Should such a campaign be supported by the Student Wellness Resource Center of Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington)? This ad appeared in a late September issue of The Gonzaga Bulletin, the main student newspaper of the Jesuit school:
More about the "Consent is Sexy" campaign can be found on this University of Georgia website. It states, "Consent is an important part of healthy sexuality" and "It is not sexy to have sex without consent!!" And:
Why is consent sexy?One professor at Gonzaga University, Dr. Eric Cunningham, wrote a letter (Sept. 25, 2009) to the Bulletin, explaining that he was "vexed" by the advertisement shown above. He wrote:
• Communication, respect, and honesty make sex and relationships better
• Asking for and obtaining consent shows that you have respect for both yourself and your partner
• Positive views on sex and sexuality are empowering
• Questions traditional views about gender and sexuality
• Eliminates the entitlement that one partner feels over the other. Neither your body nor your sexuality belongs to someone else
• It is normal and healthy for women to expect to be included in the consent process
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the Catholic Church's teachings on premarital sex are unambiguous, it seems risky at best for members of any university's faculty, administration or student body to make direct or indirect judgments on what is or isn't "sexy." I have great admiration and respect for Dr. Weitz, but I feel that in merely explaining the "consent is sexy" concept, and not taking the opportunity to challenge its wider ramifications, she missed what educators like to call a "teachable moment." We have an obligation to protect the safety of our students, and to help them preserve their own integrity in an often adverse environment. I respectfully submit that we fail in this obligation when we give tacit endorsement to any student club's characterization of "sexy", especially when that characterization is so unclear. As the father of boys and girls, I cringe at the idea of my son wearing a shirt that says "consent is sexy," and I can't imagine my daughters trying to figure out what it could mean.Two responses have been posted on the Bulletin's website, both of them negative and both quite revealing. The first employs a series of shallow, tired "arguments," beginning with what I call the "College Students Are Wild, Rutting Animals" argument (see here for related post):
Turning to the issue of our Catholic identity and the obligations it presents, it is immediately clear that the slogan "consent is sexy" has no place anywhere at a Catholic university. Again, I applaud the good intentions of MVP, but its members, in their earnest desire to take a stand against sexual violence, seem to have overlooked not only the proscriptive teaching of the Church on this issue, but the abundance of positive representations of love and human sexuality that have been issued in recent pontificates. I could point to Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, and Benedict XVI's encyclical God is Love as starting points.
To ignore the teachings of the Church in the formulation of any characterization of sexuality does injury to our historical mission and the ability to live our faith authentically. As the chairman of the Student Publications board, I consider myself a stakeholder in the university's Catholic identity, and a co-laborer in its mission work. I believe that we owe it to our students and their parents to give them a share in the Catholic intellectual life, with all that that entails. For the money our students pay for their educations here, they are entitled to clear Catholic teachings on controversial social issues.
They are entitled to inhabit a Catholic culture, they are entitled to know what the Church objectively teaches about sex, gender, the environment, economics, politics, globalism and every other matter that they are groping to understand. They are entitled to a dynamic support network of academics, ministry, mission and student life that clearly presents and explains the beliefs that we tell the world that we believe.
We all know church ideology on issues such as sex and marriage, and frankly, that shouldn't prevent us from considering other social realities. Isn't it more important to acknowledge that, yes, the student body is sexually active, and that, yes, college students are very often engaged in situations where sexual abuse takes place? I appreciate Dr Cunningham's laud of the "courageous effort" of MVP, but his assertion that teaching Catholic dogma in place of their efforts to promote safety and responsibility in an environment where sexual activity is known to take place is off-base. Firstly, Dr. Cunningham's claim that the message "Consent is Sexy" can be misconstrued to promote an environment where people will be "pressured" to consent when they would otherwise refuse, is an affront the intelligence of the student body. No reasonable person will assume this is meant to suggest that one would appear "sexier" if they were to acquiesce to sex, rather than say "no." I would hope any young adult on a college campus would act on their own better judgment, rather than take their social cues from a T-shirt.In other words, college kids simply cannot help but have sex, so we simply need to live with this immutable, objective reality. Of course, college kids are told they mustn't rape, smoke, make racist remarks, be homophobic, or denigrate native cultures, so they apparently do possess some self-control. But not in the sack. The t-shirts are implying that if consent is given, having sex is just fine, whereas both Church teaching and reality (study after study and many examples) say it that it isn't fine. Just because something is legal or allowed doesn't make it good or moral.
And then there is the "Lowest Common Denominator"argument, which insists that treating serious issues with maturity might be off-putting or confusing to many college students:
Much like the "I heart boobs" breast cancer campaign, the point of the "Consent is Sexy" T-shirt is to promote thoughtful and critical conversation on an issue otherwise not always involved in the current lexicon. "Consent is Sexy" is admittedly rather base, but it has, more or less, succeeded in its mission: We are engaging in discussion about sexual abuse and consent. Using such base language is a way to appeal to a more casual side of complex issues that makes them less threatening, more approach- able and hopefully begin a meaningful dialogue. Let's face it, people on campus, student and faculty alike, are often afraid to tackle issues such as rape, even though they are issues so prevalent on campus. These are issues that cannot be ignored, that we cannot let stand pat, but are issues we must take notice of and do something about.Nobody doubts that rape is bad. But, if rape is sinful and premarital sex is sinful, is it really helpful to encourage, however implicitly or explicitly, the latter as a means of avoiding the former? Does it make any sense? And what sort of understanding of man, sexuality, and love is informing this approach?
