Catholicism and a Culture of Consent

Donna Freitas speaks on consent as social justice in face of hookup culture

The SEXuality & Faith series, sponsored by the Gender Relations Center and Campus Ministry, began with a talk entitled “Catholicism & a Culture of Consent” delivered by Doctor Donna Freitas, currently a non-resident research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Religion and Society. Held on October 11, the lecture was part of Relationship Awareness Month.

Freitas argued that consent is the foundation for healthy relationships and that Catholics should care about consent as a social justice issue. Her research with college students and their experiences with the hookup culture and sexual assault, she said, has led her to believe that “the Catholic university is … uniquely positioned to foster a culture of consent on campus.”

Freitas first shared a story illustrating how assault has become normalized on college campuses. She met “Amy,” a young college student, while doing research in 2006. While Amy recounted what she thought was an unremarkable episode that had occurred after a night of drinking, Freitas realized that she had clearly been sexually assaulted.

The hookup culture encourages ambivalence toward intimacy and one’s sexual partner and makes possible situations like Amy’s. Through interviews of students on college campuses, Freitas found that the hookup culture is a “competition not to care.” This disregard creates situations where partner’s feelings are ignored. The more successful the hookup culture becomes at fulfilling its norms of ambivalence and disregard for the partner, the more those participating risk foregoing consent, and the more frequently assault occurs, Freitas said.

Unlike the ambivalence promulgated by the hookup culture, “consent is anything but ambivalent … consent asks us to care,” said Freitas.

Although colleges once shirked the problem of sexual assault, the government and media brought sexual assault into the national spotlight and forced colleges to take consent education seriously. In 2011, the Department of Education released a letter that identified sexual violence as a type of sexual harassment addressed by Title IX, and the 2013 campus SaVE expanded the effort to amend policies regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Projects such as the documentary The Hunting Ground about sexual assault at the University of North Carolina drew attention to the problem of sexual assault across the country.

This awareness, Freitas noted, can advance good causes, such as programs that promote active discussion of issues on campus or flyers that portray consent as an important aspect of campus culture. She warned, however, that flyers and programs are often made to prevent legal issues. While this education on consent is positive and helpful, she argued, it often exists to “prevent scandal” above all else.

Those wishing to address sexual assault must address the hookup culture. “If we fail to address the dominant framework for the attitudes about sex and one’s partners that we all inherit, then we also fail to address the fact that we are offering the generations coming up a paradox when we teach them about consent … because consent is anything but ambivalent,” she said.

Freitas questioned what consent education through a Catholic lens would include, especially if it were education that is not a one-time corporate lesson but rather a form of education that carries on for a longer period of time. She described this as education in which “consent flourishes, not ambivalence.”

Then, citing a commitment to social justice as being at the heart of the Catholic university, Freitas spoke of the potential to harness this foundation and call upon students passionate about social issues to care about consent and sexual assault. She described social justice as a form of positive “peer pressure” on Catholic campuses, encouraged through the pervading ideals of service and respect for human dignity.

Catholic teachings of community and solidarity, Freitas argued, must not only relate to service work and respect for those less fortunate but also touch on the problems that are personal and difficult to talk about. Freitas described this as difficult because in her view, the “great shame of the Catholic university … is the fear, the blind eye, we so often believe we must turn to matters of sex, including assault.” She continued, “Fears can be exacerbated by the power and presence of certain wealthy alumns, trustees of the university, and the politics of local bishops. This fear can infect the community like a virus” and prevent colleges from taking up the issue.

For a Catholic university, “to deal with sex at all is understood as a transgressive act,” according to Freitas, and to admit people are having sex means to damage the university’s Catholic reputation. Yet in shirking these conversations, she said, “We perpetuate the myth and corresponding shame that this Catholic tradition is backward and unforgiving and terribly unjust when it comes to sex and even the issue of sexual assault.”

While the reticence to speak about sex makes the Catholic tradition seem brittle and unyielding, in contrast, people are eager to speak about social justice. Freitas noted the tradition’s ability to accommodate humanity in all its messiness as an indication of its ability to address effectively the problems of sexual assault.

Freitas believes that the campus must take up the issue of consent and sexual assault, though difficult, as a social justice issue, “as if our identity as a Catholic university depends upon our doing this.” She criticized what she sees as the failures of the Catholic university to be the locus of consent education. “The Catholic identity of a college does not and should not rest on trivialities like whether or not we sell condoms,” Freitas proclaimed. Instead, the college should recognize that people have suffered due to institutional silencing and shaming on matters of sexual assault.

“We are being dishonest if we do not contend with the fact that Catholic teachings around sex have become roadblocks to effective and potentially transformative conversations about sex and consent,” she said. “The best possible move in the face of such roadblocks is to go around them, to literally sidestep them. Pope Francis is a wonderful example of this sidestepping,” as he invokes mercy for those who are suffering and in this, causes worry for those concerned about the ‘purity’ of Catholic teaching,” Freitas said.

According to Freitas, consent as social justice and sharing anecdotes and narratives are important catalysts for raising awareness about issues of consent. Drawing on Simone Weil’s idea of “creative attention,” which “draws once-hidden suffering into the light, Freitas works to “make suffering visible [so] can you attend to it,” and tells stories and spreads awareness to the variability in cases of sexual assault. Looking at suffering requires setting aside “agendas which blind us to the needs of the suffering,” she said.

During the question-and-answer session, Freitas said, “There are different attitudes about sex and what is good or not within the Catholic tradition.” She continued that it is “simply unrealistic” to expect everyone to be chaste until marriage in the midst of the hookup culture. She said appreciating “sexual diversity,” or “different ways of being sexual,” such as waiting until marriage or choosing not to wait, is necessary. Institutions must “set aside” attempts to control what everyone does.

Instead, Freitas said, consent “reaches to the core of who we are as people” and asks us to care about the other person. She concluded, “to teach consent is to teach social justice.”

Senior Abby Balmert told the Rover, “I had high hopes going into the talk, and had anticipated that Dr. Freitas would touch upon the importance of moving beyond consent to a view of sexuality that emphasizes the flourishing of the human person—a flourishing that involves a true and full commitment of mind, body, and spirit possible only through the marriage covenant. In other words, the truest form of consent, which two unmarried persons intending to engage in intercourse are unable to give.”  

Balmert continued, “[Freitas] seemed to give up on Church teaching because she [deemed] it too difficult for the average person to ascribe to, and hoped to sidestep it as if it were a roadblock—her words. I was disheartened, to say the least. The advertisement for her lecture made it seem that she would be speaking for the Church and upholding Her perfect Truth. Instead, she promulgated her own agenda.”

Stephanie Reuter contributed reporting for this article.

Laurel Schreier is a freshman living in Breen-Phillips Hall. Contact her at

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  • Ceh Dee

    Good reporting. Abby Balmert hits the nail right on the head, though, in pointing out that the Church’s teaching actually does emphasize consent in its truest form. If we take consent in the weak sense of agreeing to mutual misuse of sexuality that fails to recognize the value of the human person, we cannot escape the paradigm of sexual assault, which ultimately devalues the person as a means to an end. Similarly, the true sense of care has to be emphasized. Would “care” consist merely of two people hooking up and agreeing to it? They would still just be using each other as means to an end. Consent alone does not equate to care. Care demands rejecting hookup culture in total, not just in part.