Everybody’s business

Campus sexual assault and cheap forgiveness

Kendall Cox

Sex is not and cannot be any individual’s “own business,” nor is it merely the private concern of any couple. Sex, like any other necessary, precious, and volatile power that is commonly held, is everybody’s business.
– Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”[1]

In On Photography, Susan Sontag relays the impact of encountering images of Nazi concentration camps for the first time. She was twelve. She later said about the experience, “Nothing I have seen — in photographs or in real life — ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs…and after.”[2] Sontag calls this a “negative epiphany.” Seeing sexual violence depicted for the first time was like that for me. My life can be divided into two parts, before I saw a rape scene and after. I was sixteen when I watched A Time to Kill in the theater with my boyfriend. The film portrays brutal racial and sexual injustice in the South. He went to get popcorn and I sat through the harrowing scene alone. I started to tremble. I felt sick. I was glad when the father of the young girl shot her rapists. Afterward, my boyfriend walked me to the car and told me his mother had been raped when she was young, as if to say: people survive. That didn’t help. It was a negative epiphany that redefined my whole imagination about the world. It was many years, however, before I understood either the prevalence or the insidiously enculturated dynamics of sexual violence and realized I should be grateful I only saw it in the movies and had not experienced it myself.

“You know school is back in session when the email reports of sexual assault on campus start rolling in. #mydaughterisnotgoingtocollege.” That was my status update a week into the fall semester of 2016. A friend replied: “maybe the hashtag should be #mysonisnotgoingtocollege.” The following year was a remarkable period of reckoning in America, with memes like #metoo and #timesup flourishing across media. It’s well known that sexual violence — and, more comprehensively, gender-based violence — is a global problem of horrifying proportions. The World Health Organization reports that “more than a third of women in the world have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence” and nearly 40% of “of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.”[3] We envision universities as places of privilege, of respite from gruesome realities like this. The small picturesque college I attended was designed as a gated community, keeping outsiders off of its thickly groomed lawns. I suppose this gave my parents some consolation when they dropped off their only daughter at college. But when I went on my first fraternity “beach weekend” with a group of friends, my dad was only half joking when he said, “Buy a taser. Aim low.”

I teach now. For the first assignment of any applied ethics course, I have students practice reading their own actions. They are asked to consider an everyday situation in which they find themselves and identify the various moral categories at work in their reasoning. Actions speak; they produce a message or a text. If this is the case, then they can be read, interpreted, queried. The thing about our actions is that they tend to have patterns. It’s especially the patterns, the repetitions, that say something. When you learn to exegete texts, that point is driven home: look for the repetition; it will tell you what matters.

So here’s a pattern that says something. Women in America are especially vulnerable to sexual violence during their college years and shortly after. At the start of my first semester of undergrad, I attended a terrifying extracurricular talk that educated me about this. Until then, I had no sense of the rampancy. While statistics vary somewhat, a range of surveys suggest that between the ages of 18 and 25, as many as 1-in-4 women are “sexually assaulted” (where the phrase is defined to include most forms of “unwanted sexual contact”), and 1-in-10 are raped, more than half by intoxication or incapacitation.[4] After learning these things, I walked around campus counting the women I passed, “1 2 3 4.” I also began watching the male students, not knowing how to count them. At parties, I only drank water I had poured for myself.

I was reticent to participate in the awareness raising of #metoo on social media last year for the same reason as many other women: out of respect for those who have suffered the most extreme violations of their bodies and personhood. Although the continuum from harassment to violence entails mere separations of degree in terms of its logic, in my experience, there is an acute qualitative difference when it comes to the impact on victims. For many of my friends who have been violently assaulted, it continues to be radically destructive for their sexuality and their sense of self.

But, of course, #metoo. Because if there hasn’t been a direct hit, it’s only because there have been a lot of near misses. In my own four years as an undergraduate student, I was stalked, chased, grabbed and groped, threatened, and subjected to all kinds of unseemly and aggressive comments. It was so routine I have forgotten most of the incidents. A classmate and friend left frightening messages on my voicemail after he found out I was dating someone. When I studied abroad, I had to flee a man who was following me to class with a knife behind his back. During grad school, an agitated stranger attempted to drag me out of my car after I parked on the street in front of my apartment late one night. I didn’t have a cell phone with me. I sped off and drove around the city for a long time, hoping he would be gone when I got back. The same year, I saw three men trying to break into my apartment while I was walking home one evening with the groceries. They left before the police arrived. As a good Calvinist, I was raised not to believe in luck or fortune, but I count it incidental that none of these events transpired into something worse. Precisely because of that, the experiences are their own kind of psychological burden. When I was younger, I don’t think I went a week without being in a situation where I wondered, as one writer put it so plainly, “Is this my rape?” On my 26th birthday, I distinctly remember feeling relieved that I had crossed the imaginary threshold into the category “less likely to be sexually assaulted.”

