The Sexist

Groping, Sexual Assault Policies and the Hypersexualization of College Students

Last week, Wendy Kaminer lambasted Duke University's new sexual assault policy, which is centered upon the idea that "consent is an affirmative decision to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity given by clear actions and words." In an essay on The Atlantic, Kaminer wrote that a "committee of virginal bureaucrats would be hard pressed to draft a more ridiculous policy" than that one. Surely, there are productive arguments to be had about how best to turn the intricacies of sexual consent into a workable policy on a diverse college campus. Unfortunately, Kaminer begins her criticism by ridiculing the idea that touching another person's genitals without their consent is wrong. She explains:

Celibacy is probably not a feasible option for most undergraduates, but students at Duke University may want to consider it anyway.  Duke's new rules governing sexual misconduct and coercion are so vague, subjective, presumptive of guilt, and oblivious to the dynamics of consensual sexual relations that they pose a risk of prosecution even for students engaging in innocent foreplay.  Sexual misconduct at Duke includes "inappropriate (or non-consensual) touching," as well as rape; "inappropriate touching" and "acts of a sexual nature" that require clear consent include ("but are not limited to") touching and "attempted touching" of an "unwilling person's" erogenous zones, "either directly or indirectly."

Kaminer continues by stating, "I don't know what constitutes a non-consensual, indirect, attempted touch, but I wouldn't try it at Duke."

Really? Surely Kaminer, an extremely accomplished lawyer, can manage to understand three different legal concepts at one time. Touching a person in a sexual manner without that person's consent is sexual assault. And if you touch that person sexually with something other than your hand, it's still sexual assault. And if you try to touch that person sexually with something other than your hand, it's attempted sexual assault.

After all, it's not as if Duke just pulled the terms of its "non-consensual touching" rule out of its erogenous zone. The full Duke rule against inappropriate touching defines it as the "touching or attempted touching of an unwilling person's breasts, buttocks, inner thighs, groin, or genitalia, either directly or indirectly." The Duke rule is eerily similar to the standard applied to everyday citizens in jurisdictions across the country. In D.C., for example, "misdemeanor sexual abuse" is defined as engaging "in a sexual act or sexual contact with another person . . .  without that other person's permission," where "sexual contact" is "the touching with any clothed or unclothed body part or any object, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person."

It's possible that Kaminer, a career legal expert, is unaware that groping exists, and that it is not legal. But I suspect that what's really going on here is that Kaminer is reluctant to recognize this very real, very much illegal form of sexual assault because of where it takes place—college.

In the United States, the cultural narrative surrounding a college student's sexual experience tends to by extremely hypersexualized. It's not just that undergraduates are assumed to be promiscuous—it's also that the sexuality of college students is presented as "out of control" and "gone wild." The subtext here is that when people choose to pursue an undergraduate degree, they must also necessarily abandon their autonomy over their bodies and their right to choose their own sexual experiences. Underlining these assumptions is a deeply warped attitude toward sex: Because many college students choose to have sex—and sometimes, lots of it—we deny them to right to ever choose not to do it.

Because we hypersexualize college students in this way, we tolerate sexual assaults on college campuses that we would never tolerate in other communities—in the workplace, in public spaces, in society at large. As I noted earlier, the non-consensual, indirect, attempted touches that Kaminer is so confused about are illegal in most places. And when those types of crimes are committed within certain communities, they also constitute sexual discrimination. Thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, such discrimination is outlawed in education and employment, respectively. Despite these parallel protections, I suspect that college sexual assault skeptics like Kaminer would be less eager to discredit a workplace sexual harassment policy that prohibits employees from sexually assaulting their co-workers at work functions.

Meanwhile, as long as a sexual assailant attends the same university as his or her victims, Kaminer is fit to explain away illegal groping as "innocent" and "well-meaning," dismiss victims as "self-proclaimed," and determine sexual coercion to be "imagined." Administrators who are interested in protecting college students against sexual assault are ridiculed as "virginal," furthering the idea that college students must either embrace a climate of non-consensual sex or abstain entirely. Kaminer then goes on to argue that college students who prefer their sex to be entirely consensual have no place in the university setting at all: "Intellectual debate cannot thrive, individual liberty cannot survive, and 'healthy sexual relationships' cannot develop in a university that seeks to eradicate 'personal affronts,'" she writes. In short, if you can't stand a little groping, perhaps higher education is not the place for you. If that's not educational discrimination, what is?

  • Dominique

    Is she for real? In what universe is groping anyone without their consent "innocent" and "well-meaning"? Do we allow anyone to punch someone else because the puncher assumes they're in a boxing ring? Um, no.

  • Jenny

    I find it very interesting when people claim that only having consenual sexual encounters will destroy everyone's sex lives and make everyone be celibate. They must have pretty low opinions of college kids' sex lives.

  • Therese Shechter

    Despite non-stop media chatter about how everyone in college is having sex all the time, about a third of college students consider themselves virgins. The misguided belief, that *everyone* is doing it but them, will undoubtedly affect their own sexual choices.

