A Call for Systemic Change: Prevention Programming, Alcohol, and College Culture
Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
This is an opinion piece, all views expressed within it are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Thrill.
This week’s Title IX discussion has largely focused on the deficiencies of both Kenyon’s sexual misconduct policy and the legislation itself. While we’re making important strides in these conversations, we need to focus more efforts on the area where we, the students, can affect perhaps the most significant change: prevention programming.
Kenyon’s attempt to address sexual assault in its prevention programming and policies is halfhearted and eschews real action. It focuses largely on tea and clear communication. A popular Youtube video shown by the Title IX office to UCCs among other college employees and associates holds that “consent is as simple as tea.” While this video is meant to be a light hearted stab at simplifying consent, its humor is misplaced. Consent is anything but funny, and it is a gross oversimplification to analogize it to an exchange regarding tea. More broadly, focusing programming on quick, digestible content (like videos about consent and placing condoms on bananas) is problematic, and like the tea video, it is a vulgar reduction of sexual encounters and the factors that precede them.
To elucidate this point further, we need to examine the role of alcohol on college campuses, Kenyon’s party policy, and subcultures of misogyny.
I. Kenyon Students and Alcohol
Alcohol is complicated to say the least. Researchers have established two important determinations that should be taken into consideration:
- Alcohol’s physical effects (namely that it is a depressant) are fairly universal
- Alcohol’s ’emotional’ effects are not.
In other words, the way we act when we’re drunk is learned and largely informed by cultural expectations. Our culture instantiates ‘scripts’ in us that apply to sex and alcohol consumption among other things. These are “the collective guides—the syntax and understandings of roles and performance—presented to individuals by their cultural group and which individuals assimilate, reinterpret, and internalize.” The ways we consume alcohol and the ways we have sex figure into a larger, cultural narrative about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’ drinking and ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’ sex.
Researchers call it a ‘time out’ when alcohol is used as (and accepted by others as) an excuse for transgressing norms. In college, where students are not subjected to the same kinds of legal repercussions as in the ‘real world,’ an alcoholic ‘time out’ is a legitimate excuse for a variety poor behaviors. When American college students drink, they break objects and rules (see any given Village Record), while individuals in other cultures (and even other schools) respond to alcohol in vastly different ways.
Additionally, at Kenyon (and other American universities) drinking is a sacred, glorified act. Time out(s) happen two to three times per week. Drinking has become a central part of the national account of ‘what college is all about’, with drunkenness and drunken behavior acting as an initiation of sorts.
Drinking is also part of Kenyon’s social order. How much you can drink, how often you drink, where you drink, and with whom you drink is meaningful social information for Kenyon students. Withholding one’s participation in drinking is also significant to Kenyon students. Many do not perceive it favorably and have terms that reflect this (‘indoor kids’).
Alcohol also figures prominently into Kenyon students’ hook-up culture. It is no coincidence that students (and people more generally) search for hook ups in consecrated spaces of drinking, such as bars. This doesn’t have to be, and frequently is not, a bad thing. One scholar writes: “Getting wasted is fun, as is hooking up. In today’s campus hookup culture, alcohol and sex often go together, and both can be rewarding experiences for young adults.”Alcohol also has the favorable effect of reducing social anxiety, which can make seeking out consensual sex an easier, less anxiety wrought experience.
Because of its significance in college culture, alcohol is a hot commodity and a particularly scarce one at that for students under 21. “Age 21-laws” foster an unsafe and uncertain college environment–a feature of college culture that administrators and prevention programmers fail to address (and sometimes legally cannot). As a result, one scholar argues, “Alcohol becomes a coveted commodity, with many students seeking access to it and fortunate others wielding control of it.” Age 21-laws fail to deter underage drinkers from reaping the social benefits of alcohol (72% of students consume alcohol by the end of high school) and instead make drinking more secretive, and thus more dangerous.
In short, there are three takeaways:
- Kenyon students like to drink.
- The decision to drink or to not drink is a conscious decision, which conveys a calculated social message.
- Underage students do drink and will continue to drink regardless of party policies and laws.
II. Party Policy
Despite its congenial qualities, alcohol consumption is positively correlated with sexual misconduct. According to the 2015 Kenyon HEDS Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey, 75.8% of victims of sexual assault at Kenyon reported that their assailant had consumed alcohol. 60.6% of victims reported that they had consumed alcohol when the assault occurred.
