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Saturday, April 1, 2017

What's the Best Way to Reduce Sexual Violence?

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I was riding in a car with my sister the other day and she mentioned that she had just listened to the But What If We’re Wrong? episode (from the podcast version of the blog) where I talked about women in the military. And she expressed her annoyance with the section where I talked about an integrated military possibly leading to more sexual violence (i.e. sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape). The section in question ran as follows:

The stories and numbers I do see mostly concern harassment. The most recent story making the rounds is of a vast network among the marines for sharing nude photos of female soldiers. Less publicized, are stories of the Navy having a growing problem with pregnancy among women who’ve been deployed. Apparently rising from 2% of women in 2015 to 16% currently. Both of these stories come on top of persistent stories of sexual harassment in the military going back to at least the Tailhook Scandal in 1991. (It’s certainly possible that there were reasons other than combat effectiveness for historically not having women in the military.)...Are we enabling a large amount of sexual harassment that might not otherwise happen?

My sister’s position was that we shouldn’t forbid women from doing certain things because it opens them up to sexual violence. That if a man sexually harasses, assaults, or rapes a woman that the fault lies completely with the man who committed the crime. That women aren’t asking for it by wearing revealing clothing, or because they were drinking and they especially weren’t asking for it by joining the military. That essentially, if a man harrasses a woman the man is 100% at fault and talking about the woman’s role in any context risks opening up the idea that some part of it was the woman’s fault.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with my sister on this point. Everything she said is correct. I’m reasonably certain that this is another post which might get me in trouble (at this point maybe it’s easier to identify the posts that won’t get me in trouble) and before you get mad I want you to absorb the fact that I agree with everything my sister said. But, (you knew there was a “but” coming) I do have to clarify some things.

First, we need to differentiate between sexual violence and claims of sexual violence, which is to say that the US has an adversarial justice system and the process of investigating claims of sexual violence can often create a situation where the victim (who knows the violence was actual, not merely alleged) feels that they’re the ones on trial. Unfortunately this is inherent to the adversarial process, which is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.

The second clarification I need to make, and the point of this post, is that discussing the role of society or of policy or of education or of alcohol is different than discussing what a woman should or shouldn’t have done after the harassment or the assault or in the worst cases, the rape, has already happened. I can totally agree that second-guessing or picking apart someone’s actions after they’ve been the victim of a crime is not only unproductive, it’s cruel. But telling someone in advance that they shouldn’t get really drunk at a frat party is different than telling a rape victim it’s all their fault because they got really drunk at a frat party. In other words there may be some common sense changes to policy and education that should be made, which have nothing to do with blaming the victim.

For the purposes of our discussion we’ll mostly be focusing on colleges and the military, both because that seems to be where the biggest perceived problem is, where we have the most information at our disposal, and finally where we can talk about specific policies.

But before we can discuss what we should change, we should talk about the status quo. What are we doing now to decrease sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape at colleges and in the military? As far as I can tell, currently, the vast majority of our effort is put into education. Teaching people (men especially) what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. As I look around I see some minor procedural changes, most of which involve making it easier to report and prosecute sexual offences after they already happen, but as far as prevention, almost all of it falls under the general heading of education. In essence we’re just telling people to not do it. Not do what? Well as far as I can tell the curriculum for this education at the college level, at least goes something like this:

Any kind of sex you can think of is great, healthy and completely natural. Except sex where your partner isn’t completely 100% on board and then that’s full on rape, and that’s the worst thing ever.

If that definition seems over the top, you are free to suggest your own form of the “modern day sexual curriculum”, as it is taught at colleges and in the military. But I think, based on the current atmosphere at colleges and universities that you’ll agree that however it’s phrased, it’s targeting a very small slice of all sexual behavior. While at the same time anything that’s not forbidden is encouraged and even celebrated. For example, as part of this education, they’re not telling people to practice abstinence. Or to not make out or to not do any of the hundreds of things which lie somewhere between a chaste peck on the check and actual intercourse. As far as I can tell they’re not advocating waiting until a certain age. And they’re certainly not telling them to avoid pornography or to wait until marriage.  In other words they’re trying to bridle one of the strongest desires a human being can have by giving it full rein except for in a few, sometimes not entirely obvious situations.

The military is a little bit different and as far as I can tell, you’re not supposed to have sex while out at sea if you’re in the Navy, or during actual deployment, if you’re in, say, the Army, but beyond that it’s similarly anything goes. Also there’s ample proof (the pregnancy statistic I cited earlier) along with anecdotal evidence, that despite this prohibition that people still have plenty of sex both on ships and while deployed. Once again they’re targeting very specific circumstances, and once again there’s evidence that it’s not working. Of course sex isn’t sexual violence, but you’re still looking at a situation where proximity and availability overwhelm rules and education.

