The Common Good

‘How Far Is Too Far?:’ Sexuality and Sexual Violence on Christian Campuses

Last week, four football players at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., were suspended and banned from campus pending an investigation into possible on-campus sex crimes allegedly perpetrated by the players.

A young couple holds hands. Photo courtesy Peter Bernik/shutterstock.com

Related Reading

Take Action on This Issue

Circle of Protection for a Moral Budget

A pledge by church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs who have come together to form a Circle of Protection around programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world.

The action on the case has been swift from both law enforcement and university officials, if tight-lipped. To date, police have not elaborated on the nature of the investigation, and the player’s coaches have refused requests for comment.

“Much like many sexual violence cases, [these] investigations are taboo and not openly acknowledged,” Nancy Hawthorne, interim director of Vanderbilt University’s United Methodist campus ministry, told Sojourners. “As more unfolds about this case I hope that both the victims of violence as well as those being investigated can get the help they need.”

Unfortunately, sexual violence on college campuses is a widespread reality. As many as 20-25 percent of women will face attempted or completed assault over the course of their college tenure. Contrary to popular myths about “stranger-danger,” 9-in-10 of those victims will know their attacker. 

For Christian college administrators, who take seriously the formation not just of mind but of spirit, the reality of campus-based sexual violence is challenging for many to admit. Yet it has serious implications for how students learn, understand, and develop self-respect and love for their neighbor.

In speaking with students, former students, and staff at Christian schools across the country, what’s revealed is that education about the realities and effects of sexual violence among college students remains anemic at best. There’s much to suggest that students are finding their way, but many — particularly at more sexually orthodox campuses — face frightening barriers to knowledge. When it comes to educating mind and spirit on sexual violence, Christian institutes of higher education still have far to go.

Abuse Happens

Maggie Gilman, Prevention Education Specialist at Clackamas Women’s Services in Portland, Ore., tells of an assault case at her alma mater, Goshen College in Goshen, Ind. Compounding the pain of the incident was the treatment of the case by administrators and students alike. Like many Christian schools, Goshen has sexual assault policies, and after the incident Goshen “revamped them to be more accessible,” Gilman said. Nevertheless, she was “taken aback” by the questions — from skeptical to naive and accusatory — asked about the case. 

“I didn’t feel like everyone had been well-educated about sexual violence — it was really hard to watch,” she said.

Indeed, the first step for many institutions is recognizing — publically and in private — that abuse happens.  

“Many Christian campuses pretend stats don’t apply to them,” Kate Davelaar, chaplain at Hope College in Holland, Mich., said. “It’s simply not believed.”

Deb Danielson, a counselor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn., agreed.

“We know so much more abuse happens than we ever hear about,” she said.

The National Justice Institute reports that across college campuses, fewer than 5 percent of sexual assault incidents go reported to law enforcement or school officials. The reasons for this are varied, but disbelief and confusion about the nature of sexual violence play large roles in Christian communities. 

“Simple awareness of sexual violence is the biggest shock,” Jeff Brown, a rising senior and member of the Sexual Assault Prevention Team at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said. For the many educations programs SAPT organizes, “we’re really mostly telling folks that sexual assault happens at Calvin.”

Boundaries Crossed

The reality of campus assault was a surprise for Brown. As a freshman, “sexual abuse wasn’t on my radar,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it.” But after hearing leaders at Calvin speak on how sexualized language can accelerate violence, “I wanted to sign up and find out more,” he said.

Brown is not alone in his experience. Counselors and chaplains, as well as former and current students, note the lack of awareness about sexual abuse among incoming college students. Equally troubling, they note, is the prevalence of personal confusion over healthy boundaries and what constitutes violence. 

“Young adults come in, few are exposed to partying, they have no framework for a responsible way to deal with sex and alcohol other than ‘don’t do it,” Gilman said. “It’s really dangerous.”

Davelaar suggested uneasiness with sexuality can reduce students' language around purity and dating to a formula.

"Students are willing to talk about sex, but the predominant question is 'how far is too far?'" she said, noting that fitting traditional notions of male and female roles to a campus setting can add to the confusion.

“The idea of having boundaries is clear. What that means is confusing,” she said. “Sex is often seen [by female students] as just stuff that happens to them. Or them trying to please their partner.”

As part of his work on abuse awareness and prevention, Brown helps host chapel presentations, monthly sessions, and regular dorm programming to instruct students in notions of healthy personal boundaries.

“We focus on: what is sexual assault? What is consent? Some students have come here with built up pain, and after hearing these definitions recognized for the first time that they’ve suffered assault,” he said.

Purity and Shame

Confusion about personal boundaries arises in part from confusion among Christian young adults about sex. And for more sexually conservative campuses, the inclination to relegate sexual violence under a broader taboo on sexuality can leave students ill-equipped, naive, or downright misinformed about healthy sexual interaction.  

And while a positive ethic of holistic purity does not itself equate to silence and blame, the rigidly simplified yet obtuse connotations the term "purity" carries too often compounds the issue.

