Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Heart of the Sexual Assault Crisis

Ryan O’Dowd


By Ryan O’Dowd

May 9, 2014

Imagine this scenario: the parents discovered severe cuts and gashes covering their three young children’s bodies. The source was a broken window in their living room and its innumerable, transparent, and jagged shards that littered the children’s play area. The injuries sometimes occurred inadvertently, but just as often as a result of conflicts that naturally arise between mischievous and often bored children. 

The parents instituted a threefold intervention plan providing immediate treatment, punishing perpetrators for cutting, and initiating a multilayered educational effort. There would be first-aid kits, classes on emergency medical aid, sessions focused on anticipating situations that lead to severe wounds, as well as discussion groups, videos, and peer-to-peer dialogue. They resolved, finally, to liberate children to report their injuries – and the injuries of others – without fear of reprisal or shame.

I present this parable to illumine the recent White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which, like the parents in the parable, seems oblivious to the broken glass in the room. 

The president’s response traces a similar line to that of the US military; only the military response has a longer history. Shortly after I entered military service almost twenty-five years ago, I encountered a steady stream of videos, signed statements of understanding, victims’ brochures, testimonial lectures, and assurances of severe discipline for perpetrators of sexual assault.  Most of what the presidential task force recommends, the military has done already, though with limited success. And that is telling. 

The work of the task force has only begun, but it starts by requiring colleges and universities to increase efforts of providing information to students for preventing and reporting sexual assault and rape, engaging men directly in this conversation, developing grievance and disciplinary procedures to handle reported cases quickly, and providing students with access to resources for support. While I certainly affirm the significance of these new initiatives, the salient parallel is that both responses focus almost entirely on the effects of, and responses to, sexual assaults, saying almost nothing about the ethos of the bacchanalian hookup culture that pervades so much of modern campus life.

Christians, particularly college students, must be alert to two prominent and disconcerting realities: (1) that promiscuous sex is assumed to be a safe and ethically appropriate activity that can be enjoyed by mere teenagers with little to no negative consequences, and (2) that not just alcohol, but frequent, excessive binge drinking is an accepted part of what it means for most American kids to grow up and become adults.

Sexual assault on campus stems from a complex network of social factors, but alcohol represents the common denominator in most reported incidences. And for this reason, as Caitlin Flanagan observed in her recent year-long study of fraternities, the Greek system sits at the center of this crisis. Many fraternal organizations embrace and perpetuate an ethos that can lead to assault, mischief, violence, and rape. Fraternities are what one Ivy League Associate Dean of Students calls a relatively small population with “omnipresent power” in campus life. 

Flanagan also chronicles the complex history of these anti-society societies, which have paradoxically assumed an indispensible role in the marketing and affordability of in-residence college education. Fraternities take a major weight off the cost of student housing and especially the liability for these student mishaps – of which there are many.  Any university that wants to survive – and avoid alienating (wealthy) alumni – has to accept and even protect these societies.

The sexual assault crisis marks a major watershed in the evolution of the modern university. Julie Reuben’s excellent Making of the Modern University carefully unpacks the genesis of Greek communities and their place in our increasingly pluralist and diverse educational centers where administrators have slowly ceded their responsibility to speak to issues of normative ethics, values, and behavior.  

The message and perspective within the military have matured in recent years. Its current directive, “Do not mix sex and alcohol,” stands in stark contrast to the campus compromise, “Please mix safely,” which seeks the nearly impossible goal of upholding unlimited individual freedom and assured personal safety simultaneously.

The US Military Academy at West Point, where my son is headed this summer, closed its campus pub in 2012, reopening it months later with a ban on hard liquor, beer towers, and other aids to binge drinking. A small measure, of course, and far easier to do at a federally funded institution with no fraternities. The point here is to mark this as a definitive attempt by leadership to address the sharp glass in the room. We should expect the president to direct the work of his task force in coming months and years to help educational administrators target the most harmful cultural trends on campuses. The President should also create a scorecard to publicize what specific campuses are doing on this front.

- Ryan O'Dowd is Senior Scholar at Chesterton House, a Center for Christian Studies at Cornell University ( in Ithaca, NY, and a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force Reserve. His scholarly research and publishing focus on biblical law and wisdom literature and their innumerable points of contact with contemporary society.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”