The Consent Is Sexy (CiS) campaign has advertised itself as striving for a more lasting response to the problems it identifies than a mere alteration of college policy or an increased awareness of the existence and activities of Survivors of Assault and Rape. It claims to want a totally open and honest discussion of issues related to sexual violence at Haverford, as well as an enduring change in what it believes is a pervasive rape culture on campus.
I applaud CiS for recognizing that, to the extent the problem can be concretely defined, superficial fixes will not do. Plenary resolutions and tweaks to Haverford’s process for handling reports of sexual assault are simply insufficient. Only an open-ended commitment to changing the way that we think about (or don’t think about) rape is going to be enough.
I agree completely. But I think that taking CiS’s stated goals to their logical conclusions reveals some uncomfortable contradictions. By all means we need to eradicate rape culture wherever we may find it, but we will not do so until we take on hookup culture and the celebration of casual sex as well.
In an earlier post on this blog (“Sexism?”), the organizers of CiS explicitly refute the rather odd charge that their goal is to criticize Haverford’s hookup culture. They respond that they had no such intention, and that in fact many of them have had “positive experiences in hookup culture.”
Herein lies one of the central paradoxes of sexual liberationism: sexual violence is a grave sin, but the conditions in which such aggression can most easily manifest itself are to be not only permitted, but relentlessly encouraged. It is imperative that cool-headed rationality prevail long enough to come to a clear verbal agreement about the nature of a sexual encounter before it begins, but suggesting that cool-headedness can prevail for long enough to obtain a condom from somewhere farther than three steps down the hall is “unrealistic.”
To quote an article critiquing a similar CiS campaign at Gonzaga University, a key part of this worldview is that “college kids simply cannot help but have sex, so we simply need to live with this immutable, objective reality. Of course, college kids are told they mustn’t rape, smoke, make racist remarks, be homophobic, or denigrate native cultures, so they apparently do possess some self-control. But not in the sack.”
For anyone who thinks I’m attacking a straw man, consider SHAC’s condom distribution program. I’ve had it suggested to me that the initiative “promotes a healthy view of sex.” But this clearly isn’t true. Read SHAC’s Go! posts and other advertisements and you will find them asking people to save the condoms for “those in need” and to refrain from hoarding them lest others be left empty-handed in an “emergency.” In other words, we are encouraged to see impulsive sex as completely unavoidable, akin to an unforeseen accident. And the rebuttal that we as a community are only “recognizing reality” and not making an endorsement of any particular behavior is equally vacuous. I suppose that the Sexvember sex toy raffles and Juicy Justine seminars merely “recognize reality” as well.
In other words, if we believe in paternalism fervently enough to think that it is our collective responsibility to provide subsidized contraceptives for our classmates in the name of public health, then we must also believe in paternalism enough to feel responsibility for their psychological well-being as well. I humbly submit that meaningless hookups are not the pinnacle of such well-being, and that our failure to promote a more dignified sexual ethic means that we’re not really as good at being paternalists as we think we are.
Those who try to combat rape while taking a laissez-faire approach to casual hookups ignore the fact that carefree, potentially alcohol-fueled sexual encounters are the very sort of situations in which the risk of sexual violence is greatest. And no, this is not “victim-blaming” (“survivor-blaming”?). Any reasonable crime-prevention strategy has to be twofold, both convincing potential perpetrators not to commit crimes and instructing potential victims on how to avoid situations where they put themselves in the most danger.
Moreover, we are supposed to decry rape culture for subliminally and/or overtly condoning the objectification of women (and men), but how can we encourage hookups without tolerating the same exact mindset? What is hookup culture but the belief that it’s okay to treat other people as only instrumentally valuable, of use to us merely because of their capacity to give us physical pleasure? When it comes to casual sex, we are supposed to believe that using other people for our own selfish purposes is not only acceptable, but biologically unavoidable.
The bottom line is this: we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot eradicate rape culture while preserving a hookup culture that thrives on the same themes we supposedly condemn. Some will probably respond that I’m unfairly conflating consensual sex with rape, and that instead of “ignoring reality” I should at least endorse efforts to make sure that when people do have sex, everyone is on the same page. But this misses the point, which is that we deserve better than a culture that tolerates the commodification of other human beings. Of course it’s the case that nonconsensual sex involves a more tangible and more grievous harm than consensual sex, and the fact that it takes place has rightly brought forth the ire of what is hopefully a critical mass of the student body. Nevertheless, trying to fight rape by further trivializing the emotional and moral significance of sex is self-defeating. Just because we may not perceive sexual libertinism as damaging doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have consequences.