What the Great Church Swimsuit Debate Has to Do with Sexual Assault on College Campuses

I love my alma maters and the university I currently attend. I am, for the most part, proud to be affiliated with them. However, I am appalled that three out of the four colleges I have attended have made national news and been the subject of intense investigations due to serious and numerous reports of sexual assault on their campuses and on the mishandling of those reports. It is the great epidemic sweeping the nation, it seems – only this epidemic has been around for decades.

I remember hearing stories from friends who went to fraternity parties where alcohol flowed freely and the young men tried to outdo one another with the number and relative beauty of the women they could attract. I remember hearing about a good friend who had to protect another young lady who had passed out at a party from getting sexually assaulted by two fraternity men. Then there was the close friend who got slipped the date rape drug at a Greek event and awoke to find herself in her own burglarized apartment, fortunately physically unscathed.

But fraternity parties were not the only places where sexual assault took place. I personally had two encounters – both with nice churchgoing young men, both members of a “dry” fraternity that did not party with alcohol – that have haunted me over the past decade, the details of which I will spare you. Basically, my “no” was not well-received, and my “yes” was never given. Over the years, I have blamed myself for giving in, for not getting up and leaving, or for not punching the guy in the face, and I have assumed any level of affection or attention I gave these young men must have led them on and given the wrong impression. I did not even realize that these incidents could be considered sexual assault until I watched the documentary It Happened Here, which follows the stories of a handful of young college students who were victims of sexual assault. None of them had the “clear-cut victim” case of being attacked and raped while innocently leaving some school-sponsored activity. Instead, their stories involved relationships with friends that took unwelcome turns, alcohol, parties – you know, the things we’re told we should have avoided to prevent the abuse. I had to turn the film off halfway through because it hit too painfully close to home.

Of the schools I have attended, the one from which my personal anecdotes come is the one most closely affiliated with a Christian denomination. In fact, the Christian influence is strong on that campus, and it is the site of a season of great spiritual growth in my own life. For that, I am grateful. But it also has a legacy of placing an unequal burden of responsibility on females when it comes to adhering to what it deems sexual propriety. For example, when I was a student there, the school had a policy that if a female was found to be pregnant, she would be expelled from the institution. No such recourse was stipulated for the male who got her pregnant. A friend of mine campaigned successfully to reverse this policy to safeguard pregnant students, shortly after I graduated with a concealed four-month baby bump under my graduation gown.

Additionally, when the campus ministry groups with which I was heavily involved planned retreats or events, they always resorted to the same old dress-code stand-by: “Modest one-piece swimsuits only, ladies!” The rationale for this was that when we women reveal our bodies in front of men, we become “stumbling blocks,” are “temptations,” and are not “respecting our brothers in Christ.” We were told that men are “visual,” so they cannot help but feel an attraction or even lust based on how a woman appears.

What these rules and codes reveal is a double standard for men and women in which females are held responsible for the actions of men against them and for the harm that befalls them. Males’ roles and agency in these issues are ignored, underestimated, laughed off as unavoidable and typical behavior, or, at times and in the most heinous cases, treated as isolated and individual incidents rather than as more salient examples of a patriarchal system. And religious rhetoric is used to perpetuate and even create the ideologies that support this patriarchy.

The problem is that women are blamed for men’s lust over their bodies when they wear certain clothing, while men are told that they cannot help but lust after these women because they, as men, are naturally “visually stimulated.” Of course, men are not to “act on” this lust, for then they will share in the blame for harming the seductive woman. The problem, too, is that our theologies continue to preach that men are naturally dominant and essentially different from women in that, unlike women, they need to assert their power and control physically. These messages thus feed the rape culture and the idea that sex is a celebrated conquest for men, but a shameful mistake for women. And the problem is that we laugh off the behavior of fraternity “boys” – grown men, really – as ignorance, immaturity, a natural stage in development, and the result of peer pressure rather than some actual character flaw. This patriarchy is justified and divinized by religious decrees of “natural” gendered essences that display harmful double standards and of commands that place the burden of responsibility and blame on the female “temptress.” It results in a college campus culture of male dominance as the prevailing form of power. This dominance need not wait for sober consent, nor should it be held accountable for what it does to women under the influence of alcohol or in the presence of fraternity brothers. Such patriarchy results in the embrace of raunch culture by women who believe that playing into “essentialized” gender concepts and making themselves objects of desire – or flipping the script on men and treating men as sexual conquests – is the only way to participate in this prevailing form of power on their campuses. Finally, the confluence of patriarchy and religious messages creates a failure to deal with the issues at play because of a confusion about just who is to blame in the case of sexual assault.

Recently, I had a conversation with a couple of bright female students at my current university. Concerned about the prevalence not only of sexual assault on our campus but also the pressure to participate in the culture of raunch and dominance, one of the students commented that we are required to take health, psychology, political science, and even at some universities (such as my alma mater) courses specifically on Christianity. And yet, gender studies courses are not required, even though gender is an issue that every single one of us contends with on a daily basis. Do we not take the power of gender seriously enough? Do we take it for granted? Or do we simply enjoy the way it presently operates so much that we are afraid of finding out that there are alternatives?

Image: A survivor of sexual assault speaks out through Project Unbreakable, an anti-sexual assault and survivor-support campaign.

Source: Project Unbreakable (Attribution via Bing Images)

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