As an aside, speaking of human sexual desire. I’d be fascinated in knowing from what framework the current ideology operates. If they’re basing their policy on science wouldn’t they have to admit that an overwhelmingly powerful sex drive is basically mandated by evolution? I can see speaking about men as inherently good people who should know better and just need be reminded, if you’re operating from a religious framework, but I’ve seen no evidence that they are operating from a religious framework, and if they were, why aren’t they also pushing chastity or marriage?

In any event by trying to limit just a small slice of sexual behavior while encouraging everything else, it’s as if they pointed to a giant wall of soda and said “You should grab a can and drink some it’s great. Oh, but there are some cans of poison in there as well, but those cans are clearly marked, normal cans are red, the poison cans are orange. Of course sometimes you’re going to be picking these cans while you’re drunk or tired and other times you’re going to be in a situation where you’re really, really thirsty. And sometimes you’ll be picking a can when you’re all three.”

Of course sex isn’t the only human desire we try and put limits on, but I can’t think of any other desire where a similar strategy is employed. We don’t go up to people who are overweight and tell them. “Well, evidently you haven’t heard this already because if you had I’m sure you would have acted on it, but you should really eat less and exercise.” We don’t put shots of whiskey in front of alcoholics and tell them to just pretend those shots aren’t there. We don’t take our kid who has a D average and mountains of homework and buy him a new video game. So why do we take libidinous young adults, put them in stressful situations, perhaps with copious alcohol and tell them to have all the sex they want, but just make sure that they can completely turn it off the minute there’s any hesitation on the part of the other party or the minute they board a ship.

Perhaps you disagree with all of these analogies. Perhaps you don’t think that sexual violence has anything to do with dieting or video games or alcohol. Maybe you’re right. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape all involve more than one person, but at it’s core you’re still saying that if you just tell people to stop doing something that it should just work. That if someone tells me to stop procrastinating that I’ll never procrastinate again. If only....

Also as long as we’re still exploring the effectiveness of just telling someone to stop doing something, how is it that the people most dismissive of abstinence only education feel that in this case just telling men to stop is going to work when telling teenagers to not have sex apparently doesn’t work? Isn’t the failure of preaching just abstinence alone another giant piece of evidence in favor of the idea that you can’t just tell someone to not do something and think that it is going to be effective?

Later on I want to look at the kind of tradeoffs we’re making, but for now let’s stick with the idea of education. Imagine that for whatever reason that education was the only tool you had. (Which is apparently exactly the position we’re in). You couldn't segregate the sexes, or make women wear burkas. You can’t disown your daughter if she had a baby out of wedlock. All you can do is educate people. If that was the only tool available and you were really serious about stopping sexual violence, how would you go about it?

Well first, you might start by educating them to stay away from all of the soda, not just the orange cans. In other words you might teach them that sex is serious business, regardless of who it’s with. And since you would want them to exercise good judgement you might also teach them to avoid alcohol and drugs. And it wouldn’t be enough to teach them these things at the last minute just before they’re presented with the temptation to have soda, you’d want to start teaching them these things as soon as possible. You might also want to put together a whole moral system which teaches not only the dangers of sex and drugs and alcohol but, which ties in with other bad things like lying and stealing. In fact you might want to actually start with education on lying and stealing and then once they have a firm understanding that some things are right and some things are wrong, you can add in whatever commandments you have about sex. And, finally, since consent seems to be at the heart of the problem, you might teach them that the best way to go about it, is to have a very public declaration of consent. Maybe even turn it into a ceremony, and bring witnesses.

Does any of that ring a bell? Does it sound like any organization you might already be familiar with? As it turns out the LDS Church is a big believer in education as well, but rather than focusing on a very narrow definition of improper sexual conduct, the Church focuses on avoiding all sex outside of marriage. And rather than starting the education when someone joins the military or enters college, our education begins the moment a child enters Primary at the age three when they join Sunbeams. And yes there are no chastity lessons in Sunbeams, (at least not that I’m aware of) but they are taught that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. Thus when they’re later taught, sometime in their teens, the Church’s commandments with respect to sex. These commandments fit right into the framework of right and wrong the Church has been talking about since they were three years old.

In other words if people only cared about reducing the incidence of sexual violence, and even if they only had access to education there is a lot more they could be doing. I suppose that some people might argue that this approach makes the problem worse. The claim wouldn’t surprise me, but I honestly can’t imagine on what basis they would make it. But if you want to make the claim that a long term emphasis on chastity and morality makes the problem of sexual violence. worse, I’m happy to examine whatever evidence you might have.

