Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is My Child Safe on a Christian Campus?


Christian colleges and universities will face additional tests of faith this fall as matters of sex are sure to attract more attention than usual. The first and only two “Council News” stories on today’s (August 15, 2015) CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) web page were recent and sex-related issues (contraceptive mandate, same-sex marriage).

In the last few years, laws, policies, and campaigns have focused on the problems of sex or sex-linked behavior in new and nuanced ways. After focusing attention on the problems of sexual assault in the military, President Obama highlighted the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

A few days ago, NPR reported on the big business of programs designed to address the issue of sexual assault on campus. As I read the story, I couldn’t help but wonder how any short educational program could possibly produce change in human sexual behavior. Fortunately, others are asking the same questions.

 “Brief, one-session educational programs focused on increasing awareness or changing beliefs and attitudes are not effective at changing behavior in the long-term. These approaches may be useful as one component of a comprehensive strategy. However, they are not likely to have any impact on rates of violence if implemented as a stand-alone strategy or as a primary component of a prevention plan.” DeGue, 2014, Page 2

Unfortunately, campus leaders, concerned with more than the mere appearance of compliance with the law, do not have much to choose from when it comes to effective sexual violence prevention programs. (See DeGue’s summary.)


It gets worse for members of the CCCU and like-minded institutions. The idea of consenting to sex makes no sense if you have a no-sex policy for unmarried students. Even more challenging is the notion of affirmative consent—getting a clear “yes” to sex. As Shulevitz observes, “This is a strange moment for sex in America.”

Clearly, any student who follows the consent guidelines on a conservative Christian campus will be violating both Christian teaching about morality as well as codes of conduct. Teaching consent morality is akin to teaching about condoms in Christian sex education programs—if you’re not having sex, consent and condoms are nonissues.

But of course, Christian young people are having sex in large numbers and sex education programs have minimal to limited effects. As one Evangelical Christian college professor exclaimed, “all the girls are banging their boyfriends.” I suspect that’s an extreme, but the data do suggest sexual activity is common (See below for references to research by Finer and Uecker).


Efforts in secular settings have the quasi-luxury of focusing on protecting people from harm. Policy makers and program personnel can focus on issues of safety, protection, fairness, dignity, and respect without consideration of integrating effective methods with Christian moral teaching.

The prevention efforts alone will consume considerable quantities of time and resources. At this point, the only two sexual violence prevention programs with evidence of effectiveness were not developed for college students. However, colleges do have access to programs and practices with potential for being effective (See CDC).

Christian schools must consider effective programs consistent with a Christian worldview limiting sex to married couples. And possibly complicating policies further, the married couple must be one-man and one-woman at most Christian schools. To use a program based on the moral principle of consent can hardly be pursued with enthusiasm by a school committed to a conservative Christian worldview.

The bar is raised for Christian schools. Christian schools that fail to implement effective programs aimed at preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence can be viewed as callous and hypocritical if not guilty of perpetuating crime. Christians around the world are still struggling as victims of child sex abuse perpetrated by church leaders. Christian schools that fail to enact effective programs run the risk of being accused of covering up some scandal. Some U.S. Christian schools have already made headlines based on allegations of the way victims have been treated (Anderson, 2014; Mintz, 2014).


It’s easy to find advice to Christian young people about maintaining sexual purity—abSTAINing from sex when single (e.g., Grady, 2015). The psychology of disgust is abundantly evident in the language of those reporting rape or sexual assault—degrading, ashamed, embarrassed (e.g., Yoffe, 2013).

For Christians, sex has a long history of association with impurity, uncleanness, and dirt. Efforts to rescue the reputation of sex within marriage as a pure and holy gift have been underway for a few decades in some western nations but that can hardly undo centuries of links of sex to sinful nature. And of course, many have noted the contrast between the impurity of sex for the years preceding the wedding and the abrupt change to celebration following the wedding ceremony.

As psychologist Richard Beck notes in Unclean, the psychology of disgust involves a desire to expel that which is disgusting. And people who are deemed unclean are contaminated-- untouchable. And of course we know that some Christian students are literally expelled from Christian schools for sexual

How likely is a student at a Christian school to report sexual harassment or assault? I don't know. But consider the emotional burden of being embarrassed in front of people suspicious that you are not really a victim. Consider also the alleged perpetrator who must demonstrate a credible defense in a culture that often judges people accused of sexual offenses as guilty until proven innocent. 

