The Sexual Campus Hypocrisy – Sex Workshops and the Rape Culture

The University of Minnesota puts on a “Golden Condom Scavenger Hunt;” Vanderbilt offers sex-ed classes designed to make you a more dynamic lover; Harvard hosts sex-week and anal sex workshops; The University of New Mexico boasts threesome workshops with extensive how-to’s; we’ve also seen the appearance of porn-funded scholarships, and now even the University of Utah is distributing free birth control pills and vasectomies. It is indisputable that America’s universities have become overtly sexualized environments. Some people would take issue with the programs and events mentioned above, but then again, many people would not. Especially on campus, many would consider them completely normal, harmless, even fascinating and exhilarating.  Perhaps some would even point to them as manifestations of the irrepressible force of “progress.”

Regardless of what one thinks of the sexualization of the university campus however, it is impossible to deny that this movement has a powerful effect on the campus culture – overt sexuality becomes normalized. More importantly, however, it affects how men view women. When men are constantly receiving messages about how trivial, commonplace, and acceptable unrestrained sexual activity is, when sex is depicted as nothing more than carnal pleasure to be maximized through bondage, anal sex, and threesomes, it has a real, tangible influence on men’s mentalities.  This discourse completely severs the intangibles from the physical sexual act – selfless love, affection, and emotional intimacy are no longer part of the equation. Sex becomes purely about the physical, carnal act of pleasure. These messages inadvertently train men to believe that female bodies are merely the source of this sublime carnal pleasure. In essence, women are depicted as objects of sexual pleasure for men. What this also serves to do is to blur the lines between “sex” and “love” to such a degree that people begin to view the two as synonymous. What immediately comes to mind, of course, is the release of Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day. This is tragic because of how it confuses young people and conflates love with sex. Like the campus sex workshops, this sends a terribly destructive and misleading message.

At the same time, the notion of a “campus rape culture” has never been more prominent, spurring a host of anti-sexual assault campus movements and official policies that seek to publicly condemn and combat it. All across the country – nowhere more recent or prominent than the President himself in a public address during the Grammys – people are launching campaigns that malign men for objectifying women’s bodies; the “it’s on us” movement has gained a number of prominent spokesmen. But isn’t that precisely what these sex workshops are all about? Promoting sexual adventurism and completely dismissing the idea that sex belongs in a loving, committed relationship, isn’t objectifying bodies in an overtly and exclusively sexual manner exactly what they do?

This begs the question – how do these sex-events relate to sexual violence? How does encouraging men to view women as mere bodies that have the potential to provide them with sexual pleasure influence men’s willingness or likelihood to commit sexual assault? I would argue that just as it is psychologically easier to kill another human being who has been dehumanized (figuratively robbed of his human qualities – think of any example of genocide in history and its accompanying propaganda campaign), it is much easier to commit sexual assault against a woman whose primary attribute has become, in the eyes of her attacker, her sexual potential. One recent study claims that male college students have a “distorted understanding of rape;” in the survey, a frighteningly substantial minority believed that  “forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse” and ”raping a woman” were two different things. With the mixed messages these young, endlessly impressionable, and still developing brains are simultaneously receiving from these sexualization and anti-sexual assault campaigns, should that come as a surprise?

What is most ironic – and hypocritical – about this all is that those people who are advocating these sex workshops and pretending like sex is a trivial matter – generally sexually liberal progressives – are often the same people who are most vocal about maligning men and the oft-cited culture of rape on university campuses. Do people not recognize the fundamental conflict in what they are doing here? When we trivialize the seriousness of sex by hosting anal, threesome, and sexual creativity events in a glamorizing fashion, we are sending the message that sex is impersonal and that we can freely detach the human elements from the bodies from which we are gaining our sexual pleasure. It is precisely this sort of mentality that contributes to men’s perception of women as mere sexual objects, which in turn is fundamental to the “rape culture” and, ultimately, the crime of sexual assault. If we are genuinely committed to combating sexual assault and the perception of women as sexual objects, we should consider the inadvertent yet powerful and subtle effect these events have on people’s mentalities, psychologies, and perceptions of other human beings.

4 thoughts on “The Sexual Campus Hypocrisy – Sex Workshops and the Rape Culture

  • You’re in a graduate program or am I wrong? I ask because the wild leaps you make in your rationale would never hold up in academia. What are you defining an “overtly sexual environment” and how exactly does offering birth control create such a sexual environment? And if this is true, why not focus on critiquing the proliferation of viagra or the sale of KY Jelly? This leads to my second issue and a common theme with your pieces–reifying false gender assumptions. Why aren’t women rapists as common as male rapists if the cause of rape is the overtly sexualized university environment? Do you mean to say that men can’t control their sexual urges? This sounds suspiciously like an apology for male rapists. And if it isn’t, it does the same work as one.

