There is a time bomb ticking in every residential college and university in America, and it’s not from a terrorist.
The ingredients of the time bombs are sex, alcohol, guilt, the permissive culture we live in, and colleges and universities that want to disavow their in loco parentis obligations to their students.
Yet every time a student lodges a charge of unwanted sexual advances, schools get involved in the complicated and dangerous job of trying to sort out the alcohol-fueled he-said she-saids.
When it comes to college life, the first rule is there are no rules, as one song puts it.
This mattered less in the era prior to the hookup culture, when a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship preceded many sexual encounters. Today, sex is often entirely disconnected from any kind of emotional bond. The tendency among many young people is to sleep with the other person first and ask questions later.
The questions they ask later are such things as: Why did I do that? Did I really receive consent? Or, if I was drunk, did I really give consent? Or, if I was drunk or impaired, did I receive consent? At what point may consent be withdrawn after the fact?
These issues are far beyond the capacity of most undergraduate administrators to handle. How do you establish rules for reviewing consent, often late at night? And often in alcohol-fueled encounters? What evidence is required? What evidence could there be? Whom do you believe?
Schools are terminating students for violations of behavior codes that are often murky, unsettled, and ill-defined.
If these questions were merely academic, however, the subject would not be so vital. The grave concern here is that schools are terminating students for violations of behavior codes that are often murky, unsettled, and ill-defined.
Here is an example of a school’s policy — in this case, Oberlin College — regarding sexual activity among its students:
“All sexual interaction between students must be consensual. The term ‘consent’ cannot be defined with enough precision to make a definition meaningful for any and/or all situations. Consent must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, by examining the facts of the particular matter. In some cases, however, consent may never be given, such as when an individual is asleep or unconscious, or when an individual’s judgment is substantially impaired by drugs or alcohol. Students should take advantage of educational and training opportunities offered at the college to clarify the meaning and nature of sexual consent.”
Did you catch the key words in there?
The term “consent” cannot be defined with enough precision to make a definition meaningful for any and/or all situations.
And then, a few lines down: … or when an individual’s judgment is substantially impaired by drugs or alcohol.
What lawyer came up with the formulation “substantially impaired”? What’s the difference between a little bit impaired and “substantially” so? Who makes that call? Based on what?
Limitations like the “three feet on the floor rule” and the “you must keep the door open at least by the width of a book” seem, by today’s standards, positively quaint.
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Yet Oberlin, like all colleges and universities, must make these precise determinations — while the academic careers, reputations and nascent professional lives of young people hang in the balance.
The world was simpler when parietal rules were enforced. Male students could not go upstairs in female students’ dormitories. Indeed, male and female students had their own dormitories. And their own gender-dictated bathrooms, for that matter.
Limitations like the “three feet on the floor rule” and “you must keep the door open at least by the width of a book” (circumvented by using a matchbook instead of “War and Peace”) seem, by today’s standards, positively quaint, like doing long division with a pencil and paper instead of asking Google.
But back then you didn’t have college presidents and deans, trained in medieval French or advanced calculus, attempting to parse the mindset of sexually active 19-year-olds with the future of those young people on the line.
A New York news program opens with these words from an off-camera announcer, “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”
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Now it ought to be asking, “It’s 1 a.m. Did your son or daughter give or receive consent?”