Reflections on Sexual Assault and Its Contemporary Cultural Context

Protester at UVA. Photograph by  Bob Mical.

Protester at U.Va. Photograph by Bob Mical.

Like everyone in this community, I read the Rolling Stone story about the violent gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity with profound sadness and indignation. I’ve been following the debate that ensued over the past week, and it seems to me that this is a community struggling to find a moral language adequate to the crime that was perpetrated, the outrage we feel, and the response we demand. Again and again, though, we seem to come up against an impoverishment of language that obscures important aspects of what happened and how we should address it.

By way of background it must be said that the dynamics of gender are central to this particular crime and to the larger matter of sexual assault. The denigration of women by men has been a part of this university and the larger culture for a long time. As historian Phyllis Leffler pointed out, the dynamics of gender, like those of race, have deep historical roots at this university. They express themselves institutionally in ways that are grotesque, to say the least, but have been conveniently ignored. These denigrations have their own ontology and are not reducible to other factors. Full stop.

That said, the problem is bigger than one might imagine, for women are not the only victims of sexual assault. The National College Health Assessment survey makes it clear that men are also regularly sexually assaulted and abused. The occurrence of rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, and physical abuse in an intimate relationship for men is less than it is for women (by one third to one half), but the rates are consistent. Men too are victims of sexual violence.

So how do we think about it? Clearly, nothing happens in a vacuum. The dynamics of sexual assault operate in a larger cultural context—one in which the dynamics of instrumental power pervade both public and private spheres. At the heart of this is an implicit anthropology that conceives of human beings as objects for instrumental ends. When we see human beings as mere objects that have more or less utility, we cannot help but use them, consume them, instrumentalize them in the same way we consume, use, and instrumentalize other objects and experiences.

While objectification and instrumentalization (and the anthropology that underwrites them) are far from cultural novelties, they are, arguably, the reigning characteristics of our age. They are embedded in the most powerful institutions of our society—the market economy, first and foremost, but other institutions as well, not least the university. Indeed, one of the ways in which elite higher education distinguishes itself is in the extraordinary refinement of this kind of instrumental rationality and practice. A meritocratic elite is reproduced by virtue of the fact that it understands that culture and operates within it better than any others.

As an elite university, the University of Virginia articulates those values and fosters those practices as well as any of its peers. How else does it stay competitive? Yet it is not just our talented students who reflect these values. The entire university community is complicit. Faculty and administrators orient themselves, their work, their careers, and their relationship with colleagues and students in these instrumental ways every bit as much as our ambitious students do. And those who do it more aggressively (even if more genially) tend to be the most successful. Is this not the very path to success in a meritocratic society?

If it is true that an anthropology rooted in objectification and given expression in instrumentalization pervades our public and private cultures, then it means that the crime that was committed is an extreme, violent and criminal extension of the very logic at play in the university and late modern cultures. It is a logic that we that we share and perpetuate in practice, even if we repudiate it in theory. Surely, this is a diminished anthropology, inadequate to our more noble aspirations for life and learning in an intellectual community committed to mutual care and trust.

There is a second way in which we see the thinness of our language for making sense of sexual assault. It is reflected in how we think publicly about sex itself. To be sure, there needs to be a minimum standard for determining what is lawful and unlawful with regard to human sexuality and the language of consent is a such a standard. No matter the context, sex can never be forced.

Yet, sexuality is, historically and cross-culturally, one of the most symbolically freighted phenomena of human experience. Against this, our public vocabulary for making sense of it and determining what is right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy about it tends to come down to that single word. When activists chant, “Yes means Yes, and No means No,” we are giving political articulation to that concept.

Something is better than nothing at all—at least the language of consent/non-consent is a boundary—but we should recognize that consent is a rather impoverished concept, one that is incapable of accounting for nuance, depth, and complexity in human sexuality. What of beauty? Intimacy? Commitment, not to mention covenant?

What is most problematic about the language of consent is that it is the language of transaction, of contract. That means that the language of consent is of a fabric with a larger culture of instrumentality and utility and therefore finally incapable of offering an alternative to the very thing it claims to resist.

Thirdly, there is an impoverishment in our response to sexual assault. As I have listened to the demands for action in the wake of this crime, I have worried that however well-intended, many of the appeals for action have missed the mark, particularly insofar they focus on making quick decisions and generating new policies.

Yes, policies can be important, but in the end, the creation of a system of rules, procedures, and entitlements is a poor substitute for a culture marked by mutual respect and benevolence. The problem is, no amount of bureaucratic proceduralism will lead to the virtues of trust, generosity, and compassion. You just can’t generate “respect” through a mandated multi-cultural seminar; you just can’t create “compassion” through administratively authorized sensitivity training. For all of the well-meant rhetoric of caring, compassion and respect and for all of our yearnings to live in such a community, instrumental policies cannot spawn substantive virtues. In the end, all we will end up with will be new layers of rules, guidelines, and procedures. I can see it coming and, in the end, it will make the university community less trustful, less caring and less compassionate.

What needs to be done about sexual assault at this university is debatable and my hope is that this community has the kind of robust debate that will lead to actions that finally make sexual assault unthinkable. In the meantime, before we mandate this or that policy, our first order of business must be to establish ways of protecting all women (and men) who are victims of sexual assault, protecting them physically, emotionally, and reputationally. The great French historian Marc Bloch once said that we must always remember that behind all of our great and lofty abstractions are real human beings. Real human beings have been harmed and we need to address that first and foremost. That obligation is crystal clear.

Beyond that, the way forward is less clear. My hunch, though, is that we will not address the deeper issue until we develop a richer and thicker moral language for understanding the problem, create alternative institutional avenues of formation, and cultivate a deeper and more complex understanding of each other.

James Davison Hunter is the executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.

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