The Campus Sexual-Assault Crisis: Why Did It Happen?

Catholic authorities agree that ‘rape culture’ is a grave problem, even at many U.S. Catholic colleges, but suggest that it’s symptomatic of an even deeper moral malaise.

In 2014, Texas Tech freshman Regan Elder helps drape a bed sheet with the message "No means No" over the university's seal on the Lubbock campus. Students put up the bed sheets at three locations to protest what they say is a "rape culture" on campus. Below, Shannon Zurcher is the director of collegiate outreach for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus).
In 2014, Texas Tech freshman Regan Elder helps drape a bed sheet with the message "No means No" over the university's seal on the Lubbock campus. Students put up the bed sheets at three locations to protest what they say is a "rape culture" on campus. Below, Shannon Zurcher is the director of collegiate outreach for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus). (photo: AP photo/Betsy Blaney;

DENVER — As a college student a decade ago, Shannon Zurcher was oblivious to the fact that sexual assaults were occurring on campuses around the country.

But as a missionary with Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), a national collegiate outreach, she has learned about it from the victims themselves. In some cases, she has been the first person they told about what happened to them at a fraternity party or in a dorm room.

“It’s more prevalent than I had thought,” said Zurcher, who spent five years as a campus missionary before becoming director of collegiate outreach for Focus’ Southern Plains region. In getting to know college women and sharing her life with them, she said, “They started trusting me and telling me those things.”

What Zurcher has heard is borne out in an American Association of Universities survey, which found that 23.1% of female and 5.4% of male undergraduate student respondents at 27 schools had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation. Drugs and alcohol were involved in a significant percentage of the incidents. The survey of more than 150,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students conducted last April and May is considered one of the largest of its kind.

Furthermore, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating 161 colleges for their handling of sexual-assault cases, nearly triple the number 18 months ago. The office enforces Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal money. In 2011, the Education Department announced guidelines for handling sexual-assault allegations, letting schools know they could expect stricter enforcement of the rules.

The issue has also resulted in lawsuits against universities filed by students who allege their institutions failed to take action to protect them, such as one filed in February against Harvard by a recent graduate of the Ivy League school.

As feminists and activists decry a “rape culture” on campuses, even filmmaker Spike Lee has weighed in on the subject by proposing that college women engage in a sex strike to prevent sexual harassment and date rape. Lee’s new film Chi-Raq deals with a group of women in Chicago who withhold sex to fight gun violence.


A Climate of Promiscuity

Although Lee’s suggestion is more a call to arms than a summons to virtue, it recalls times in which most college women would withhold sex until marriage, and campuses reinforced that standard. Indeed, many of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the current generation of college women remember sex-segregated dorms, with restrictions or prohibitions on male visitors and “public displays of affection.”

Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, which, along with the Register publishes a guide to faithful Catholic colleges, said although the reasons for campus sexual assault vary, he believes today’s climate of sexual promiscuity adds to the danger.

“What’s clear is that colleges are failing to take the most obvious and most responsible steps toward mitigating both assaults and promiscuity. The massive 1970s shift to coed dorms and late-night opposite-sex visitors never had any justification and has been destructive to campus life.”

Still, even parents who went to college during the sexual revolution, when housing and visitation standards began to be relaxed, might be surprised at what occurs on campuses today. “What most parents don’t realize is how much more dramatically broken college life is today,” said Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of Focus. “The culture has continued to slide into a Sodom and Gomorrah-type culture, a first-century Corinth culture, where sexual liberties are the fundamental liberties.”

Reilly added that most colleges have refused to acknowledge their role in establishing unhealthy and irresponsible sexual norms on campus. Even at most Catholic colleges, he continued, “It’s a scandal. Nearly all Catholic colleges have coed dorms, and the vast majority have bedroom visitation policies that would never be acceptable in a faithfully Catholic home.” In February, the Cardinal Newman Society published “Visitation Policies at U.S. Catholic Colleges,” documenting this situation.

But that’s not the case at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., where there are no coed dorms, nor is inter-visitation allowed. “And students like it,” said President Derry Connolly.

He credits an emphasis on living the principles of the Catholic faith with creating a campus culture where rape has not been a problem. The school’s no-alcohol rule also has been a significant influence, Connolly said. “I think we have a student body very receptive to putting faith into practice in their lives.”

For Focus’ Martin, the problem of sexual assault on campuses is clearly tied to the loss of the Judeo-Christian ideal that sex is to be reserved for marriage and open to life. “Obviously, that was thrown out the window in the 1960s,” he said, leading to today’s hook-up culture and resulting confusion about right and wrong.


‘Rape Culture’ Perspective

Most secular observers, however, lay the blame squarely at the feet of a “rape culture” — defined by higher-education professor Keith Edwards as one that encourages, condones and teaches rape to happen and men to rape women.

Although a “rape culture” is not explicitly taught as such, Edwards said, “It’s around us so often that, if you’ve never noticed it, it’s not because it’s not there, but because it’s everywhere.” He identifies its components as the objectification of women, systemic sexism, defining masculinity as conquest, and forms of oppression such as mistreatment of homosexuals, racism and classism.

“Those work to give subtle messages that it’s okay to treat women in ways leading to sexual violence,” Edwards said. This is evident, he added, in TV sitcoms, movies, song lyrics, billboards and men’s conversations in locker rooms. “When you get this over and over again in your lives, sooner or later, you’re going to treat women as objects, and you don’t ask an object for consent.”

Edwards has spoken on sexual violence prevention at about 100 campuses over the last 15 years, presenting such programs as “Ending Rape: Addressing the Roots of Sexual Violence Prevention” for students, resident advisers and faculty.