During my time at the University of Virginia, several acute events have brought sexual violence and the larger problem of violence against women to the fore: the abduction and murder of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington while she was at UVA for a concert (2009); the brutal murder of fourth-year UVA student-athlete Yardley Love by her boyfriend (2010); the abduction and murder of 18-year-old UVA student Hannah Graham (2014); and the retracted Rolling Stones article about an alleged sexual assault at a UVA fraternity (2014). The now notorious piece “A Rape on Campus” was meant to draw attention to the staggering number of mishandled sexual assault cases and the systemic reasons for underreporting and dropped charges at universities across America.[5] The failure to take reports seriously or connect the dots between cases has resulted in preventable repeat offenses by the same perpetrator. (Jesse Matthews, for example, was accused of rape at Liberty University and connected with a couple of other cases before he went on to abduct and kill Harrington and Graham.[6])

But these prominent tragedies don’t reflect the more common incidence of sexual and intimate-partner violence on college campuses today. In 2012, UVA was rated the nation’s “top partying school.”[7] Researchers have consistently identified two primary risks for victimization on campuses: 1) alcohol consumption and 2) a hookup culture of casual, uncommitted sex. The combination can lead to many ambiguous scenarios like the one covered in the Washington Post article “He said it was consensual. She said she blacked out. UVA had to decide: Was it assault?”[8] This story shows the difficulty of relying on “yes means yes” in cases of intoxicated promiscuity. In the words of the female student, “I just think I was so incoherently drunk that like, there was, like, no way that this was okay.” Indeed, according to “affirmative consent,” it cannot be given in cases when a person is “incapacitated,” which is meant to include “really drunk.” In other words, don’t drink and have sex (even if the other person is still technically awake and behaving agreeably). Good rule to live by. But in a drunken hookup stupor, how do one or both parties muster good judgment about whether or not consent is possible under the circumstances?

It has to be reiterated that sexual violence is not just a problem for women. Males are victimized at devastatingly high rates as well. As many as 1-in-6 boys are assaulted before the age of 18 and male college students report sexual aggression (mostly from other men) at about 1-in-16.[9] Increasingly, male students are also reporting sexual assault by female students. After the Rolling Stones article came out, a UVA professor wrote a reply downplaying the gendered dimensions of sexual assault and focusing on the wider problems of greed and exploitation. Two other UVA professors co-authored “Sex and Danger at UVA,” which indicts the university for dismantling “the conventions and institutional arrangements that for generations had brought the sexes together in a more or less orderly and purposeful way” and leaving students in “dorm brothels” with “this fog of formless sex.”[10] Jennifer Beste, author of College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics, similarly observes “the complex cultural factors that contribute to this sexual assault epidemic.”[11] It is true, we are all socialized today in a culture of rampant objectification and sexual opportunism. Further, a defining feature of sin has always been the instrumentalization and abuse of human bodies. So the high incidence of unwanted sexual contact is rightly connected with a number of dynamics that transcend sex and gender. However, when it comes to predation, it would be dangerous to deny the enduring correlation with masculinity and maleness. The advocacy group Know Your IX, for example, reports that 99% of rapists are male, 90% of victims are female, and 85% of perpetrators of sexual violence against males are male. Sexual violence disproportionately affects women and children, and youth of either sex are always at elevated risk.

So how do we count the perpetrators? Research suggests at least 1-in-12, for rapists among college men as well as the general public. However, in one survey, about 15% of male students reported intentionally using alcohol in order to sexually exploit women and 35% said this was socially acceptable to their friends.[12] Other studies show that young men in fraternities are three to ten times as likely to commit sexual assault.[13] This is one of the reasons why fraternities receive special attention when it comes to the safety of women on college campuses. This should come as no surprise, since they can be sites for a confluence factors that are said to make a sub-culture “rape-prone.” Increased risk of sexually violent behavior within a group has long been linked with things like hyper-masculinity, male dominance and entitlement, misogynistic attitudes, sexual objectification and pornography, as well as, within universities, lax institutional repercussions[14] for alleged offenders. These are among the dimensions of campus life, as well as the broader culture, that most pressingly need to be addressed if we expect to curtail sexual assault. We must be thinking more comprehensively about sexual formation, especially the eroticization of violence.

Much is being done by universities, students, and local authorities to combat sexual violence on campuses. UVA, for example, supports many initiatives including Take Back the Night, Not on Our Grounds, Greendot, Its On Us, OneLess, One in Four, SARA and so on. The most promising programs involve bystander intervention training.[15] The method focuses on teaching participants to recognize sexual aggression and entitlement in public settings and intervene non-coercively to diffuse it. Assault is normally preceded by inappropriate behaviors and minor aggressions that bystanders observe but tend to ignore as “not my business.” For example, prior to crossing paths with Hannah Graham, witnesses report seeing Jesse Matthews openly harass other women at bars, and later Graham was overheard saying she didn’t want to get in the car with him, but no one intervened.[16] What if all of the witnesses that night had said to themselves, “This is everybody’s business?” Bystander training is not only effective in protecting potential victims in the moment; it also highlights one of the ways such behaviors can get socialized out of a group: others interrupt them, over and over again.

