American Universities Have a Sexual Ethics Problem. Why They Need a Religious Solution

Sex crimes and hookup culture are widespread problems at American universities — with the exception of evangelical campuses.

It reads like a horror film script: 24 violent sexual attacks in 12 months. Teen boys forced to swim in fecal matter and to eat omelets stuffed with vomit. Powerbrokers turning a blind eye. Sadly, these atrocities aren’t acted out on a silver screen. This is today’s normal at Dartmouth and many of our country’s most esteemed universities.

“Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior,” said the school’s president, Philip Hanlon. With Dartmouth bouncing from one bad story tothe next, Hanlon addressed the simmering crisis. And he noted that Dartmouth wasn’t alone.

“These are issues that are clearly bedeviling every campus in this country,” Hanlon said, “and every president is worried about them.”

Though Hanlon should have included an asterisk when he said “every campus” (I’ll come back to that shortly), the point stands. Sexual violence is not a Dartmouth problem. This is an American university problem.

We have encouraged our nation’s students toward a choose-your-own-sexual-adventure-lifestyle.

Last year, a Harvard student described the unthinkable experience of being sexually assaulted by a fellow student and housemate. Even more troubling, she articulated how university officials ignored her complaints. When the story landed on the news cycle, Harvard established a task force in response. This campus epidemic is not constrained to just Ivy League institutions. President Obama created a committee this year to respond to the surging incidence of sexual violence across the country.

None of this should be surprising. We’re seeing the fruit of the seeds planted a long time ago on our colleges. In 1987, Derek Bok, Harvard’s president from 1971–1991, wrote a 35-page letter to Harvard’s board about the sharp decline of ethics at his university. These aren’t new issues. As a culture, we have encouraged our nation’s students toward a choose-your-own-sexual-adventure-lifestyle. And we have celebrated the party culture, as if college is meant to be a youthful exercise in finding oneself.

It isn’t. One in four female college students will be sexually assaulted during her college years. There is perhaps no more dangerous place for a woman in this country than the campuses of some the country’s most elite universities. When Harvard officials allow events like IncestFest — an event listing a primary goal as “hooking up with as many people as possible,” it should not surprise us to read about the haunting results.

Though evangelical institutions have their own challenges, the hookup culture is largely absent on most of these campuses.

“We think of college as a place where kids, perhaps free from their parents’ watchful eyes for the first time, can experiment sexually,” wrote Donna Freitas, author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. In her book, she outlines the findings of her research of “hookup culture.”

Freitas interviewed over 1,200 students about the sexual climate on our nation’s college campuses and uncovered disturbing results. “Of students who reported hooking up, 41 percent used words such as “regretful,” “empty,” “miserable,” “disgusted,” “ashamed,” “duped” and even “abused” to describe the experience,” Freitas wrote. “Are we tolerant and inclusive enough for sexual experimentation to include having less sex — or even none?”

But there is a quiet outlier in Freitas’ study. “I had to bracket out evangelical universities,” said Freitas at the Q Conference in Nashville last month.

These universities serve a sizeable percentage of America’s college students. With a cumulative enrollment of over 348,000 students in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), 119 evangelical universities exist across 32 states. Though evangelical institutions have their own challenges, the hookup culture is largely absent on most of these campuses, according to Freitas. Such Christian colleges emphasize character formation, and they train their students to embrace virtue.

Christian universities are not without blemish, of course. Bob Jones University — a Christian college, though not a member of the CCCU — has been embroiled in its own sexual abuse scandal. According to several students, Bob Jones administrators have encouraged them to conceal their stories of abuse. These students are absolutely right to bring their stories, and any attempt to silence them, to light. Any attempt to hush these claims should be challenged forthrightly, as the victims have done.

For all its negative baggage, religion might be just the antidote students need to navigate the challenges they’ll face on campus.

Harvard, Dartmouth, and most of the Ivy League universities used to be evangelical institutions. They adhered to a clear moral definition of right and wrong, emphasizing the cultivation of virtues and development of character. Dartmouth’s founders created the school with the biblical motto “a voice crying out in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3) to celebrate the school’s Christian missionary ethos. Harvard was a preacher training school. Harvard’s initial mission statement was: “To be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.” Harvard and Dartmouth evolved over time, of course, and no longer adhere to an institutional moral framework.

Harvard is not likely to reinstate its evangelical heritage. Dartmouth is unlikely to adhere to the biblical standards prescribed in the religious book from where it gleans its motto. But I think our nation’s universities could use more religion, not less.

This month, Clemson officials came under fire for encouraging their athletes to attend church. Christian ministers at Vanderbilt, Tufts, Bowdoin and dozens of other universities have been threatened, and kicked out in some cases, by school officials nervous about the influence of their religious teachings on their campuses.

Harvard and Dartmouth look to tighter rules and task forces to solve the spread of sexual assault on their campuses. Meanwhile, evangelical universities might hold an answer to the deeper questions Ivy League administrators are asking. Christian schools are often scorned for their close-mindedness and old-fashioned moral codes, but I’ll trade widespread sexual safety for pervasive sexual violence, even if it comes with old-time ethical guidelines.

For all its negative baggage, religion might be just the antidote students need to navigate the challenges they’ll face on campus. To speed up the revival of the heart of the American academy, perhaps these schools should consider their roots.

Image of Harvard University via Shutterstock.

Chris Horst
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  • Elchupinazo

    This is incredibly offensive. Shockingly so. Nothing like casually associating rape with consensual, casual sex.

  • Bill

    Colleges and universities have intentionally created a place as artificial as Disney World, but with sex, drugs/alcohol and increasing violence. One answer is to reconnect with the real world. In the real world, sexual attacks are dealt with by the justice system – not task forces and administrative hearings. Campus behavior needs to have real world consequences.

  • Carly Jurica

    What about Cedarville? Patrick Henry? Pensacola? Lots of Christian universities have their own issues. The problem has nothing to do with a sexually permissive culture; many who take that stance also preach consent and mutuality. The problem is rape culture, and the church often harbors sympathies for this culture in its patriarchy, purity and modesty teachings that come down harder on women than men, slut-shaming, its bad habit of covering up issues that come up in the name of protecting the reputation of Jesus and the church, and its obsession with a good redemption story that drives them to believe and protect offenders when they cry and say they’re sorry. Articles like this very one act as enablers for rape culture right under your noses, but you know nothing about it because Christians are better at covering it up and lying about it. My own Christian university, one of the better ones out there, had its own problem while I was there: a student, majoring in ministry and Bib/Theo, was notorious for charming girls into trusting him and then assaulting them. A group of something like 25 women went to school administration and reported him; the school barred him from living on campus, but allowed him to continue classes as normal, and hid from the student body that he was a predator. He stalked one of my friends after she found out about this and dumped him. But since he sucked up to the teachers and stuff, most of the victims suffered in silence.

    Anyone who believes the things said in this article is fooling themselves, and perpetuating a culture that throws their sisters under the bus every day.

  • nwcolorist

    “Of students who reported hooking up, 41 percent used words such as “regretful,” “empty,” “miserable…” I graduated from a private college in 1968 and these statistics might not have been too far off then also. College can be a tough time. Remember the movie “Come Saturday Morning” with Lisa Minelli?