In his campus presentations, Edwards tries to show students the more subtle messages they have received about rape and sexual assault. Telling them that rape is bad and not to rape doesn’t work, he said, because many of those who commit rape don’t call their actions by that name. To them, he said, they were just “dating” or “hooking up.”

“Most men who sexually assault and rape women are really behaving the way the culture has taught them to behave,” Edwards said. “We like to think rapists are deviant, but maybe they are normal in a deviant culture.”

Edwards said he considers Lee’s suggestion of a sex strike by women to be little more than blaming women for the problem and placing the responsibility on them for men’s violence. Most women who attend his presentations, he said, have already been warned against drinking too much, walking home alone and dressing provocatively, but most men have never been told that they can stop sexual violence by changing their own behavior, whether by speaking out against and not participating in parties designed to get women drunk or ceasing to engage in demeaning talk about hook-ups.


The Roots of the Problem

Jason Evert of the Chastity Project agrees with Edwards that a “rape culture” exists today, especially on many college campuses. However, he believes that many of the activists sounding the alarm are unaware of or unwilling to address some of its deepest roots.

“For example,” he said, “many colleges sponsor a ‘sex week’ on campus that glorifies a hook-up culture that encourages students to use one another ... as long as the using is consensual. At such festivals, contraceptives are hailed as safe, responsible and liberating, while workshops are offered on pornography, sex toys and BDSM [bondage, domination, sadism and masochism].”

At the same time, he said, incoming freshmen get complimentary condoms at orientation, along with reminders not to leave their drinks unattended at parties, all in the interest of creating a “sex-positive” culture.

“Whenever human sexuality is promoted in a manner that divorces it from the demands of authentic human love, it is inevitable that people will be used in various ways, including rape.”

Sue Ellen Browder, a former freelance writer for Cosmopolitan magazine and author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (Ignatius Press), concurred.

“The media is constantly telling men in our culture, ‘It’s your life. It’s all about you; do what you please. It’s all about your pleasure; fulfill your desires,’” she said. “It’s telling women the same thing; and if they don’t dress sexy to attract a man, they’re not liberated and free. When the two come together, what happens? Violence against women, more rape and more sexual assault.”



Kelsey Bob, a director of collegiate outreach for Focus’ Southern Plains region, said she believes pornography, because of its emphasis on aggressive sexual acts, also deserves blame for the problem of sexual assault on campuses.

According to Chastity Project’s Evert, research has shown that even viewing nonviolent pornography can incline males to become more sexually aggressive toward women. In the U.S., he said, the average age at which a boy is first exposed to Internet porn is 11. “If that’s the case, you can only imagine how warped their views are of human sexuality by the time they reach college.”

He went on to say that, as a public Catholic speaker, he has lost count of the number of young women who have complained to him that their boyfriends have tried to coerce them to enact what they have seen in pornography. “When the young women refuse to be degraded, some of them are dumped, others are ridiculed, and some are tragically forced to submit to unwanted advances.”

Edwards acknowledges that adolescents today are getting their sexual education from pornography, which does not teach them about consent and boundaries. But rather than focus on pornography’s obvious bad messages, he prefers to talk about other ways students are getting those messages and then walk them through what sex is and what rape is.


Possible Remedies

Others who have blamed the problem of campus sexual assault on a “rape culture” recommend such remedies as having campuses establish a clear definition of consent, educating students about sexual violence laws, sending a message that such violence will not be tolerated and establishing strong sanctions for such violence.

However, Connolly of John Paul the Great Catholic University said he doesn’t think those even scratch the surface. “They’re putting wallpaper over it, covering the fundamentals.”

Added Focus’ Zurcher: “Rape education is a small Band-Aid to put over a gushing wound that is way deeper than skin deep.” Men are being taught by the culture that they are men if they sleep with as many women as possible and drink a lot, she said, but they are not taught to cherish and love women. On the other hand, she said, often, “Women want to be loved so badly that they’re willing to lower their standards.”

Focus’ Bob said she sees the deeper problem in a warped understanding of sexuality. “Chastity is not valued. So there’s definitely an increase in the willingness to have sex, and it creates a culture of sex anytime, anywhere you want it.”

Both she and Zurcher, in their work with Focus, try to counteract the prevailing thinking about sex by teaching women what real love is, a concept that students often find astounding when they learn that it means sacrificing for the other person. “It changes their lives if they know what real love is,” said Zurcher.


Mothers’ Prayers

That said, today’s campus rape victims include young women who held such ideals and had them shattered by a sexual assault. The mother of one victim said her daughter went to a Catholic university with the intention of keeping her virginity for marriage. “She fully embraced … everything that we tell our good Catholic girls to do.”

Early in her freshman year, however, she disappeared at a fraternity party, and friends thought she had left, but they later learned she had been drugged and raped.

Her mother has no answers for why rapes happen on campus. “I can only speak about my anguish and feelings of helplessness,” she said.  

Another woman, whose freshman daughter went to a fraternity party and was drugged and taken to another party where she was raped, said she, too, has struggled for answers. She believes alcohol probably is a significant factor and that most assaults probably wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for its influence, but she also blames a culture in which people want everything, including sex, now.

Her response has been one of prayer, inviting other mothers to a weekly Holy Hour on her daughter’s campus. During it, some women pray in the Newman Center chapel and others pray while walking the campus. Always, they ask for the intercession of Mary, the Sorrowful Mother.

“I really think the power, the way it’s going to stop, is by the Blessed Mother, by prayer,” the mother said. “If we walk around this campus in prayer and wrap her mantle around this campus, one by one, hearts can be changed.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.