Sex has a special place in Christian culture. And sex acts have a way of branding a person as unclean in many unsavory words for years to come.

The magnification of sexual assault may be worse this year given the reports of sexual assault by a U.S. TV star. Whatever happens in the courts, Cosby appears guilty in the press.  The news reports about the man’s use of drugs during sexual assault are reminders of the troubling association of alcohol with sexual assault on college campuses.


Establish Assessment Procedures.
Ongoing assessment of sexual harassment and sexual violence is crucial to understanding the problem and determining effective interventions. Schools and their stakeholders need to know basic reporting statistics as well as local risk factors, along with data relevant to the implementation of sexual harassment and assault prevention interventions.

Conduct Policy Reviews. Obviously policy issues require legal consultation. But Christian schools also need consultants sensitive to the impact of policies on victims and alleged perpetrators. (Link to policy information.)

Too many victims are afraid to speak about harassment and abuse. Too many victims are interrogated rather than interviewed in a supportive and respectful manner. Alleged perpetrators are at risk for infringement of their rights by those zealous about righting the wrongs of the past (Read “Overcorrection.”)

Employ Qualified Personnel.
You might expect faculty in mental health programs to have expertise in interviewing victims of sexual abuse, knowledge of human sexuality, skills in assessment, and skills in research design and program evaluation. But even if a school has such expertise, the faculty or staff may not have sufficient time. In addition, many clinicians may have more experience working with victims than interviewing alleged perpetrators. Certainly, the use of inexperienced personnel can do more harm than good. 

It's also important to avoid role conflicts. For example, in a small school, a the most qualified faculty member may be an academic adviser and teacher of a victim or alleged perpetrator. One possibility is to share qualified faculty with nearby schools or hire qualified community personnel.

Mandate Faculty and Staff Education.
Resources are available at Speakers and in-service programs can be useful if the person has relevant expertise. A better use of available funds might be to identify local needs then secure education and training for those responsible for program implementation. Some campuses may have in-house experts while others will need to hire consultants or obtain expertise from available resources e.g., Rape Crisis Centers.

Carefully Evaluate the Evidence.
Problems of research design and statistical analysis are common in research studies published by experienced scientists even when these studies have been subjected to peer review. Committing to a program that sounds good may be a waste of time and resources if the accompanying data are not carefully evaluated by an experienced researcher.

Make no mistake, sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious problems in society and on college campuses. However, data about the scope of the problem have come under fire for challenging assumptions that may have led to the estimates. Operational definition of words like rape and assault can affect the numbers in addition to methods of estimation. See an example in TIME.

Those responsible for organizing, analyzing, and reporting local statistics must use appropriate methods.

Commit to Developing a Comprehensive Theology of Sex.
The National Association of Evangelicals has a booklet on the Theology of Sex. What Christian educators need is a comprehensive approach to sex education from childhood to adulthood, which includes sessions on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Christians need effective interventions consistent with their faith tradition. And they need guidance on recovering from moral failure.

Forgiveness is at risk for being a faith fad. Forgiveness clearly has a role in helping victims deal with any offense and in restoring repentant offenders. But forgiveness is not a panacea. And Christians ought to know by now that re-instating sexual offenders can result in catastrophic consequences for Christian organizations.

A comprehensive theology of sex ought to be consistent with Christian morality in general and knowledge about human nature and sexuality. A team could easily draw upon philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and educators in addition to theologians. 

Secure Funding.
Quality programs are going to be expensive for small Christian schools—especially those highly dependent on student tuition. In addition, the recent emphasis on sexual violence may mean that existing budgets are inadequate. Administrators will be in a difficult position to re-allocate existing funds. This is clearly an area where private foundations and wealthy donors may be tapped to develop effective programs consistent with a Christian worldview and support research aimed at documenting their effectiveness.

References in addition to the links provided in the text

Finer, Lawrence B. “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003.” Public Health Reports, 122 (2007) 73–78.

Uecker, Jeremy E. “Religion, Pledging, and the Premarital Sexual Behavior of Married Young Adults.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 70 (2008) 728–744.