Why We Can’t Blame Sexual Assault on the Sexual Revolution

Why We Can’t Blame Sexual Assault on the Sexual Revolution May 17, 2014

Recently, Robert George, a conservative Roman Catholic Princeton University professor of philosophy of law, and alumnus of the small liberal arts Swarthmore College, published a blog post entitled What Have We Done To Our Young Men And Women?. It commented on the epidemic of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, and in particular on one article, in Philadelphia Magazine, which revealed 91 reports of sexual misconduct in a single year at Swarthmore.

George’s thesis, in his post, was simple: that rape and sexual assault are the products of “‘hook up’ culture”. George didn’t really descibe hook up culture, except that in it, “sex is an appetite to be sated and where individual satisfaction, not marital communion, is the point of it all, and where consent is the only norm of conduct.”  This, according to George, is a “hell on earth” produced by the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The existence of such a hook up culture on college campuses has been questioned in mainstream sources like Time magazine. I personally cannot testify to having seen it. Perhaps Professor George has. What I can say is that in my four years at Stanford and two at Columbia, I’ve seen both mutually loving relationships and one-night stands, and I have no idea whether the relative proportion of the latter is greater than it was in 1959. I can say with certainty that Stanford is not a hell on earth, unless hell is very friendly people inventing cool things like Google in year-round 70-degree sunshine under palm trees. I lived in the queer theme house there, and its residents were remarkably thoughtful, responsible, and sensitive about issues of sexuality and consent, gender and power. But I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether the way men and women treat each other nowadays is hellish compared to, say, 1959.

In any case, influential people like George, who in 2008 received the Citizen’s Medal personally from his coincidental namesake President George W. Bush, can often convince people of simplistic arguments, by virtue of the convincer’s authority. How does one challenge this? By turning to a different authority — in our case, a young woman who, unlike George, actually was sexually assaulted at Swarthmore. The courageous and eloquent Quitterie Gounot, who was graduated by Swarthmore last year, is currently at the University of Paris, and will continue on next year for a Ph.D. in philosophy, has penned a return letter to Professor George. Here at Stories Untold, I have the great honor of publishing it.

Quitterie, by the way, wanted me to acknolwedge in this introduction that it’s taken a bit longer than she hoped to get this letter online, because both she and I have been swamped in final exams. I just found out I got a C+ in organic chemistry. I’m curious, Professor George, if you’re reading this, what grade you’d give Quitterie on her letter to you.

Erik Campano

Dear Professor George,

After reading your blog post, What Have We Done to Our Young Men and Women?, I felt called to respond. I am a fellow Swarthmore alum and Catholic. I was sexually assaulted on campus, as were many of my friends, some of whom were featured in the Philadelphia Magazine article about which you wrote. So I share your “unfathomable sadness” over the sexual violence so prevalent at our alma mater. You found the story “so depressing [you] almost could not bear to read it”; some of us found these same events so depressing we almost could not bear to have lived them.

As a Master’s student in philosophy of law about to start a Ph.D., I share your interest in natural law theory, and am familiar with your work. I do not expect you will be persuaded that “hooking up” could ever be empowering. Still, I urge you to reconsider your suggestion that the epidemic of sexual violence on American college campuses is the product of “’hook up’ culture.” You deplore that, in hook up culture, “consent is the only norm of conduct.” Yet, rape and assault are really not sex at all. Some people might protest that it’s all too easy for college students to avoid responsibility by claiming that “bad sex” is not sex. However, this argument should come as no surprise to someone steeped in natural law theory. After all, natural law theory has become famous for the powerful, if often misunderstood, idea that an unjust law is no law at all. As John Finnis writes under Natural Law Theories in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “No one has difficulty in understanding locutions such as ‘an invalid argument is no argument,’ ‘a disloyal friend is not a friend,’ ‘a quack medicine is not medicine,’ and so forth.” So why not grant that non-consensual “sex,” though it involves violence of a sexualized nature and would-be sexual acts, is not sex in any relevant sense?

Certainly, sex can be morally impoverished. Just as it can bring people closer together, it can leave them feeling used, empty, and more distant from each other than ever. Much ink has been spilled debating the merits or lack thereof of hook up culture. Regardless, what is clear is that sexual assault cannot be construed as anything like a paradigmatic example (or, in the language of philosophy of law, a “central case”)  of sex, whether within the framework of hook up culture, or outside of it.