But is there a particularly appropriate Christian response that might attend these efforts? One of the most important things to be said here is that not every concept is equally illuminating in every case. There are many ways in which Christians can make matters worse precisely by recourse to otherwise sound theological, biblical, or moral principles — most notoriously forgiveness, but also mercy, long-suffering, forbearance, love, imitating the suffering of Christ, and so on. All of these terms have been used directly and indirectly to keep people, especially women, in abusive relationships, to silence or dismiss victims, and to cover over systemic injustices. Similarly, evoking standards like modesty, purity, chastity, or sobriety can do more harm than help. The matter warrants tomes by way of theological response. I’ll offer just one set of observations concerning the way Christians could be more self-aware in response to sexual assault crises.

When we are confronted with someone else’s suffering, our immediate inclination should be to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rm. 12:15, NIV) — not to question or moralize. I recall my Old Testament professor in seminary saying that when reality does not correspond to God’s truth, “we only move into God’s kingdom through lament.” In my limited experience in North America, Christians tend to avoid the work of mourning and lament, even though scripture gives us a substantial basis for doing so (e.g., through Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament). “Negativity” of various kinds is suppressed, ecclesially as well as socially. This is especially the case for women, in whom even the most righteous anger is seen as unattractive and unfeminine.

One of the most spiritually constructive things I recall reading in college was this: “It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because anger has been understood as a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring.”[17] When anger is a form of love, we need to practice voicing it collectively and lamenting the conditions that give rise to it. This is an important counterpart to confession. Some ecclesial traditions are good about building this into the liturgy, but many are not. Mourning together, bearing one another’s burdens — these are ancient practices commended to the church. They reduce alienation, forge solidarity, generate political will, and enable us to better love our neighbors.

Lament also helps us see the judgment of God in a new way. I grew up in a denomination that only spoke of divine judgment as a terrible thing to be dreaded by the individual sinner. When I began reading scripture and theology for myself, I was surprised to find that throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, “judgment” is portrayed as a balm for the weary and oppressed. It just depends on which side you’re on really. God’s judgment is also God’s grace and blessing for the brokenhearted. It means: God sees. For many of us, this is actually an enormous relief.

A related reason to hold out space for lament is that Christians can move prematurely to “forgiveness,” which is often the most counterproductive term to introduce in cases of physical violence. We can have a dangerously platitudinous understanding of what it requires and how it should function in the life of faith. Advising forgiveness — or mercy, or grace — at the wrong moment can heap further injustice onto the wounded. It is scripturally unjustifiable to pass over truth-telling and mourning in favor of a cheap and underdeveloped sense of “letting it go.” “Forgiveness” may, on closer observation, function as a whitewashing of deeply problematic human responses to the pain of others. Victim-blaming and denial are closely related to cheap grace.[18]

It’s tempting to focus on managing the emotions of the vulnerable party before us, to insist on “peace where there is no peace” on pious pretenses, when really it’s just disruptive or inconvenient. This can easily become a form of retroactive scapegoating. Victims earn their suffering after the fact if they are unable to bear up under it silently. Speaking of it, being unable to “forgive,” makes them deserve it. It creates a neat little circle that leaves no remainder of wrongdoing to be dealt with. The perversity of this pattern is manifest, but surprisingly pervasive. In the case of sexual violence, it makes those who take this tack thoroughly complicit in any offenses the perpetrator or their victims go on to commit.

This makes me think of the graphic story in Chapter 35 of The Brothers Karamazov, in which a rich old man capriciously sets his hounds on a poor young boy and they tear him to pieces in front of his mother. There is a sense in which Ivan’s “impious” conclusion is exactly right: others have no right to forgive someone on behalf of the tortured. Sometimes forgiveness is ours to dispense with; sometimes it is not, and we must forego the unjust urge to overreach. In the latter case, our response to hearing real life “texts of terror,” to use Phyllis Trible’s phrase, can only be Alyosha’s, “I want to suffer too.”

But it’s estimated that victims tell an average of nine people before anyone believes them. One study shows that 94% of victims experience “unsupportive acknowledgement” from others and another 78% are “actively turned against.”[19] Why don’t we believe? Denial is psychologically complicated, but also patently unjust. Sexual assault is actually the most underreported felony and it’s falsely reported at a relatively low rate (about 2–6%).[20] I am reminded of Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:7, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (NRSV). What does it mean that love believes all things? Is disbelief, in a sense, the opposite of love? We should not be so worried about having the wool pulled over our eyes that our immediate impulse is not simply to listen and believe. The more faithful “way of the cross” in such cases is to accept the heavy burden of “suffering too.”

