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Rape Culture and Christian Colleges

Commitment to traditional Christian sexual practices provides greater protection for women from sexual violence.

Teaching women how to avoid being assaulted, rather than focusing on perpetrators; policing the way women dress; women who report assaults not being believed; a student receiving over 40 unwanted emails a day from a guy who sits behind her in one of her classes; a student hiding out in her dorm room and skipping classes for nearly two weeks to avoid an ex-boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer when she breaks up with him.

There is no single agreed-upon definition of “rape culture,” but those are some of the examples of how it plays out on college campuses, including Christian colleges.

Karen Cornies, who was dean of students at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., until December, said she’s had mixed feelings about the term “rape culture” and avoids it to some extent. “At it’s heart, I think, is naming the ways in which we as a culture normalize sexual assault and then end up blaming the victim of the assault for the assault. Naming that is important,” she said.

Her colleague Jim Vanderwoerd is a social work professor and chair of the Sociology/Social Work department at Redeemer and has studied and written extensively on sexual violence, especially in the context of Christian colleges and universities. “There is no consensus on what rape culture is, and therefore, no accurate or reliable way to measure it on campuses.”

He said rape culture is a phrase to describe a culture where violence against women—especially sexual violence—is implicitly tolerated or condoned. “The key word here is ‘implicitly,’” he said, “for almost no one explicitly endorses sexual violence. The phrase is intended to reveal how the responses (or lack thereof)—particularly by those in authority—minimize, deny, downplay, rationalize, justify, or explain away the realities of sexual violence.”

Some, like Howard Wilson, vice president and chief administrative officer at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, don’t relate to that term at all. “We don’t believe [rape culture] exists on our campus,” he said. “It’s just not who we are.”

With or without an agreed-upon definition, the damage is real. Both men and women are subject to sexual violence, but the vast majority of victims are women.

Vanderwoerd says rape culture also captures the inadequate ways in which college authorities respond when women disclose their unwanted sexual experiences. Too often, women who disclose are not taken seriously, are pressured to keep quiet or are implicitly or explicitly blamed, and are subjected to intrusive and repeated investigation—while the men who carried out the sexually exploitative behavior escape scrutiny or accountability.

Alcohol and Pornography

Rev. Mary Hulst is the chaplain at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She said the unique challenges present on a college campus is that young men and women live in close proximity to each other, have much less oversight than they have ever had before, are seeking out relationships, and often have easy access to alcohol.

Alcohol is certainly one cause for the kinds of behaviors described. Vanderwoerd noted that the literature shows that alcohol consumption, by both perpetrators and victims, as well as the overall alcohol culture on college campuses, is highly related to sexual victimization. Wilson expressed a similar opinion. “What we’ve learned [from training] is that vast majority of sexual assaults on campuses are connected to alcohol abuse. We don’t have nearly the incidence of alcohol abuse as many other public and private institutions.”

Another strong contributor is pornography. “Pornography feeds this,” Hulst said. “Over 80 percent of the images in porn involve men dominating women. Statistics show that Christian young men and women are watching porn at close to the same rates as students across the world. If 85 percent of our men and 40 percent of our women are watching porn, they are being exposed to evil presentations of sexual intimacy usually involving abuse.”

Cornies concurred. “I’m hearing reports like half of boys in grade nine have seen nude photos of their female classmates.”

Vanderwoerd noted that on college campuses there are a wide variety of opportunities for social gatherings involving sexualized activities—usually involving drinking and increasingly fueled by porn—such as “panty raids,” hazing rituals, “Pimp and Ho,” or similar theme parties where women wear sexually provocative clothing and compete to make themselves available to men. What makes it rape culture, he said, is that these kinds of sexualized activities are seen as normal and desirable—so much so that individuals who don’t participate are stigmatized.

“Any time we excuse sexually aggressive behavior because this is supposedly what is expected of boys and men, then our boys and men will continue to think that it’s really not that bad,” Hulst said.

Moral Communities

The good news for students and supporters of Protestant Christian colleges is that the hook-up behavior so prevalent in today’s society is less prevalent on Protestant Christian college campuses.

“The biggest difference is that most of the students on a Christian college campus have been exposed to the idea that sex is reserved for marriage. Many of them long to practice good sexual ethics and give the gift of sexual intimacy to their spouses. So students are more aware of the biblical ideal and long to obey it. This is great!” Hulst said.