    College chastity groups that spout conservative homophobic religious rhetoric aren't the answer. How do we create a sex-positive environment in college that not only values consent but also fosters honesty among peers?

  • Em

    They must have pretty low opinions of college kids in general. I mean, people make reckless decisions in college sometimes, sure, but they're not stupid. They're getting a higher education. Most of them can handle some nuance, and already do handle nuance, in their sex lives.

    Also, I was groped in public in college. It was not innocent, and I don't think I was being silly to be pretty pissed off about it.

  • Eo

    They need to keep the religious and feminist groups off away from policy making decisions and allow normal people to set these policies instead.

  • Cathy

    Your observation about college students being stereotyped as hypersexualized is spot on, and I'm glad you said it -- I think the worst part is that not only does society buy into it, but many college students buy into it. College men often use it as an excuse to grope women in public (it's "just what college guys do") and I think many college women aren't as vocal against it because they also think it's "just want college guys do."

  • Eo

    Article about a campus sexual misconduct law suit it here

    Can I post links here?

  • b-bop

    It is normal to want the right to not be groped. No where in the college handbook does it say unwanted feel-ups are an integral part of higher education.

    It is not socially acceptable to grope our co-workers, strangers on the street, in parks, at cocktails with why is it ok to grab without permission at a college party?

    I get extremely grossed out when strangers would from behind (so there's no way to misinterpret consents) rub my back or place their hand on the small of my I definitely support any law that prohibits anything even more private.

    If you wouldn't do it sober...don't do it.

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  • LeftSidePositive

    Have you noticed how desperate people (Kaminer, oodles of commenters on this blog!) are to frame the very basic tenet that no one can access your body without your consent as somehow "unreasonable," "virginal," "extreme," etc.?

  • Liz

    Totally, LeftSidePositive. The laziest way to win an argument is to discredit your opponent, which is why people resort to name-calling. Because if you're a virgin, you have no idea how sex works! And therefore your views on sexual contact are null and void!

  • Sarah M

    Thank you, Amanda! I took on the Duke Policy issue over at SAFER's blog a week or so ago and got more angry responses than my posts ever receive, so I'm glad to have some company.

  • Katz

    Eo - Since when were feminists and religious people considered not "normal"? What is normal? Somebody without an agenda? The bottom line is everybody is has some bias to bring to the table when creating policy. The only agenda a policy maker should have is to clearly define sexual assault in a way that will clearly communicate what behavior is illegal.

  • Eo

    This generation of young people coming through uni might end up like many swedish people, the men unsure and needing to be lead and the women having to take the initiative.

  • Eo

    Its a lot of power to put in the hands of the young women, with a click of their fingers and no evidence they can end a mans education... again I think of the lynchings where women had the power to have a man hung, and often did.

  • Eo

    Sorry Katz I didnt see you addressing me there.

    Yeah thats what I mean, feminists and the religous are both working off their doctrines and obviously the feminist version of how things should be is going to be polemic.

    By "normal" I mean people that arent working within a religous or political construct.

  • LeftSidePositive

    Equal-opportunity-batshit-crazypants strikes again!!

    (p.s., care to step away from your deranged shrieking of "feminism...aaaaaahhh!!!" and state, exactly, what is wrong or "overly-ideological" about the idea that no one should have to be touched sexually against their will?)

  • K

    I'm gonna have to agree with Katz on this one: who have you ever met Eo that wasn't to some degree "working within a religious or political construct"? I mean, you yourself clearly have strongly held political views regarding gender relations in America. Are your views somehow less biased because they are less "mainstream" than feminism? That would tend to make them "fringe" in most people's estimation.

    Also, we're all going to turn SWEDISH! OHNOES! I would absolutely *hate* to live in a place where, "Religion is weak, and the moral and cultural taboos against partners living together have disappeared. In addition, government benefits are given to individuals regardless of their relationships or family arrangements. Spousal benefits in such matters as health care simply do not exist. And all income tax is individual." *Shudders* Sounds like the sixth circle of hell over there.


  • Katie

    I think it's time everybody, collectively, start ignoring Eo, who is after all just a troll. I admire the fact that people are trying to engage in civilized discussion here, but I for one am genuinely sick of seeing half the comment section taken up by Eo making nonsensical and offensive pronouncements, and the other half taken up by logical, cohesive arguments that Eo proceeds to ignore and twist, with a few odd mentions of The Infamous Willy-Nilly Lynchings of The Men By The Women thrown in.

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  • Eo


    The religious will be working of the bible and feminists patriarchal abuse theory, neither doctrine is a suitable or realistic framework for applying control to our sexual interactions as both will discriminate.

  • Eo

    Fire outlines the problem here..

    "...a new "sexual misconduct" policy that can render a student guilty of non-consensual sex simply because he or she is considered "powerful" on campus. The policy claims that "perceived power differentials may create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion." Duke's new policy transforms students of both sexes into unwitting rapists simply because of the "atmosphere" or because one or more students are "intoxicated," no matter the degree. The policy also establishes unfair rules for judging sexual misconduct accusations. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is challenging the policy.

