The following essay is based on nothing more than one of the periodic dinners during which my friend Tom and I explore whatever question happens to fall on the table. Absolutely no research of any kind went into it. So here goes.
Maybe it’s because we are a college town, the subject of campus sex and what consent means has a higher profile that it might in other places. It is a problem. Nonconsensual sex is intolerable. The question arises with what consent means. There are some obvious acts well outside the boundaries of consent: rape, sex with someone not capable of giving consent, sex with persons deemed to be too young to give consent, etc. But there is another issue, and that is with pubescent awakenings to and explorations of what it is all about. Just to be clear about it, college students, even very bright ones at elite colleges, are pubescent. I don’t mean that they are entering puberty, but that they are still goofy teenagers trying to find their adult footing.
It’s commonly said that sexual activity starts very young, everyone is doing it, and everyone knows what they are doing. Is that true? I wonder. However, because kids are exposed to so much sexually explicit content through the media, they certainly have more knowledge of the mechanics than I did as a youth. But are they any more sophisticated or mature about it? They still have to go through the same learning curve we all did. Where are these urges headed? Why do they seem so overwhelming at times? What am I supposed to do? What am I not supposed to do? What is the right thing to do? What if I do something and wish I hadn’t?
College is an abrupt transition for some kids. One day they are expected to behave according to the standards of the household, even if they don’t. Some form of adult supervision surrounds them at home and in school. They strain to be free of it all, and college gives it to them like an ice cold bath. Handling it can’t be easy for some of them, and sex is one of the freedoms that hormonally driven day dreams are made of. Apart from the legendary amoral frat boys (those prowling packs of voracious wolves), my guess is that the average college student, male and female, is still struggling with the same questions we did back in the dark ages.
This where the difficulty with consent come’s in. It would be nice if it was a simple yes or no, but it isn’t. I suspect it’s an awkward dance in which different moves are thought about, tried, accepted, rejected, rearranged, and dropped or tried again in a different way, all within the context of complex moral standards. Yes emerges but as a limited yes, or no emerges but as a limited no, and maybe is for another time maybe, or maybe not. Offense is given and offense is taken. I don’t think that awkward dance can be avoided. Honesty would require us to admit that we were there, and that the moments of embarrassment, stupidity, and regret outnumbered the moments of delight.
What may be different about today is a less trustworthy moral grounding. Throughout the ages, college students have often laid aside their childhood religious practices for a time, but they did have them to lay aside. Professor friends observe that now it’s common for many students to arrive with no religious or moral grounding. That doesn’t mean that they have no moral standards. It simply means that each has jury-rigged something that seems to work in getting them through the ethical decisions of daily life. Political ideology often appears to fit the bill. Having spent many years in that arena, it’s a very unstable moral rudder. I think that’s a problem, and it relates to the question of what yes means and what no means.
What should be done about it? My opening recommendation is for today’s parents of young children to commit to early childhood education in the Christian theology of the Episcopal Church that is continued at home and throughout the years of growing up. I may be a bit biased about that, but I am serious. However, I am informed that there are other possibilities. As for today’s student’s, I might suggest a required sex-ed course with a strong social-psychology component to open, and a strong ethical component to close. I know, I know, they got sex-ed in high school, but they need something more suited to intelligent, quasi-sophisticated college students.