There is no biological determinant for the actions of the intoxicated. That alcohol is implicated in sexual assault indicates that it is because assailants capitalize on its allowance for ‘time out’ to violate rights and rules. At its core, sexual assault is a cultural problem, a systemic problem, a misogyny problem, that interacts with alcohol. It is not caused by alcohol.
Despite this knowledge, Kenyon and other colleges and universities treat alcohol as the cause of sexual assault. One scholar argues that this blame is sorely misplaced:
“Given the connection between intoxication and sexual assault, many ask, “Why not just tell women not to get so drunk?” But a mindset that places responsibility on women ignores the widespread attitudes and practices that encourage men’s sexual predation and victimization of women in the first place. To be clear, drinking, by itself, does not lead to sexual assault. Drinking heavily makes women more vulnerable, but it is overwhelmingly men who take advantage and rape. It is also men who stand by and watch their male friends ply women with drinks, block women from leaving rooms, and sometimes gang-rape women too drunk to walk home. Equipping women with ‘watch your drink, stay with your friends’ strategies ignores both the fun of partying with abandon and the larger structures of domination that lead men to feel entitled to (drunk) women’s bodies.”
We must tackle these “larger structures of domination” next, while examining Kenyon’s alcohol policy and the way it interacts with them.
Attending college puts women at an increased risk for completed or attempted sexual assault, and at Kenyon, 60.6% of victims were assaulted during their first year. This, perhaps, does not come as a surprise, but to understand this statistic I believe we need to take a closer look at campus culture and the ways in which underage (particularly first year) students make contact with alcohol.
Kenyon’s party policy engages in a number of practices that promote ‘underground’ drinking, including designating 1st year dorms as ‘alcohol free spaces’ and limiting the days, times, and numbers of parties that students are allowed to register. Kenyon employees, including Community Advisors, and formerly, even higher ups such as the Associate Dean of Students, send students mixed messaging. After outlining the formal party policy, they lean in and drop their voices: “Look, we’re know you’re going to drink. We know you’re going to smoke. Just don’t get caught.”
Just don’t get caught–this we take seriously. In the 2014 Kenyon College Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, there were only 16 arrests (1% of 1600 students) made on campus for liquor law violations during 2014. There were 140 persons referred for disciplinary action ( 8.75% of 1600 students). Though there is no available data about alcohol consumption rates among Kenyon students, from these statistics and empirical observation, it is logical to assume that more than 10% drink.
To be clear, College policies also negatively affect students of age. Students ‘pregame’ because, in accordance with party policy, they know that they will have limited opportunities to obtain alcohol once they leave their residences. For example, at last weekend’s Summer SendOff, the college limited 21 year olds to just 5 drinks (beer or cider only) for which they had to pay. While most students consuming alcohol pregame every social event, the fact that the College both limited and charged for drinks reinforced and augmented students’ desire to pregame before entering the party. And they did. At least two students were hospitalized on Sendoff for alcohol related maladies.
These practices fail to deter students from drinking, and instead compel them to ‘get creative’ and find less safe, more secretive circumstances which become “party scenes that sociological research has shown to be productive of sexual danger for women.”
III. All-male Spaces
I would like to return briefly to a discussion of underage drinking. As a first year student, I learned that parties open to me (and thus sources of alcohol) were almost exclusively the domain of fraternities and sports teams, and to a much lesser extent sororities. This is troubling for a number of reasons. First, these spaces often operate ‘below ground,’ which as intimated above, puts women at higher risk for sexual assault.
Secondly, sanctified all-male spaces contribute to sexual misconduct and to misogyny. Sociologist Michael Messner writes,
Recipe for sexual assault: Assemble a group of young men. Promise them glory for violently dominating other groups of young men. Bond the group with aggressive joking about the sexual domination of women.
While Messner’s quote is undeniably provocative, it is supported by evidence. He writes that “research by sociologist Todd Crosset since the 1990s has shown that men who play intercollegiate sports are more likely than non-athletes to commit sexual assault.” Likewise, an Ohio University study concluded that fraternity men are three times more likely to rape than non-members. It was the third study to do so.
Why? Because, once again, alcohol does not cause sexual assault. It is a systemic problem. It’s a misogyny problem. It’s a problem of institutionalized sexism that is perpetuated by the presence of sanctified all-male spaces such as fraternities and athletic teams. According to Messner, sexism “is routinely intertwined with male entitlement and celebratory violence”–things intrinsic to the status of athletes, brothers, and the alumni that fund their continuity, and sports practice and hazing. Likewise, he writes that “high status male groups—like sports teams and fraternities—layer protective silence around members who perpetrate violence against women.”
