Viral Twitter hashtags dominate today’s news cycle. Tragically, there are also many stories about someone — usually a woman — who is the victim of a sexual offence. In the #MeToo movement, both of these developments are combined, as millions of women disclose being the victims of unwanted sexual advances, harassment, assault and rape.
Sadly, university campuses are not immune. Misogynist hazing rituals, violent frosh chants, crude Facebook posts and drunken sexual assaults have become so common that they barely merit media attention anymore.
However, the new campus sexual violence research that I, along with Harvard scholar Albert Cheng, published recently in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education suggests that independent Christian campuses may provide greater safety from sexual violence than their public counterparts.
Our review of research on secular campuses showed that between 21 and 31 per cent of women students report that they have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact within the past year. Between three and five per cent of women reported being raped in the past year while being students.
We followed this review with our own research, surveying nearly 700 students from eight independent Christian university and college campuses in Canada to see how they differed from secular universities. Compared to the rates we found in those published studies, 18 per cent of women in our study reported unwanted sexual contact, while less than one per cent reported being raped.
“When it comes to sex, there’s something unique about Christian universities and colleges.”
Although the incidence among women at Christian universities is less than in public and secular universities, it is still troubling that nearly one in five women at these Christian schools are experiencing some form of sexual violence. And, even one rape is too many; for the two women in our study who reported being raped, these were undoubtedly traumatic, devastating, life-altering experiences.
Our study confirms what other researchers have found. When it comes to sex, there’s something unique about Christian universities and colleges (especially Protestant evangelical ones) compared to public, secular and Catholic campuses.
Rather than leaving it up to students to figure out for themselves, Christian universities provide clear guidelines for sexual behaviour that are rooted in biblical teachings and long-standing Christian traditions. And these guidelines aren’t just for students. Many Christian universities expect everyone — from board members to the president, to professors, receptionists, accountants and custodians — to also commit to following such guidelines. In other words, Christian universities and colleges attempt to create communities of learning in which everyone “walks the talk.”
Christian universities and colleges attempt to create communities of learning in which everyone “walks the talk.”
Protestant evangelical campuses share a near-unanimous commitment to a set of beliefs that shape individual actions — a commitment that is widely understood to apply to sexuality. This stands in contrast to Catholic, private, public and secular universities and colleges, where research shows that students express that they have no source of guidelines about sexuality beyond their own personal opinions.
Centuries-long Christian practice affirms that sex needs boundaries and restraint to flourish the way God intended. This is a countercultural idea in today’s social context in which many accept that sex should have no limits other than one’s personal freedom (and the freedom of others to give consent).
Our study didn’t directly test for the individual characteristics — like socioeconomic status or individual religiosity — among the different types of students who choose to attend Christian and secular schools, so our conclusions are tentative and still need to be confirmed with further research. However, other researchers have consistently found that the unique moral community in which students find themselves has an effect on their behaviours even beyond individual differences among students.
Of course, Christian campuses are not perfect. Christian universities and colleges should not be ignorant about the reality of sexual violence: tragically, it does happen here, too. Christian universities should have explicit policies and procedures for addressing sexual violence, including procedures and training on how to respond, and programs focused on prevention and raising awareness.
However, Christian campuses should not be apologetic about their commitment to the teachings and practices of traditional Christianity regarding the appropriate parameters for sexual intimacy. While such teachings and practices are dismissed and even reviled by many in mainstream society, we should be bold in promoting a sexual ethic that leads to the genuine flourishing that God intended for all people.