Davelaar pointed to one such brand of “purity culture” — one “that tells women they are ‘damaged goods’ for having sex” but “tells men they ‘made a mistake, and just do better next time’” — as a main culprit in distorted notions of sexual health and identity among Christian young adults.

“Most students who wear purity rings have sex,” she said. “But they still wear them. It’s hard to ‘fess up’ even to each other that they’re having sex. If they can’t talk about that, they definitely can’t talk about sexual violence.”

Danielson agreed. 

“Thoughtful sexuality is hard. I see students saying, ‘we want to have sex honorably and we don’t know what that looks like,’” she said.

When idealized notions of purity interact with gendered ideas of shame, the result for Christian couples can be grave. Amy Mashburn, a recent graduate of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., noted a sobering trend among her engaged and married friends at Wheaton: the “vast majority” of women “could not label their own anatomy, much less did they understand the basics of sex”, she said; and she was “shocked” by the “total ubiquity of porn addiction” among men.

Mashburn added that a counselor had told her boyfriend “he was [literally] the only male student he had counseled in his five years at Wheaton who did not have that problem.”

“Needless to say, this causes a ton of problems in the marriage bed,” she said. “[Most] porn is seriously degrading to women. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a sexually repressed wife plus a husband who is addicted to sexually deviant porn has to be an underlying cause in the sexual abuse we see in churches today.”

Gender, Power and Respect

For young adults grappling with sex, purity, and shame, gendered power also contributes to silence on sexual violence.

“The hard part about this stuff is it challenges a lot of what we treat as norms — about gender, sexuality, even the problem of sexual violence itself [being ‘man vs woman’],” Gilman said. “Every person has the right to say no to a date, to end a relationship without fear of retaliation. In religious communities with stricter ideas about what men and women are supposed to be, this is much harder to do.”

Davelaar agreed.

“We’re very male-dominated when it comes to gender and power in play,” she said. “Until we change that in the institution, we will continue to be a place where victims would rather take the road to silence.”

Indeed, Andrew Haas, a current student at Wheaton, observed a negative tendency of complementarian ideas playing out in overdrawn gender roles. While not objecting to the theology, the cultural expression of it “leads to a view that women are not as intelligent as men,” Haas said.

“There’s an assumption, ‘If they’re not teaching from the pulpit, they’re not capable in leadership.’ Men at Wheaton respect women — but the danger comes when they’re not seen as equals.”

As the only male member of the sexual assault prevention group at Calvin, Brown took on the role of talking with men about “rape culture”, and “what aspects of culture makes sexual assault more horrific for victims and more prevalent than it has to be,” he said. According to Brown, casual but intentional conversation has been highly effective in changing language among his peers.

“By the end of my sophomore year, no one on my floor was using ‘rape’ casually or as a joke because they knew I wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “Even if they didn’t get why, they stopped saying it.”

Engagement and Healing

While in the intellectual incubator that is the college experience, Christian students are also cultivating their understandings of a faithful identity. Although many Christian schools are vibrant scenes of social justice and engaged activism, underlying subtexts of sexual confusion, disbelief, and shame contribute to a reluctance to discuss sexual violence. 

This is unfortunate, said Danielson, emphasizing that Christian campuses “are obviously the place to have these conversations.”

“The college age is just pivotal. It’s the transition period between states,” she said. “It’s really vital to provide a space to work through these issues in a healthy way. The way these experiences affect self, identity, self-esteem, relationship with God — we have to give students a chance to sort through that.” 

What can be done? Many who spoke with Sojourners stressed peer-to-peer engagement and bystander training, highlighting programs like those at Calvin, which bring together students, faculty, admissions, and staff for story sharing and building awareness. Peer-based programs like these encourage students to invest and participate in building a community of trust, understanding, and forgiveness.

Some, like Gilman, focused first on faculty and staff training.

“Regardless of department, I’d love to see the staff trained and aware of issues that go along with sexual violence,” Gilman said.  “A business major should be able to chat about these concerns with their business professor, and not have to search out the women’s studies department.” 

Others, like Davelaar, saw a critical need for chaplains and counselors to take a more active role in campus narratives about sex, power, and gender. 

“When I was a student in ‘96, chaplains were in the forefront on LGBT questions. Chaplains had a big pulpit, big platform. We need to re-insert ourselves into the conversation,” she said.

For most, it comes down to campuses stressing safety and belonging.

“One of the best things that could possibly happen would be for the environment to feel safe,” Haas said. “That we don’t blame victims of assault for not talking about it.”

All stressed that their institutions were trying to address the problem, even while saying they should be doing much more.

“How it’s handled at Calvin reflects how it’s handled around the country — the victim is just not given enough support. SAPT exists because Calvin still has to grow,” Brown said. “But we are having conversations a lot of others aren’t having. This is a function of our general attitude towards injustice and wrong in the world. Harm should not be buried, but should be brought to light.”

For Christian college students around the country, the campus serves as a critical, and critically vulnerable, space to develop one’s understandings of faith, sexuality, boundaries, and empowerment. 

“Faithful or secular, being able to have students thoughtfully sift through commitment and spirituality is a game changer” for ending sexual violence, Hawthorne, interim pastor at Vanderbilt University, said.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)