Discussion questions

Reading and misreading the Bible

  1. In your experience, what sorts of Scripture passages and church teachings have been interpreted in ways that could minimize or perpetuate sexual violence and violence against women and children? Examples might include 1 Corinthians 7:1–7, Ephesians 5:21–33, and Genesis 3:16.
  2. How do you think such interpretations can be challenged through more thoughtful readings?
  3. Are there other passages of Scripture that point ways out of violence and oppression toward women?

Responding to stories of sexual violence

  1. Think of a specific case when someone confided in you about abuse or you encountered a story about sexual violence. How did you respond and why?
  2. How might you do things differently after reflecting on the facts of sexual assault?

Handling forgiveness well

Read the relevant portion from Chapter 35 of The Brothers Karamazov[21] and Matthew 18:15–20. Discuss the proper practice of forgiveness.

  1. How have you seen the process of forgiveness handled well so that justice and reconciliation are facilitated?
  2. How have you seen the process of forgiveness handled poorly so that the most vulnerable are made more vulnerable?

Further reading


[1] Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 119.

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 20.

[3] “Violence against Women: Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence against Women” (World Health Organization, November 2017), http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/.

[4] “AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (Rockville, Md.: Association of American Universities, 2015), https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/aau-climate-survey-sexual-assault-and-sexual-misconduct-2015.

[5] Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” Rolling Stone, November 19, 2014, http://web.archive.org/web/20141119200349/http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-20141119.

[6] Alix Bryan, “The Disturbing Timeline of Jesse Matthew’s Sexual Violence and Murders,” WTVR.Com, March 3, 2016, http://wtvr.com/2016/03/03/the-disturbing-timeline-of-jesse-matthews-sexual-violence-and-murder/.

[7] Seth Cline, “Playboy: UVA Is Nation’s Top Party School,” U.S. News & World Report, September 26, 2012, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/09/26/playboy-uva-is-nations-top-party-school-playboy-uva-is-nations-top-party-school.

[8] T. Rees Shapiro, “He Said It Was Consensual. She Said She Blacked out. U-Va. Had to Decide: Was It Assault?,” Washington Post, July 14, 2016, sec. Education, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/he-said-it-was-consensual-she-was-blacked-out-u-va-had-to-decide-was-it-assault/2016/07/14/4211a758-275c-11e6-ae4a-3cdd5fe74204_story.html.

[9] “Statistics,” Know Your IX, accessed February 27, 2018, https://www.knowyourix.org/issues/statistics/.

[10] Vigen Guroian and William Wilson, “Sex and Danger at UVA,” First Things, May 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/05/sex-and-danger-at-uva.

[11] Jennifer Beste, College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 262.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Sexual Assault Statistics,” One In Four USA, accessed February 27, 2018, http://www.oneinfourusa.org/statistics.php.

[14] Caroline Kitchener, “When Helping Rape Victims Hurts a College’s Reputation,” The Atlantic, December 17, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/when-helping-rape-victims-hurts-a-universitys-reputation/383820/.

[15] “Training Men and Women on Campus to ‘Speak Up’ to Prevent Rape.” Morning Edition. NPR, April 30, 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/04/30/308058438/training-men-and-women-on-campus-to-speak-up-to-prevent-rape.

[16] Erin Donaghue, “UVA Victim Hannah Graham Refused to Get in Killer’s Car,” CBS News, March 3, 2016, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/docs-uva-victim-hannah-graham-refused-to-get-in-killer-jesse-matthews-car/.

[17] Beverly Wildung Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXVI (1981): 49.

[18] Kyle Swenson, “A Pastor Admitted a Past ‘Sexual Incident’ with a Teen, Saying He Was ‘Deeply Sorry.’ His Congregation Gave Him a Standing Ovation.,” Washington Post, January 10, 2018, sec. Morning Mix, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/01/10/a-pastor-admitted-a-past-sexual-incident-with-a-teen-his-congregation-gave-him-a-standing-ovation/.

[19] Mark Relyea and Sarah Ullman, “Unsupported or Turned Against: Understanding How Two Types of Negative Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Relate to Post-Assault Outcomes,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 39, no. 1 (March 2015): 37–52, https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684313512610.

[20] Lisa Lazard, “Here’s the Truth about False Accusations of Sexual Violence,” The Conversation (blog), November 24, 2017, http://theconversation.com/heres-the-truth-about-false-accusations-of-sexual-violence-88049.

[21] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: David Campbell, 1992), 236–46; available online, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (London: W. Heinemann, 1912), http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/brothers_karamazov/.

Quotations marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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