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The Perversions of Campus Sexual Culture

Here’s the situation: a campus where sexual violence happens with such regularity as to be considered normal, an atmosphere of sexual harassment and verbal abuse so pervasive as to go unremarked upon, and an administration that gives lip service to changing things even while sweeping charge after charge under the rug of “judicial oversight”—making sure none of it leaks out into the actual legal system where it could be quantified and yes, prosecuted. This, say student activists at Yale, has been the situation there, and it’s an atmosphere that is in direct violation of Title IX’s promise of equal access to education.

But as anyone who has been in academe for more than 5 minutes knows, this is the situation at a depressing number of institutions. So many schools worry about their reputations as “safe spaces” and not prosecuting their own students that sexual violence is often labeled “regretted sex” and punishment is administrative, not legal. A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity found what most of us already know:

[C]olleges consistently fail to properly investigate rape reports, sending the message to victims that there is no justice to be had. The few devastated survivors who do report often drop out of school or face depression and other psychological damage, while accused rapists frequently graduate and, in many cases, continue raping with impunity.

Sixteen Yale students, tired of sexual harrassment like fraternity brothers standing outside the Women’s Center and chanting “No means yes, yes means anal” have filed suit under Title IX and it will be heard by a federal judge.

In part this sea change at the federal level is happening because the Obama administration is clearly willing to lead the way on this issue. The Office of Civil Rights recently sent an advisory to universities reminding them that sexual harrassment is a violation of Title IX. And last week, Vice President Joe Biden launched a campaign to prevent sexual assault on campus. In a speech at the University of New Hampshire, Biden turned the “No means yes” chant on its head with “rape is rape.”

And it is about time. Maybe, finally, things will start getting better on college campuses. Maybe women will be safer, not to mention all the other people who are often harrassed and attacked by white alpha males: gay people, gender non-conformists, people of color.

Maybe. But maybe this is going to require a revolution from the bottom as well as the top? Maybe it’s going to have to require a rethinking of how certain forms of dominant heterosexuality play out on a Friday night. I remember when I was teaching at Yale, a decade ago, and the students were all excited about a local bar’s “booty cam,” a camera that allowed hot girls’ butts to be displayed on large screens for everyone’s consumption. Quite young myself at the time, I agreed to join my students at that bar one night. It was then that it struck me that there was something really and truly perverse about the way in which white, privileged heterosexual femininity had taken on its own public abjection as a site of sexual promise and pleasure. It also struck me that there was something slightly dangerous (and perhaps therefore sexy) about the men standing around and cheering the image of the booty gyrating in front of them.

Fast forward to me doing research on contemporary porn last year, when I stumbled on the following subgenre: drunk college girl porn (warning: do not click link if you are not prepared to see drunk college kids engaging in pornographic acts). There it is: white young women who appear to be college girls—little make-up, no boob jobs, “wholesome”—having public and often group sex with drunk young men, who appear to be college students as well. Lots of photos of girls drinking lots of beer. Sometimes photos of girls passed out from drinking said beer. Often with boys having sex with passed-out girls.

In other words, campus sexual culture in its dominant, heteronormative form is kinda f#%@ed up. Sexual desire is wrapped up in public humiliation, drunkenness, and yes, I’ll say the word, patriarchy. It’s not that I don’t get how such things can be sexy, how humiliation and domination in conditions of inequality can be turned into pleasure. But what is interesting is the very conflation of that pleasure with both profit and publicness, a visual pornification of power inequities so beautifully symbolized by the booty cam at Yale or the drunk college “chix” porn site.

And until we can start talking honestly about why that might be sexy, not just for the alpha males, but for the women who are attracted to them, no amount of policy change from above is going to change the pervasive perversion of heterosexual culture below.

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