- When discrimination and disrespect are normalized, it’s more difficult to recognize acts of force and coercion.
- In contrast, when respect and mutuality are expected, it’s easier to spot people and behaviors that go against that norm.
- We can work together to build a community that has reflective, mindful conversations about pleasure, desire, and values.
When we talk about sex and romance on campus, we need to go holistic. This means recognizing the attitudes, assumptions, and expectations that we bring to our social and sexual interactions, and the ways these manifest in campus traditions and day-to-day practices.
Sometimes, attending to the unwanted microaggressions of our social culture—like a negative stereotype or an offhand comment—can feel like an insurmountable task. But those everyday negative interactions provide camouflage for violence and coercion, and addressing them can help protect against things like sexual harassment and assault. On the other hand, when disrespect and disregard are normalized, it becomes more difficult for us to notice them escalating into behaviors that are undeniably harmful.
We all strive for a culture in which respect is the norm, and not only because such a culture is our most effective protection against sexual assault. A positive sexual culture makes space for encounters that are respectful, pleasurable, and satisfying for everyone.
What are “cultural camouflage” and “unsexy sex”?
Sometimes we talk about campus sexual culture as though it falls neatly into two categories: sex that is enthusiastic and mutually consensual, and sexual violence. But that ignores large categories of interactions.
- Sexual experiences that are consensual but not pleasurable or enthusiastic for everyone involved—the “unsexy sex,” described by Dr. Nicola Gavey, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, who studies the ways that cultural norms influence sexual behavior.
- Instances of casual disregard and disrespect, and low-level pressure; for example, belittling or criticizing sexualities and desires that are different from our own.
In any culture that normalizes low-level pressure and disrespect, it is more difficult to spot acts of force and coercion. It functions as “the cultural scaffolding” of sexual assault, according to Dr. Gavey.
The dynamics of disrespect are particularly powerful in some parts of our culture—on and off campus. These spaces, traditions, and practices tend to have:
- Rigid, inflexible roles and expectations (especially based on gender)
- Tolerance for offensive comments, pressuring dynamics, and other low-level discomfort
- A lack of bystander intervention
- A feeling of resignation; e.g., “Yeah, our community is not great, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it”
- Little importance placed on pleasure and desire (especially female pleasure)
Why focus on building a positive culture?
Safety: A positive culture is the best protection against sexual violence
When discrimination, double standards (especially gendered ones), and disrespect go unchecked, sexual violence is more common, research shows.
In contrast, when respect and mutuality are expected, it’s much easier to spot people and behaviors that go against that norm. In this environment, no one would win any cool points for objectifying others or making disparaging comments about other people’s sexuality. Instead, we would celebrate those who are kind and attentive to their partners and peers.
“If we as a campus culture adopt enthusiastic consent as a cultural value, and the idea of sex as a pleasurable, creative concept, then the rapists among us become obvious. The rest of us are going to stop making excuses for the rapists,” says Jaclyn Friedman, sexual assault survivor and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).
Inspiration: A positive culture takes work and is also rewarding
Building shared community values can be a powerful experience. Communities feel more connected and supportive when the people in them have a clear idea of what they want their culture to be like and are actively working toward that ideal. That’s according to Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, 2010), by Chip Heath of Stanford University, and Dan Heath of Duke University, which examines individual, organizational, and societal transformations.
Creating a positive culture makes room for creativity and resourcefulness. It invites us to promote empowering practices. Community change also requires a “growth mindset,” a shared goal and belief that the effort will be effective and worthwhile.
- Certain party themes—pirates and wenches, quarterbacks and cheerleaders, etc.—dictate how men and women should dress and behave. A more creative and flexible party theme (e.g., apocalyptic) opens up more possibilities. It also empowers everyone to be true to who they are.
- Positive change involves people inspiring each other. In a study involving 60 college students who reported drinking heavily, a brief intervention provided them with feedback on how much their peers actually drank (less than the students assumed) and other issues. Six weeks later, those students were consuming less alcohol less often, according to the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Comprehensiveness: A positive culture creates the community we really want
Focusing on the dynamics of sexual assault rarely addresses less sinister but still objectionable dynamics, such as being an inconsiderate member of the community or a selfish sexual partner.
It’s on us to build a culture that consistently fosters kindness and respect, and to establish those values as social norms. The power of social norms lies in their ability to shift attitudes and set more positive expectations. New community members match their behavior to the norms they see around them. Shifting our social norms is the most effective way to create sustainable, long-lasting change.
Encourage mindful behaviors
The vast majority of people care deeply about their communities and the people around them. In a culture that encourages mindful actions and decision-making, we have opportunities and motivation to act on those commitments.
We do this by working against rigid gender roles and “scripted” interactions. For example:
- All too frequently, we expect men to initiate sexual or romantic interactions and women to act as “gatekeepers” by rebuffing those advances. That’s a dangerous dynamic because it doesn’t account for what the people want—they simply follow a script. How can you and your community validate a range of roles for people of all genders? How can you incorporate this approach into your traditions and daily practices?
- Often, we use terms such as “dating” or “hooking up” as though they have a singular meaning. In reality, sexual and romantic relationships come in different forms. People vary greatly in what they expect out of such relationships and what they enjoy. How might you affirm relationships and interactions that have the potential to be pleasurable and fulfilling for those involved?
What we want our sexual and romantic lives to look like varies greatly from one person to the next. Figuring that out can take work. Some of this happens individually, and much of it takes place in conversation with people we love and respect: partners, friends, and communities. Wherever possible, work to build a community that has reflective, mindful conversations about pleasure, desire, and values.
- Make it abundantly clear that your house, apartment, residence hall, or student organization is no place for pressure or disregard. Agree on your house rules and post them where they are visible to everyone. This is a great way to establish clear expectations about how people should behave and treat one another.
- Consider having designated hosts at parties. Encourage people to touch base with the hosts if anything comes up. This fosters a stronger sense of community support and accountability.
- Support your friends when one of you notices a troubling dynamic. Make it a habit to step in or ask for help when you see something.
- Practice what you preach. Respect your own desires and those expressed by your partners. When you’re unsure, check in and ask.
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