Despite the affirmation of these statistics by studies year after year, all-male spaces are accepted and remain largely unchallenged by Kenyon and the other collegiate institutions in which they exist. Not once have we discussed disbanding fraternities. Not once have we discussed the cultures of athletic teams. Only very infrequently do we discuss that Kenyon grudgingly admitted women less than 50 years ago.
Instead, we say that Kenyon is different. Its fraternities are different. Its athletic teams are different. Its men, well, they’re different. Kenyon is not different. The number of sexual assaults that take place on Kenyon’s campus mirror the national average.
I do not wish to point fingers at individuals. I have many friends in fraternities. Most men will not rape, but we know that exclusively male organizations produce members who rape at three times the rate of other men. And to do nothing with that knowledge is a crime.
It is unacceptable that Kenyon continues to eschew reforming or eliminating these organizations, but it is not surprising. People in power have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and the status quo everywhere is chock full of sexism, misogyny, and normalized violence against women. Recall the #RespectfulDifference campaign which followed the vandalization of the Crozier Center for Women just before Take Back the Night last year. The campaign responded to the incident by encouraging the community to respect the opinions of others. An act of vandalism, hate, and misogyny is not an opinion. It is a crime, a social ill, and, a rights issue. But the community and the administration were only willing to talk about tolerance. And when we prioritize tolerance over rights and safety, we normalize violence.
Before Kenyon makes any real changes, it will likely hold more forums where silent adult audience members shake their heads and scowl at the student speakers making themselves vulnerable. It will cry for input from the students who are here to study in safety, more than 9.8% of which they have already failed. It will bring in external investigators who will find nothing, because the legislation is flawed. It will let student campaigns for change fall to the wayside for 17 more years.
And then, it will return to telling prospective families that Kenyon is different.
In short, this article was meant to encourage readers to see the systemic changes that must take place before we can hope to see the decline of rates of sexual assault. While this article has been largely critical in nature, I would like to suggest the below reforms:
Party Policy Reforms:
- Allow anyone of any age to register a small gathering
- Do not limit the dates on which small gatherings can be registered
- Dispose of the ‘alcohol free space’ status of first-year residences. That “Wellness housing” exists within first-year dorms is an implicit acknowledgement that underage students consume alcohol and other substances. This should be made explicit and dealt with openly. This would not deter students wishing to live in housing free of alcohol and other substances from choosing to live in Wellness housing.
- Transparency; students realize the College must comply with Ohio laws, but because the party policy frequently changes, we do not have a grasp on the parameters by which our party policies are restricted.
- Eliminate Greek Life, or tell all organizations go to co-ed or get out.
- Develop ongoing prevention programming specifically for athletic teams.
- First year programming must be more serious and spread out throughout the year. Students need to have a complete grasp on what constitutes sexual misconduct both legally in the state of Ohio and under Title IX. Likewise, programming needs to focus on debunking common rape myths that perpetuate assault and prevent survivors from reporting.
- Kenyon’s sexual misconduct policy should place the burden of consent on the initiating party and it should adopt “yes means yes” as a clear statute of affirmative consent.
In closing, I would also like to address the shortcomings of this article. It is limited not only in length, but in content. This article fails to address the systemic issues that fail LBGTQ+ and male victims among others. As a heterosexual woman, I can write most accurately and firmly about my own experiences, but I do not wish to silence or ignore the voices of others. In spite of the article’s limitations, and the limitations of my own knowledge, I hope that it will be a useful contribution to the larger discussion and that it will prompt the interrogation of tough questions that have been overlooked for far too long.
All sources (not already linked to) that have informed this article:
Bridges Whaley, Rachel
2001 The Paradoxical Relationship Between Gender Inequality and Rape: Toward a Refined Theory.
Gender and Society 15(4): 531-555.
Mandlebaum, David G.
1965 Alcohol and Culture. Current Anthropology 6 (3): 281-288+289-293.
MacAndrew, C. and Edgerton, R.B. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation
2003 Percheron Press
Wade, Lisa, Brian Sweeney, Amelia Seraphia Derr, Michael A. Messner, Carol Burke
2014 Ruling Out Rape. Contexts 13 (2):16-25.