  • Al:

    First of all, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate it. Now, to answer some of your questions:

    My characterization of creating an “overtly sexual environment” was speaking to the holism of the movement, not solely and exclusively to the offering of birth control. So I’m not sure why you isolated that small (and least consequential) example to question the broader point.

    Why not focus on Viagra and KY Jelly? Well, for several reasons. The obvious one is that I can’t cover any and all forms of explicit and implicit sexualization in a single little post like this. More importantly, though, the context in which these are advertised is completely different – at least for viagra (I haven’t seen KY Jelly commercials…). I’d say we stick with that for the moment. Viagra marketing directly targets older men – unsurprisingly – not college students. Also, any Viagra commercial I’ve ever seen depicts what is presumably a husband and his wife. The emphasis is therefore on sex as a part of a loving relationship. That’s completely different from the examples I mention, which detact the intimacy component from sex.

    To your gender assumptions comment:
    First of all, there are demonstrable neurological, physiological, and biological differences between men and women. Two of those differences are levels of aggression and physical strength. Thanks in large part to higher testosterone levels, men tend to be both more aggressive and stronger. It’s for that simple reason that men are more likely to commit rape than women (tendency due to aggression + ability due to strength). And in addition to that, to answer your question about the campus environment being “the cause of rape:” because rape and sexual assault are multicausal acts. I never argued that the oversexed campus is the -only- cause. I argue that it’s a contributing evil that people overlook – or simply deliberately ignore because it’s inconvenient.

    And finally, no one claimed that “men can’t control their urges.” But what is important to recognize if we are to have productive conversation about issues like this is that human behaviors are multicausal. There are many different factors and influences at work – internal and external – that ultimately compel a human being to act a certain way. This applies to a man’s (or woman’s) decision (whether rational or impulsive) to commit sexual assault, too.

    All I can do is implore you to read what I am saying for what I am saying, and not to interpret any ulterior motives into my post. It is entirely unproductive to knee-jerkingly decide to demonize an opposing position/opnion on the assumption that its author had some insidious motive that he/she didn’t explicitly state. Our tendency to do just that inhibits the free exchange of ideas and isin my view wholly antithetical to what both universities and the United States [ought to] stand for. Evaluate the ideas on the basis of their own merit, not their author’s.

  • As a historian, how do you account for the prevalence of rape before these “sex workshops” you’re describing became popular? Not necessarily on college campuses, many of which have not been coed for very long, but in society at large.

    • Hello Sarah. Thanks for commenting.

      I would simply point to the fact that, like any human act, rape or sexual assault are rooted in a whole set of complex causal factors. This campus movement is not the only contributing factor to an environment that encourages men to view women primarily for their sexual attributes, and so it cannot be the only environmental or contextual factor that contributes to sexual assault and rape on campus. There is a whole host of other variables at play.

      The same goes for society as a whole, for humanity as a whole. Rape is something that is deeply rooted in our humanity – whether you subscribe to an evolutionary or a Biblical worldview (or some combination of both). It is by its very nature a selfish act. Humans are selfish creatures. Now, from here, we could go in an almost infinite set of directions…

      One could argue that some men are simply so evil and selfish that they are willing to commit rape without considering the effect it might have on their victim.
      Alternatively, one might argue that rape is somehow hardwired into men’s evolutionary genetics because of its (sex’s) reproductive potential, and unless cultural factors combat this tendency, men will be more likely to commit sexual assault.
      On the other hand, one could point to men deluding themselves into thinking that there’s nothing wrong with rape and that, as the stronger party, they are free to take what they wish.
      Other factors might include how the society views and values women – as bodies or as human beings? How does society view sex? As recreational and detached from emotional intimacy or as sacred and belonging only in loving relationships?
      Then we have other, broader complicating dynamics like the extent to which women learn to defend themselves physically and how well court systems uphold women’s rights. And does society at large forcefully and uncompromisingly condemn rape or does it sweep it under the rug? Another factor is something like the extent to which we live in a surveillance society; it increases the likelihood of being caught, discouraging crime in general.
      This is just some stuff that came to mind.

      I haven’t read much about rape psychology, but from my understanding, it is very often about some distorted form of pleasure and power. This brings the argument full circle, because a desire for pleasure and a desire to both possess and wield power are part of our human condition, so in my view, rape is never something that can be eliminated from society. Its prevalence can be reduced or increased by a whole range of factors, however, so it’s worth investigating those variables that have the potential to affect it.

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