of Catholic universities.

This is morally irresponsible and even dangerous, especially when students are drinking. The CSA study found that 51.7% of forced sex assaults and 89.9% of incapacitated sex assaults involving college students took place between midnight and 6am. A study by the Department of Justice in 2000 found that 51.8% of sexual assaults on female students took place during the same times. In both studies, the percentage of assaults increased from evening to late night.

According to the Department of Education, Baylor reported eight forcible sex offenses in 2012 and 2013 that occurred in student housing. In 2014, the University reported three rapes and one fondling in campus residences.

While most incidences of sex assault happen off campus, the CSA and 2000 studies indicate that upwards of one-third of assaults take place in dorms. Since colleges have direct responsibility for policies governing on-campus residences, they should seriously consider enforcing late-night privacy in student bedrooms.

It won’t eliminate all sexual assault on campus, but reducing dorm visiting hours is a simple, logical solution that could still have a big impact. And for us, keeping bedrooms private is simply the right thing to do.

Catholic and other Christian colleges have a moral and legal imperative to confront the tragedy of sexual assault. In addition to responding to assaults that have already occurred, shouldn’t college leaders work just as hard to address all situations that can lead to assault?

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

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Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.

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