If a victim of a gunshot wound was rushed to the emergency room, he likely would not expect the doctor to place a Band-Aid over the bullet hole and send him home. In the same way, the gaping wound of sexual assault requires more serious attention than attempting to treat the symptoms of the crisis. For the sake of victims and our culture, it is imperative to resolve the underlying causes of this epidemic.
This ever-present reality has stirred up a much-needed conversation at Notre Dame about the necessity of preventing assault. Students have been on campus for just over a month, and yet there already have been three reported incidents of sexual assault, all of which occurred within two days of each other, within one week of students returning for the fall semester. Though I hope to be proven wrong, I doubt we will make it through the rest of the year without similar reports. According to the most recently available Notre Dame Security Police data, there were 30 forcible sex offenses reported on our campus from 2011-2013.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame is not the only university faced with this painful situation. Sexual assault is an increasingly common affliction on today’s campuses, and in recent years, an intense national conversation has forced the issue to the top of American universities’ priorities. But despite decades of growing concern and the introduction of a multitude of approaches to eliminating assault, still the number of victims keeps rising.
This staggering paradox is a result of the fact that we as a nation—and as a university—are addressing merely the symptoms of sexual assault rather than finding and attacking the root causes of the problem. Rather than acknowledge modern culture’s lack of regard for the dignity of human sexuality, university administrations have begun to focus prevention efforts on educating students about the importance of consent and awareness, and our university is no exception to that rule.
Notre Dame’s McDonald Center for Student Well-Being—formerly the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education—emphasizes on its website that “agreement [to sexual activity] given while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is not considered consent.” The page adds that “consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity.”
Defining consent and fostering conversation have also been the primary focus of recent student government platforms. During my sophomore year, Notre Dame’s student leadership—partnering with the federal government—launched the “One Is Too Many” campaign, which hinged upon building awareness. By “awareness,” the campaign meant bringing “sexual violence into mainstream consciousness and conversation” while developing “an attitudinal shift that leads to a culture that understands sexual violence and actively works to prevent it.”
This campaign was phased out in the fall of 2014 and the current “It’s On Us” campaign took its place, centered around the essential role of active bystanders who work to recognize early signs of assault and step in to prevent it. University President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, and Vice President for Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding each appeared in a video for this campaign, as well as wrote letters to the campus community emphasizing our “responsibility to be our brother and sister’s keeper.”
Just this fall, the Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention (CSAP) and the Gender Relations Center (GRC) have rolled out the nationally-recognized Green Dot violence prevention strategy, a campus-wide initiative maintaining that “individual safety is a community responsibility and not just that of the victim or perpetrator.” The campaign focuses on the responsibility of all Notre Dame students “to engage in a new behavior … that will make violence less sustainable within our community.”
Sexual actions forced upon an unwilling person absolutely is an assault, and students must be taught to intervene when someone is in danger of sexual assault. But telling us to look out for one another and emphasizing the need for consent will not stop—and clearly has not stopped—the stream of sexual assaults. While these facets of the conversation are important, it is much more essential to discover and eliminate the underlying causes of today’s assault epidemic.
We—both as a university and a culture—have lost sight of the dignity of human sexuality. The Catholic Church has always defended the value of our sexuality, understood as properly exercised only within the covenant of marriage. Our creation in God’s image as men and women makes our sexuality intrinsic to our very nature and enables us to cooperate with God to create new life. However, widespread cultural acceptance of practices like no-fault divorce, use of artificial contraception, and premarital sex have created an atmosphere in which the very act of sex is stripped of its procreative and unitive purpose. Especially on college campuses, sexual intimacy is often viewed as recreation, an activity that requires—and perhaps implies—no commitment at all.
With a problem that runs so deep in our cultural understandings, consent is too vague of a concept to be used as a main tenet of sexual assault prevention. How can our administration demand that students obtain consent before engaging in sexual behavior when authority figures so often turn a blind eye to the dangerous situations students create and participate in each weekend, situations that make consent impossible? When college students consider it acceptable to become intoxicated, their interactions cannot be governed by an understanding of consent. The ability to consent is lost as soon as one has had too much alcohol, and statistics indicate that the vast majority of sexual assaults on college campuses involve the intoxication of one or both parties.
In addition, the mere fact that an individual consents to an action does not mean it is in his or her best interest; we are capable of consenting to any number of things that are extremely harmful to us. Establishing consent as the legitimizing standard for sexual contact harms even those students who do consent to sexual activity because it limits our ability to educate students about the inherent harms of abusing their—and others’—sexuality.
Our almost single-minded focus on strictly defining consent pushes the idea that having sex in college is just one more perfectly acceptable choice. Notre Dame students are rarely asked to contemplate the wisdom of attending parties where copious amounts of alcohol are imbibed and therefore of placing ourselves in situations where assault occurs more frequently. We are simply educated about what to do once we find ourselves or our peers in these situations.
Legalistically defining what constitutes consent and becoming an active bystander will never be enough to end assault. We have to help students understand the dignity of their sexuality in a much more fundamental way. Doing so will contribute to a culture in which students see the value of sexual intimacy and avoid activities that degrade it.
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is uniquely positioned to illuminate the underlying causes of sexual assault, predominantly stemming from our culture’s fundamental misunderstandings of human sexuality. However, our administration and student government are much more comfortable discussing consent and collective violence prevention than they are engendering a conversation about sexual activity itself. Though the Notre Dame handbook du Lac prohibits pre-marital sex, this is generally treated with an “If we don’t catch you it’s fine” attitude by university authorities. And the reasoning behind the Church’s prohibitions on premarital sex is rarely, if ever, held up as a way of decreasing incidents of sexual assault.
Notre Dame’s administration, the CSAP and the GRC, and student government clearly want to eliminate sexual assault from this campus. Their efforts doubtlessly will alleviate some of the suffering caused by assault. But they shy away from the hard work of telling students that their choices often contribute to situations in which it is much more difficult to prevent assault.
St. Josemaría Escrivá cautioned against this abdication of authority in his book The Forge, saying, “There is a great love of comfort, and at times a great irresponsibility, hidden behind the attitude of those in authority who flee from the sorrow of correcting, making the excuse that they want to avoid the suffering of others.
“They may perhaps save themselves some discomfort in this life,” Escrivá continues. “But they are gambling with eternal happiness—the eternal happiness of others as well as their own—by these omissions of theirs. These omissions are real sins.”
Our university has the power to radically shift our understanding of sexual assault by emphasizing the dignity of each man and woman on this campus. The university administration could institute policies that encourage students to avoid detrimental habits like binge drinking and hooking up. Campus officials could consistently direct us toward resources that clearly explicate Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Student leaders could promote an understanding of the value of sex and the human person that would help students see the harm of these risky situations. As a school founded upon the Catholic tradition, we have a rich inheritance that enables us to combat the painful, spreading disease of sexual assault. All we have to do is step up to the plate.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior living in Pangborn who is determined to wear shorts until Thanksgiving. Contact her at email@example.com.