The Sexist

Catholic University Gets Tougher on Sexual Assault, Remains Tough on Sex

The Catholic University of America (CUA) this summer revised its student rules to clarify that the school condemns sexual assault more strongly than consensual sex. The change to the policy, which became official July 27, comes in the aftermath of litigation questioning the propriety and effectiveness of the university’s longtime regulations.

Prior to the change, the CUA campus code performed an awkward lumping operation when it came to sex: Its sexual misconduct clause outlawed “physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted by either party and/or that is disruptive to the university community, such as any sexual expression that is inconsistent with the teaching and moral values of the Catholic church.”

The new rules are all about distinctions. The university has tossed the “Sexual Misconduct” clause in favor of one that clearly differentiates between consensual “Sexual Relationships,” which it calls “inconsistent” with the religious nature of the university, and “Sexual Assault,” which is “unacceptable behavior, will not be tolerated, and will be adjudicated to the fullest extent afforded to the university.” According to CUA’s new policy, prohibited “sexual relationships” include “sexual acts of any kind outside the confines of marriage.” (Less genitally-inclined displays of disruption, like men kissing, are still undefined.) Prohibited “sexual assault” is defined more progressively: “sexual contact without meaningful, explicit, ongoing consent.”

The school’s administration quietly published the revision in its online Code of Student Conduct last month, noting only that its “sexual offenses section [was] strengthened to clearly articulate unacceptable behavior.” CUA did not return a request for comment.

Why has CUA struggled to nail the wording on its sexual assault policy? While other schools strive to protect their students from predators and themselves from lawsuits, CUA has to juggle a third consideration: protecting its relationship with the Vatican.

As the national university of the Roman Catholic Church, CUA earns points with the Pope by outlawing sex among its students, on-campus and off. Keeping undergraduates’ hands to themselves is easier said than done, but the Holy See doesn’t come knocking for evidence of enforcement. Fucking in CUA dorm rooms is common, but the infraction rarely—if ever—rises to administrative review. During the 2006-2007 school year—the only year the university has reported figures on the infraction—CUA recorded zero violations.

Enforcing a “sexual assault” policy, on the other hand, is required under U.S. law. According to university watchdog group Security on Campus, Title IX “prohibits sexual harassment of college and university students whether the harasser is an employee or another student,” as sexual assault is considered “an extreme form of sexual harassment”—and qualifies as gender discrimination.

By creating a clear distinction between the two infractions—sex, which is unenforceable, and sexual assault, which must be strictly enforced—CUA may begin to move past the legal and moral mess that has marked its sex policies for years.

The controversy over those policies came to a head earlier this year, when two students involved in a contested sexual assault incident on the CUA campus later sued the university (Screw U, 5/7/09). The incident involved a female CUA student, a male CUA student, and three of his high school buddies, all of whom engaged in one very visible violation of the sexual misconduct policy in the spring of 2008: a late-night, open-door, thoroughly witnessed group-sex session in a CUA dormitory. The female student later reported the incident as a sexual assault; the male student, who was expelled, maintained that the incident was consensual. Both students cited Title IX in their complaints against the university. The female student alleged the university acted with “deliberate indifference” to her sexual assault claim; the male student claimed that the sex policy was administered inconsistently. (Both suits have since been settled out of court.)

Here’s where the university’s former sex policies failed. The boy’s suit claims that the university failed to give him a “fair and impartial disciplinary hearing” to make his case that the incident was consensual. As a result, the suit alleged, CUA effectively expelled him over a couple of lesser infractions—engaging in oral sex and consuming alcohol—while his female accuser received no punishment for the same offenses. In order to prove that he was unduly punished for his maleness, the boy’s lawyers invoked a CUA celebrity: Antonella Barba, a pop singer who made national news when she competed in the sixth season of American Idol in 2007.

At the height of her American Idol exposure, Barba was a CUA undergraduate. During the course of the competition, photographs of Barba in various stages of Catholic shame surfaced on the Internet. Most of the photos—like the one of her posing in a wet T-shirt and thong next to the World War II Memorial—are fit for Maxim but not necessarily prohibited by catechism. One photo, however, allegedly shows Barba—or a look-alike—performing oral sex on a man. CUA’s response to the matter amounted to an expression of sympathy for Barba and her family. She graduated from the university in 2008.

Even though the boy was expelled over a much more serious offense—allegedly engaging in oral sex without his sex partner’s consent—his lawsuit still built his discrimination case upon CUA’s failure to enforce the campus’s many consensual sexual infractions. The boy’s lawyers demanded that CUA deliver “all documents relating to any investigation, determination, discussions, complaints discipline, or the like concerning Antonella Barba, including, but not limited to, all documents relating to your decision not to expel her.” In most sexual assault policies, the differences between the boy’s case and Barba’s would be glaring. At CUA, the infractions were hardly discrete. According to the old policy, both instances of sexual misconduct were outlawed in the very same sentence, and no further definition of consent was provided.

CUA’s revised sexual assault policy helps to clarify the importance of that little nuance between the cases—consent. The university’s new sexual assault policy still prohibits premarital sex, but it also clearly acknowledges the importance of consent in these forbidden relationships. The separation of sex and assault will help the university prove that it is not “deliberately indifferent” to the possibility of on-campus assault—even as it deliberately avoids policing the consensual stuff. Previously, CUA prefaced its sexual assault policy with the following proposed strategy, which urged both victim and perpetrator to remain chaste: “The optimal approach and most appropriate solution to this issue is for all persons to develop and live by a value system that respects other persons’ bodily integrity and the sacredness of human sexuality.”

By eliminating that “solution,” CUA has opened its sexual assault policy to those victims who may have strayed from the catechism, consensually, in the past. The definition will both help the university discipline sexual assault offenders and confine its judgment on consensual dorm-fuckers to the religious realm.

Illustration by Doug Boehm

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