Sexual assault and inclusiveness on college campuses

The topic of inclusiveness on a college campus generally comes up in the context of relations between groups defined in terms of race, religion, or ethnicity. The values of inclusiveness encompass the idea of mutual respect and an openness to learning from one another across lines that often divide our society. Inclusiveness involves an open acceptance of the equality and worth of the other. Inclusiveness is a particularly important social antidote to racism.

The incidence of sexual assaults on campus is gaining a great deal of attention, and rightly so. Observers tend to categorize this problem in terms of a set of features of contemporary youth culture — derogatory and demeaning attitudes towards women by some young men, excessive use of alcohol in social events, a culture of “hooking up” that encourages sexual exploitation, and media representations of male-female relations that hypersexualize these relations and give permission for aggression. In order to eliminate sexual assault we must attempt to change these elements of youth culture.

There is some truth to this set of ideas. The crime of sexual assault can perhaps be reduced by addressing these points. We can change young people’s behavior along these lines. But by themselves, these theories don’t go quite deep enough.

More fundamentally, the issue of sexual assault should be seen as a core violation of the value of inclusiveness in any decent community, including a university campus. The readiness of some young men to use force, deception, or incapacitating levels of alcohol is a particularly direct manifestation of a lack of respect for the dignity and equality of people from another group — women. It is akin to hate speech, bullying, intimidation, and racially motivated crimes against persons. If these young men fully understood the human reality of the other person, and if they fundamentally adhered to the values of respect and equality, then they would not commit these acts. Conversely, a community that has cultivated a deep set of values and practices embodying the value of inclusiveness should be expected to be one in which sexual assault will be very uncommon.

It is important to see the connection between these two sets of issues, precisely because many campuses have found ways of bringing about meaningful cultural change when it comes to race, ethnicity, and religion. It seems likely that these same strategies can be brought to bear on the sexual politics of a university community as well. This is an empirical hypothesis: enhancing inclusiveness can help reduce sexual assault be mistreatment as well.

The successful strategies in the struggle against racism on campus have a common denominator: they work through students’ own efforts towards bringing about value change in themselves and their fellow students, and they depend on student organizations that are able to mobilize the efforts of their members in support of the values and practices of inclusion. The “Take on Hate” movement is a great example of the power of this approach.

One important obstacle to creating a more racially inclusive community has turned out to be the dark side of social media, and especially the anonymity of social networks like Yik Yak. The fact that Yik Yak makes it possible and even acceptable for members of a community to express without attribution racial disrespect and mysogyny — hatred and derogation of others — is a powerful and corrosive influence on college communities.

It seems important for talented sociologists to study the effects of a hateful and mysogynist stream of posts on Yik Yak on the cohesion and compass of a college community. Can a few racists change the climate for racial trust in a university community? Can a few islamophobic bigots undermine the sense of safety and welcome that Muslim students experience? Can a few mysogynists poison the environment for women and encourage sexual mistreatment and assault? Or are young adults more savvy than this, and more able to absorb these hateful streams without fundamentally disrupting their own habits of inclusion and mutual respect? This is an empirical sociological question, and it is an important one.