Vanderwoerd cited research that shows there is a difference between Christian and public campuses in the prevalence of hook-up culture. There may be some merit to Christian campuses having less of that, which may decrease the impact.

“Sociologist Amy Burdette and her colleagues investigated hook-up culture on different types on campuses,” Vanderwoerd said. “In their 2009 paper published in the prestigious Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, they reported that students at Protestant religious colleges were less likely to hook up compared to students at Catholic institutions or institutions with no religious affiliation. The authors suggest that with respect to casual sexual activity, conservative Protestant colleges and universities may be more effective in establishing ‘moral communities.’” The paper goes on to note that a common set of lifestyle practices and policies at Protestant evangelical colleges operate to create and sustain moral communities that “contribute to a climate of sexual restraint.”

Vanderwoerd noted that evangelical Protestant campuses provide contexts in which a faith-informed ethic of “sex within guidelines” reduces the incidence of casual sex and hook-up culture, and thus protects women from the risks of sexual violence compared to secular campuses.

Wilson added that Dordt has community standards and students live within that culture. “Our students are self-selecting into a certain way of living.”

Education and Awareness

All agree that education and awareness is key to reducing rape culture behaviors.

Wilson said that when Dordt conducted sexual harassment prevention training, they saw close to 100 percent compliance from full-time staff and 93 percent of students received training in sexual harassment prevention. “We don’t want to be Pollyanna here. We realize we’re dealing with young adults who are exploring their sexuality as part of their life, and we have programs to help them think about that and work through it. We have strong community life standards, which state that the only appropriate form of intimate contact is between man and a woman in the context of marriage. Our culture is largely set by what happens in chapel and in the classroom.” Wilson said that chapel includes messages addressing sex and relationships and Dordt’s dean of chapel, Aaron Baart, speaks at high schools all over the U.S. on sexuality and pornography.

Vanderwoerd noted that [social scientists] have found that certain religious indicators (such as weekly attendance, frequency of prayer, and Bible reading) are inversely related to sexual violence: that is, the more frequently you attend services, pray, or read the Bible, the lower the rates of sexual violence.

Hulst said that education needs to start long before college. “We need to start talking about porn with our late elementary school/middle school children. First exposure is often around the age of 11. By the time they reach college, they are addicts. Every Christian high school should start support groups for students who are addicted to porn. They are deeply ashamed and don’t know what to do. We can help them heal, and in so doing reframe for them what sexual intimacy is really like.”

Hulst said we also need to call out those who lift up dating and marriage as the end goal for women.

Cornies has had experience of that. “I can’t tell you how many times in my 21 years of student life work I’ve sat across from an amazing young woman—bright, talented, kind—and she has said to me that she feels like she isn't really worth anything because she doesn't have a boyfriend. It is heartbreaking.”

She said that teaching the value of listening, respect, empathy, explaining to boys the value of the girls and women around them are all part of the solution. And, she added, “Let’s start by not inflicting violence on boys and men and see where that takes us.”

Vanderwoerd thinks that many more Christian colleges are becoming more aware, and are developing more comprehensive programs to prevent and respond to campus sexual violence (often drawing on and adapting best practices that have been developed on secular campuses over the past few decades). There is no excuse for Christian colleges to be ignorant about the reality of sexual violence, he said. “Tragically, it does happen here too, as my research reveals. Christian colleges should have explicit policies and procedures for addressing sexual violence, including procedures and training on how to respond, and programs focused on prevention and raising awareness.”

He said that the vast majority of men are not perpetrators of direct sexual violence against women. But men can be complicit in perpetuating rape culture by not informing themselves about the realities of gender-based sexual violence and thus by not speaking out against it.

Staying Counter-Cultural

He also said that Christian colleges should not be apologetic about their commitment to the teachings and practices of traditional Christianity regarding the appropriate parameters for sexual intimacy. While such teachings and practices are dismissed and even reviled by many in mainstream society as archaic and even oppressive, he said, we should be bold in promoting a sexual ethic that leads to the genuine flourishing that God intended for people.

Vanderwoerd added, “We must resist the pressure to cave in on these commitments in the name of diversity or inclusivity or openness. There is emerging evidence, as suggested in my research, that a commitment to traditional Christian sexual practices actually provides greater protection for women from sexual violence.”

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