So why doesn’t everyone adopt the same approach as the LDS Church? (Note I said the LDS Church, not BYU.) First, I doubt the idea has crossed anyone’s mind. Not only that, I assume that if I did go to someplace like Baylor University (or another college with a recent scandal) and pitched the idea of implementing LDS religious standards across the entire campus that I would not get very far. (I think the real bet would be whether I would literally be laughed off of campus or not.) Second it requires starting very young, it requires organization, it requires an entire moral framework, in short it requires a religion.

But, in what can only be a complete coincidence, the role of religion in America is at an all time low. Surely this decrease in the number of active believers couldn’t have anything to do with the increase in sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape? That would be inconceivable!

Despite it being inconceivable, as far as I can tell this is in fact the conventional wisdom, that there is no connection between the diminished role of religion and the current sexual violence crisis on campuses and in the military. In fact generally when people mention the crisis and religion together it’s in part to blame religion, for example the abstinence only education mentioned above, or they might claim that religion empowers the patriarchy. Certainly it’s possible that religion has no effect on the rates sexual violence. It’s even possible that religion causes more harassment, but less rape, or vice versa. Just as it’s possible that long term education on chastity is less effective than a two hour lecture on consent, but I find claims like this very hard to believe.

The fact is that in addition to religion, there is a whole host of options that modern culture has ruled to be inadmissible, despite the seriousness of sexual violence. Not only can I not find any one (outside of people who are explicitly religious) making any kind of connection between a decrease in religion and an increase in these sorts of crimes, but it’s equally rare to find people who are willing to suggest things like segregation by sexes or limiting alcohol or heaven forbid anything resembling a chaperon. And yet all of these things were very common historically.

We are so prone to dismiss historical norms and morals, including religion, as retrograde and primitive superstitions; which we’ve not only grown out of, but were silly even at the time they were being practiced, that despite the increase of something truly awful (how else can you describe sexual violence) it’s still unthinkable that maybe our ancestors had a point. That maybe having, at a minimum, a separate men’s dorm and women’s dorm wasn’t a crazy idea? As an example of what I mean here’s an article explaining that the vast majority of sexual assault happens in on-campus housing. And here’s another article mocking the GOP for objecting to coed dorms. Are we really serious about this problem or not? If we are, should we maybe consider some radical options? (Or not so radical if viewed historically.)

Are there downsides to having separate dorms or a less integrated military? Are there downsides to not allowing alcohol? Are there downsides to religion? Are there downsides to the BYU Honor code? Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes. Of course there are. I would never deny that there aren’t trade-offs to all of those things, but are we sure we know the trade-offs we’re making? To just take the most basic adjustment, is the incidence of sexual violence less in sex segregated dorms? What about sexual violence in the military if you have completely segregated units (all female or all male)? Perhaps it’s fine to have women in combat, but should women combat units be separate from male combat units? Is there any data on that? Has anyone even thought to do the experiment? If there are differences then what benefits does the current set up provide? If the current way of doing things leads to demonstrably more sexual violence then what is the fantastic upside that balances that out? If it turns out that coed dorms and integrated military units experience the same amount of sexual violence as segregated dorms and segregated military units I’d love to see the evidence. And even if there is evidence for that, which I seriously doubt, what about alcohol, what about encouraging promiscuity in general?

You may think from this that I’m advocating that every college be just like BYU, or some Amish equivalent. I’m not. What I want to know is, are there small common sense changes which could be made that have minimal disadvantages, but huge payoffs in reducing sexual violence?  Are we not making those changes because they seem prudish, or too much like what those religious fanatics are advocating? Would keeping men and women in separate military units give women all the benefits of being in the military with less sexual violence to boot? If it would why aren’t we doing it?

At this point many people are going to argue that we shouldn’t have to do any of that. It shouldn’t be that hard to just train men (and everyone) to not engage in sexual violence. Again, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of education, particularly education that’s so narrowly focused, and so limited to such a small behavioral slice. But even if it is effective, unless it’s 100% effective we’re still trading some level of sexual violence for benefits which still seem pretty vague to me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a different tack. Perhaps rather than deriding everything that happened before the Sexual Revolution as barbaric and misguided. We might want to take a closer look at the customs and religions that have served humanity for hundreds of years, and see if perhaps whether those who came before us, might have had to solve the same problems we’re currently grappling with, and whether if somewhere in those customs and religions there might be a better way.

If like me, you’re not a big fan of BYU (GO UTES!) then consider donating to a fellow contrarian. If on the other hand you’re a big fan of BYU, well I basically just did an entire post defending the honor code, so you should also donate.

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