  • Ami

    Katie--Hear, hear! I'm absolutely on board with this!

  • abyss2hope

    What I find ironic about Kaminer's claims and her premise that she is only seeking to protect individual rights is that she ignores the individual rights of college students to not be sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. The only individuals whose desires and rights matter to her are those who are most likely to be accused of sexual misconduct. She operates under an unfounded premise that most reports under this policy will be false reports or reports motivated by nothing more than malice over harmless actions.

    Too often people believe that if they dismiss the seriousness of a reported action then the actual impact of that action must be trivial. Many of these people will also make unfounded claims that their belief that they could have gotten out of a situation means that everyone could have gotten out and therefore not getting out equals legal consent.

  • Saurs

    Eo talks too much.

    Amanda is right on about non-college age adults inferring from a few vague sources that all sex amongst college students is grotesque, pornified, and naturally violent, much to their apparent schadenfreude.

    Kaminer writes:

    "The policy states that "Duke University is committed to providing an environment free of personal affronts against individuals... "

    That is a dystopian goal, especially at a university. Intellectual debate cannot thrive, individual liberty cannot survive, and "healthy sexual relationships" cannot develop in a university that seeks to eradicate "personal affronts.""

    (emphasis mine)

    She seems to be suggesting that sexual relationships aren't healthy or normal unless someone is actively being injured. Which seems remarkably similar to Alex Knepper's creepy warning about, presumably, sports sex: "Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice!"

    Who are these people, seriously, who think sex is always supposed to be "challenging" and "difficult" and something one (meaning women) must "overcome" or "submit" to?

  • blair

    Sorry if this is slightly off-topic, but what's the deal with the Atlantic and their inability to hire female writers who can do more than spout anti-feminist (or, in the case of Megan McArdle libertarian) cliches? I really enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog and I read the print version of the magazine occasionally, but I'm beginning to think the editors have an anti-feminist litmus test when it comes to publishing female writers. Caitlin Flanagan, Megan McArdle and now this woman? Seriously? But then I guess when the "Voices" section of your website needs seven men for everyone woman, there's just not enough space for someone who might actually, you know, call you on publishing rape-apologist bullshit.

  • Saurs

    There's a dude posting comments to the Kaminer article who's claiming that Duke's sexual conduct policy is going to mean the end of civilization as we know it because, he whines, "[he] thought college was where young men and women learned to negotiate adult human relationships, preparing them for the big mean world." No, sweetheart. College is where you, maybe, earn a degree. Where you, maybe, take a course or two. Learn the rudimentary rules of a different language. Listen to bad alt-rock. Shelter you from the big mean world for a year or two, or a decade. To hear the nay-sayers tell it, breast groping is just one of those things that happen when dudes and chicks get together and, like, leeeeeearn how to get along, the first casualty, if you will, of adulthood. Breast groping: how else do we learn about personal boundaries except by tweaking other people's nipples, and seeing what happens? Don't little lads and ladies learn about this stuff when they're in kindy-garten? Like, don't grab at each other and draw within the lines and share your toys and don't fucking touch other people when they tell you not to? Also, do people who've never been privileged enough to go to university, like, not know about "adult human relationships"? Are they only well-versed in interpersonal communication between sea monkeys, or summat? All kinds of stupid, the people claiming that sexual harassment, rape, and assault have their "good points." Rape: let it be a leeeeeearning experience for you, little lady.

  • rebekah

    I would just like to say that I am a college student and I think that my boyfriend would be thrilled to know that the sex we have is somehow not okay. Since you know both of us are rape survivors and all, I think that we are capable of deciding if our experiences are rape or enjoyable pleasurable sex.

  • abyss2hope

    Rebekah, if you are describing sex where both you and your boyfriend were willing and indicating your freely given consent through words or positive actions the Duke policy would not ban your sexual actions.

    The way some critics quote from this policy deliberately distorts the meaning of the policy. Having power doesn't make an action a violation, using that power to get a sexual surrender is a violation.

    Many people want a claim of ignorance by a rapist or sexual harasser to be a valid substitute for the other person's actual willingness. If anyone might have been willing under a particular circumstance they want everyone who was not willing under that particular circumstance to have no right to have the assault or harassment against them taken seriously.

  • rebekah

    abyss, I realize all of that. I was actually commenting on the author who basically twists the meaning of this. I support policies like this and I think that it should be mandatory for all universities to have a policy that looks like this.

  • Eo

    I predict a lynching atmosphere and culture along with a and the number of men in college dropping even further and a high number of spurious claims that will in turn futher damage the credibility of genuine victims.

    The campus rape industry itself is based on false claims, 1 and 4 for example.

    Under those Duke definitions 1 on 4 can be pushed up to ALL have been raped numerous times. Well done Dworkin.

    Good article on campus rape myth here.

  • abyss2hope

    Rebekah, sorry for misunderstanding your point.

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