The horror of rape shows just that: The horror of rape. Its existence implies no more. It certainly does not prove, as you seem to claim, that hook up culture is morally deficient. Rape is certainly not a product of “hook up culture”, whatever that is, and doesn’t necessarily occur in that culture any more fiercely than in other contexts such as marriage. I believe you when you say, “there are few things in this life as beautiful and joyful as the chaste and loving sexual congress of husband and wife in marriage,” but conjugal sex is not always chaste and loving, and rape happens within marriage too. Assault flies in the face of any conception of sex, whether one chooses to hook up, save sex for marriage or anything in between. I have no doubt your intentions are good. Still, your article instrumentalizes the pain and suffering of victims or survivors to support a conservative sexual ethic.

In One Body, a book you reviewed favorably, Alexander Pruss suggests that the importance we attach to sexual consent is evidence that sex is intrinsically meaningful. Yet, the fact is, sexual assault is deeply wrong and harmful regardless of the victim’s sexual history or values. The Philadelphia Magazine article provides ample evidence that students who have casual sex, seemingly without sharing metaphysical or ethical commitments about what it means for “two to become one,” still experience assault as a serious trauma. Moreover, sex workers can be sexually violated and process it as such, irrespective of their views on sex. Some people might counter that victims can be mistaken about the source of their trauma, and that if they think it has nothing to do with the meaning of sex, they are lying to themselves. This reasoning, much like sexual violence itself, denies people agency. It’s hard to capture the sheer horror of having one’s will subjugated by another person, the utter powerlessness of being at someone else’s mercy. As long as we see sexual assault as an offense against purity or chastity rather than primarily against autonomy, we cannot do justice to that experience.

Similarly, blaming sexual assault on the sexual revolution involves a misunderstanding of the kind of wrong in which assault consists. It runs the danger of putting violence in the same category as some would put casual or pre-marital sex. After my assault, I felt deep shame and guilt. What happened, I agonized, met none of the Catholic Church’s criteria for permissible sex: it was not marital, unitive, or procreative. Consent aside, the acts involved seemed objectively displeasing to God. I have no doubt that sexual assault is, in fact, reprehensible in God’s eyes. However, now, it is clear to me that the salient characteristic there, what is worthy of indignation, is the usurpation of a person’s consent. I hope you agree, Professor, that it is deeply sad when an assault victim wishes she had undergone a particular kind of rape so that “at least, it could have been unitive.” I hope you share my compassion for victims who try to get their assailant to use a condom to protect themselves from further harm. Pointing the finger at the sexual revolution not only ignores the fact that sexual violence has always existed, but also conflates that violence with other “sexual transgressions.”

I have no interest in attacking Catholic orthodoxy here. My point is that whatever one’s sexual ethic, one must recognize the severe and particular wrong of sexual assault as distinct from any other wrongs. People are not assaulted because of what they drink or wear or because they went home with their perpetrator. Whatever a person’s shortcomings in God’s eyes or yours, they neither cause nor justify assault. Lastly, you “suspect that [a culture of sexual anarchy] exists at all institutions, save, perhaps, the comparatively few which have maintained strong religious identities.” However, I can tell you that I know young women and men who were assaulted at religious—including Catholic—institutions.

In addition, I can remind you of the abuse that has plagued our own Catholic Church. I can tell you that I met my assailant at Bible study. I can urge you to read about Title IX investigations at religious schools.

Perhaps most soberingly, I can point you to articles like Melinda Henneberger’s, in a 2012 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, where she quotes a Notre Dame alumna, Shea Streeter, who says about her group of friends: “[O]f the eight of us, six had been sexually violated (…) and the other two had had bad experiences, too.”

Professor George, I share your sadness and yearning for truth, in my various roles as young Catholic philosopher, Swarthmore alum, sexual assault survivor, and human being. I am just worried that when culture wars overshadow the discussion of sexual violence, it leaves all parties hurt and none transformed. By all means, let’s create spaces for college students to discuss campus sexual culture, the meaning of sex, and healthy relationships. All I ask is that we not let questions over which many reasonable people disagree turn our attention away from the distinct and severe wrong of sexual assault. Otherwise, I fear you will be right: We will live in a “hell on earth—complete with ideologies hardened into orthodoxies to immunize it from truth-telling and to stigmatize and marginalize truth-tellers.”


Quitterie Gounot

Swarthmore College ’13

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