Finally, we come to the "Church Teaching Is Fine, If You're Into That Sort of Thing" argument:
Dr. Cunningham would like all the departments of the University to adopt the role of preacher and promote Catholic teaching. This means the University would promote to its student body all the teachings of the Church, including abstinence from pre-marital sex, a noble message for sure. It would also follow that the institution would then proclaim the student body, at least those who do decide to engage in sexual relations despite the teachings of the Church, should refrain from using any form of birth control, another teaching that the Church is unambiguous toward. Promoting such a message has obvious ramifications, both for the reputation of the University, and to the social and physical well-being of the student body. It ignores issues relevant to college students such as sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy. Point being, Church teachings shouldn't divert dialogue away from social realities. This approach ignores realities of college life, and public life in general, that must be addressed. The University itself may have a Catholic identity, but the student body is diverse. We come from all walks of life, from all faiths and we are united by one very Jesuit, yet inclusively secular mission, and that is social justice.Saying this is logically impoverished is like saying the Detroit Lions have some weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball. The main problem is the assumption that Church teachings are disconnected from "social reality", which indicates the letter writer is clueless about both Church teaching and social reality, especially since the letter writer further adds that "to replace a meaningful dialogue about social realities with Church teachings is irresponsible." Get it? Church teaching is irresponsible, but wearing a t-shirt stating, "Consent is Sexy" is responsible. Any questions?
The second letter is from the president of the Men's Violence Prevention (MVP) group that is sponsoring the "Consent is Sexy" campaign:
Following the example of campuses, including but not limited to Columbia University and the University of Georgia, we chose to adopt the "Consent is Sexy" slogan campaign because we feel that the message is important and needs to be loud. We needed to have an obvious way of reaching the students to help raise awareness of sexual assault that unfortunately occurs on all college campuses, including Gonzaga. In working out of the Student Wellness Resource Center, we see the statistics about sexual assault on our campus, and we find them disturbing. We think that in order to bring these often hidden truths to light, we need to be able to grab the Gonzaga community's attention and let them know that relationship violence and sexual assault can happen to anyone, includ- ing students who may have chosen abstinence. "Consent is Sexy" definitely speaks volumes for itself in being an attention grabber, as is evident by this very discussion.We can all agree, of course, that even one rape is too many. (According to this campus safety report [PDF], there were three reported rapes on the Gonzaga campus from 2005-07.) But I have to wonder, again, at the assumption that a "loud" and attention-grabbing (gimmicky, I'd say) t-shirt campaign is going to be effective at all (and the same goes for a 2007 event featuring men running a mile in high-heeled women's shoes). But the letter writer insists the slogan helps to "raise awareness." Of course, t-shirts shouting, "Rape is Evil!" or "Rapists Risk Eternal Damnation!" would do the same thing, wouldn't they?
And: "The ideals of MVP are rooted deeply within Gonzaga University's mission which emphasizes being Catholic, Jesuit and Humanistic. While we understand that the Catholic Church does not condone premarital sex, we find it imperative that our University not turn a blind eye to the fact that it does occur on college campuses." In other words, the ideals are supposedly in alignment with Catholic ideals, even though they aren't in alignment with Catholic teaching. Got it.
Most revealingly, perhaps: "Whether we like it or not, we live in a sexually charged culture. Recognizing this point, MVP has the primary goal of empowering people to stay in control of their sexuality and to maintain healthy relationships whether or not that includes abstinence." Yet the Church teaches and the evidence shows that pre-marital sex, "hooking up", numerous sexual partners, and sexual flings are not healthy in the least. You cannot solve or thwart sin by sinning; you cannot claim to be upholding truth and human dignity by taking selective measures or employing means that vitiate core principles.
Dr. Cunningham [corrected Oct. 19, 2009] The letter writer above has it quite right in saying, "I would hope any young adult on a college campus would act on their own better judgment, rather than take their social cues from a T-shirt." But we apparently live in a t-shirt world, where clothing is cheap and so is the meaning of sex. How sad that it has to be this way at a Catholic school.
UPDATE (Oct. 9, 2009): From a reader, Everett, who is an alumnus of Gonzaga University:
Back in the day I was in a group called GUMAR (GU Men Against Rape). My guess would be that the goals of GUMAR and this new MVP were probably similar in the goal to educate regarding the fact that rape and sexual assault are problems on all college campuses, and to hopefully reduce those on Gonzaga's campus. We even did things that were probably vaguely similar to MVP's campaign, in discussing the necessity of consent with young men, and working on educating regarding sexual objectification. Additionally, we spent a significant amount of time talking about the problems of alcohol in relationship to sexual crimes. However, I left the group after a year, finding that a secular approach to the issue was mostly worthless. Unless you have natural law and a proper grounding in an understanding of the dignity of the human person, changing attitudes in these areas is extraordinarily difficult.
In my time at GU I was also in the Newman-Stein Fellowship (later renamed to JPII), and I would say our efforts including bringing Christopher West to campus and doing things like studying Mulieris Dignitatem were significantly more valuable. Given the importance of these Catholic teachings, you would think that the Student Life Department would be interested in furthering these causes, particularly because changing attitudes regarding the nature of human sexuality and the dignity of the human person would directly affect the rates of sexual assault. However, Student Life was apathetic towards NSF/JPII at times, and downright hostile at other times. Luckily we had a president in Fr. Spitzer who supported us. Without Fr. Spitzer, I wonder how much administration support truly Catholic organizations will receive. Luckily they have professors like Dr. Cunningham (and several others) who are excellent and will continue to nurture the faith of students.