College may be experienced almost exclusively by (legal) adults, but the decision if and where to go is, for a traditional-age student, one made while still living at home, often as a minor, with tremendous parental input. And when you fill out that roommate-matching form about your lifestyle, mom, dad, someone is looking over your shoulder, rounding many a freshman up to more straight-edge (is that term still used?) than they are, and still more up to more so than they will be a few weeks into the school-year.
Thus, then, the awkwardness of taking what are, for non-student adults, the guiding lifestyle principles of a religion, and making them, for college students, school rules, or really student rules, to be followed on-campus and off. If an adult voluntarily signs up for four years of chastity, that’s that adult’s business. But if someone does who’s still essentially a kid at the time?
All of this is my longwinded way of preempting the question likely to addressed to Keli Byers, the Brigham Young University student campaigning in Cosmopolitan against the school’s sex ban: Why, if she knew she was “a sexual person” in her mid-teens, did she go to a college where sex isn’t allowed?
Byers, to be clear, doesn’t just object to the ban because rah rah sex. She identifies as a feminist, and sees the sex ban as part of a broader culture of misogyny, which she witnessed even before starting college:
Around [age 15], a guy in his 20s, who had just come home from his Mormon mission, sexually assaulted me. I’d never kissed a boy. It was scary. I told my parents and our bishop, and I was banned from church for a month. I was punished because a man had touched me.
Unfortunately, unless extra measures are taken that somehow prevent this, both puritanical and libertine approaches to sex can end up affirming the status quo, with the former restricting women but staying relatively silent on the behavior of men men, the latter freeing men but not women.
Amanda Hess argues that the puritanical approach is worse, specifically when it comes to reporting rape on campus:
As schools across the country are being criticized for failing to intervene in cases of sexual assault on campus, Byers reminds us that some American students are still contending with what seems like the opposite problem: Their schools aggressively ban all sexual contact, and that approach can be just as damaging to victims, if not more so. In 2009, I wrote about the sex ban at the Catholic University of America, where, in the student code of conduct, consensual sex and sexual assault were outlawed in the same sentence; both masturbation and rape were sins that could trigger disciplinary action.
It’s already… complicated when colleges try to police rape on campus (no room for my thoughts on that in this post), so it’s not surprising that bringing religious laws into the mix complicates matters further.
Predictably, Catholic’s rule failed to prevent harmless sexual contact among its students. (And today, as Byers notes, students at schools with similar rules have as much access to Tinder as everyone else.) But the policy also created a situation where students were so afraid of running afoul of the chastity rules that they didn’t speak up even in cases of sexual assault. For victims and bystanders, reporting rape meant requiring students to admit that they had engaged in perfectly legal sexual encounters, or had appeared in an opposite-sex dorm against the university’s rules, or had consumed alcohol—all of which was regarded, according to the school code, as just as bad as raping another student.
Indeed. Even if it turns out that there’s less rape at sex-ban-having colleges (let alone sex-and-alcohol-banning), the tremendous challenges facing those who are sexually assaulted at these schools suggest that demanding chastity of 18-22-year-olds, in the smartphone age at that, isn’t what’s going to end campus rape. For some thoughts on what might, see Elizabeth here.