Want to End Campus Sexual Assault? Tackle the Primary Issue Being Ignored

Until we're willing to deal with the fact that young people are sexual people who need more realistic, developmentally appropriate guidance when it comes to sexual expression and satisfaction, the situation is not going to change.
10/08/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

From college campuses to major media outlets to the White House, it seems that everybody is, at long last, talking about sexual assault prevention. This discourse, sense of collectivism, and energy and interest around the issue elicit an overdue optimism that something is finally being done, that things will finally change. But until a major part of the problem is adequately addressed, strategies, especially those targeting binge drinking, are practically for naught.

Consider the following tactics that have been pursued to date. Nowhere is there mention of tackling students' anxieties around sex, and how their discomfort, guilt and angst lend themselves to binge drinking and sexual activity, including assault.

- The White House's "It's on Us" campaign focuses on men and collective peer group responsibility, encouraging students to intervene in situations where someone may be at risk.

- The California Senate has passed a bill mandating 'affirmative sexual consent' (as in voluntary and conscious) between college students at state-funded schools, with consent recognized as impossible if a person is drunk, drugged, unconscious or asleep.

- As reported on NPR, local law enforcement is seeking to change the culture around drinking, e.g., encouraging liquor stores not to sell ping pong balls, thus supposedly making it harder for students to get drunk faster playing beer pong.

- Bars are making it harder to get alcohol, providing better training for bartenders when it comes to spotting fake IDs.

- And universities, like Frostburg State University, are brainstorming ways to discourage binge drinking. So far, strategies have included establishing joint jurisdiction agreements between campus police and local law enforcement, offering on-campus alcohol-free parties and events, like dance classes, and using powerful images in social marketing campaigns.

While all of this is admirable and critical components of preventing sexual assault and violence, we need to address the fact that many young people feel like they need to get drunk in order to be sexual and sexually active.

We need to own the fact that we're a society that sexualizes its youth, but that ultimately does not support them in the fact that they're sexual human beings. This is exemplified in a lack of comprehensive sexuality education, a lack of adequate sexual and reproductive health services, and a lack of human sexuality courses on college campuses.

Instead, we send our young people off to college, expecting them to be sexually confident in their abilities to refuse sexual advances or to be turned down; to manage sexual, romantic relationships, amongst life's other demands and enticements, with seasoned mastery; and to be sexually savvy, particularly when it comes to issues of health and safety.

So is it any wonder that young people see alcohol as an easy solution to their sexual ignorance, decision-making, and anxieties? If wasted, one doesn't have to deal with underlying discomfort and Puritanical guilt around sex, or worry about the impact of sexual intimacy on another human being, or get submerged in the experience, including matters of the heart. Drunk hook-ups allow youth to keep emotions separate from sex, to skirt commitment issues, to avoid romance, and to stay focused on the self and all of the other reasons they're in college.

Young people also drink because they know alcohol facilitates having sex. They know that it impacts negotiations and how a sexual event is construed. They know that, in impairing memory, alcohol enables them to distort or rewrite what has taken place, including making it easier to pretend that the sex never happened.

If drunk, they haven't said "Yes" to being intimate. If drunk, they can't be faulted for overlooking cues that somebody doesn't want sex or isn't able to give consent. If drunk, women, in particular, can't be accused of being "sluts." If drunk, one is excused from taking responsibility for their behaviors, desires, and any consequences.

Until we're willing to address this mentality, and this misguided, positive association between sexual activity and being intoxicated, efforts to counter sexual assault as it relates to binge drinking are futile. Until we're willing to deal with the fact that young people are sexual people who need more realistic, developmentally appropriate guidance when it comes to sexual expression and satisfaction, the situation is not going to change.

Until we, as a society, are able to get over our discomfort and anxieties around producing young people who are sexually healthy adults, we're going to continue to have the all too prevalent problems of sexual assault and rape.

So where do we begin? Strategies that can get results include:
-- Schools implementing age appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

-- Universities offering courses by qualified sexuality educators in the art of seduction, romance, desires, sex communication, and reciprocal pleasures, helping students to realize what it truly means to be sexually confident. As a new, catchy slogan says, "Put the Sensual in Consensual!"

-- College campuses hosting Intimacy 101 workshops, which provide young people with a reality check around the many issues related to being sexually active, and which challenge misconceptions around better sex, including those of drunk versus sober sex.

-- Medical facilities offering accessible, affordable, first-rate sexual and reproductive health services.

-- Community centers, churches/synagogues, media outlets, and schools providing parents and caregivers with information and guidance in how to have effective conversations about sex and relationships with youth.

-- Parents and other important others guiding youth around matters of sexual intimacy, equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to evaluate their own sex-related values, attitudes and beliefs systems in making better choices for themselves.

The end result will be young people who are sexually informed, who understand what it means to engage in consensual, mutually satisfying sexual interactions and relationships, who are better sex communicators, who are able to have and enjoy sober sex when they choose to, and who are comfortable with their sexuality and the variety of ways that can be expressed.