Regulating Sex on Campus: The Worst of Both Worlds



There may be no law in your family about exchanging birthday cards or gifts. If there is an informal rule about it and you forget your mother’s birthday, you will not be arrested. But you will hear about it, if only through the “silent treatment.” All families have rules and norms, formal and informal, explicit or “understood” but unspoken. Each is a moral community.

Teens have more freedom than young children but are typically subject to explicit rules about dress, curfew, grades, chores, social activities, dating, and so on. They are taught to develop virtuous habits, learning to abide by implicit and informal expectations of respect, obedience, and honesty.

The schools they attend also have responsibility to act in the best interests of the students. Acting in some respects in the place of a parent—in loco parentis—they impose their own rules about dress, homework, “public displays of affection,” and so on. They also support informal norms and expectations that regulate behavior, attitude, and relations within the school. They do not simply train students to obey, but educate them in the virtues necessary for adult life.

Things change when it comes to college and university, where thousands of late adolescents are housed together in a sexually charged environment outside parental control and apart from the informal social control of families, neighbors, and (unless they seek them out) faith communities.

What then is the responsibility of college authorities for their students, for the moral ecology they inhabit? Let’s look at three approaches to this question: traditional, bureaucratic, and libertarian.


The traditional, in loco parentis approach aims to keep students, especially female ones, safe in their newfound freedom—safe, not least, from risk to themselves and each other. Colleges that follow this approach provide separate dorms (and bathrooms) for each sex. They have strict visitation rules about receiving guests of the opposite sex. There may be dress rules.

In my college days in England, I was required to wear shirt, tie, and academic gown to lectures, tutorials, exams, and dinner in college. (Faculty followed the same rules.) We also had curfew (11 p.m. as I recall), with college gates locked after that hour. The curfew was enforced by the university’s private police force or “Bulldogs,” who had jurisdiction over students’ behavior within four miles of the university (e.g., in the many surrounding pubs).

Something like this approach survives mainly in the stricter and more observant faith-based colleges, not as a quaint set of outdated customs, but as an expression of a moral community of shared beliefs, values, and norms. On such campuses, sexual violence is significantly less common than at other colleges.


The sexual revolution—including demands from young women to be free of constraints on their sex lives—led to the abandonment of the traditional approach. Formal discussion of sex in most colleges ignores basic considerations about the meaning and purpose of sex and its relation to marriage and family, fidelity, responsibility, and love. The focus instead is on destigmatizing and celebrating all kinds of nonmarital sexual activity.

The one criterion for its moral and legal permissibility is consent (which could not be given if one is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or under 18 years of age). Many colleges provide consent training as their primary response to the high rates of sexual assault and rape on campus. In the words of one recent critic, this training is “bureaucratized, condescending, impractical, [and] fragilizing.”

Under this second approach and in response to pressure from the federal government, colleges set up complaint procedures. These include quasi-judicial hearings that dispense with normal rules of evidence and due process. The processes are so lacking in basic fairness that, in many cases, months or years after a student had been expelled and his reputation and career ruined, courts of law reversed the college’s decision.

These hearings, in which the accused is denied representation or any right to face his accuser, came widely to be called kangaroo courts. They assume in practice the demonstrably false notion that women never lie about such things.

This approach, appearing to be a liberation of students from the traditional quasi-parental supervision of the authorities, ends up involving the college intrusively in their personal affairs, with rules, codes, investigations, and hearings.

Women won the freedom to act sexually like immature or narcissistic men—separating sexual pleasure from responsibility and relationship (i.e., hooking up). Men were no longer expected to be manly or gentlemanly in protecting them from predatory males as well as from women themselves when their inhibitions were loosened and judgment impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Feminists, resting on the assumption that men and women had conflicting interests, saw all men as predators rather than many or most as potential protectors. Masculinity itself was toxic.

Where women needed protection, it was to be provided by the authorities—bureaucratic processes internally and police and courts beyond. In place of traditional rituals for sex that “produced the patient practices of courtship, engagement and marriage,” there exists a culture of consent in which many who agree to no-strings-attached hookups later consider them a form of abuse, writes professor James R. Vanderwoerd in Convivium.

The effects of this regime have proved disastrous above all for young women who are left unprotected but whose interests feminists claim to represent. (See, for example, “Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student” by psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, and novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe.)


Academic and social critic Camille Paglia takes a line that differs both from the traditional in loco parentis approach and from the bureaucratic alternative. She argues that if a crime is suspected it should be reported to the police, so they can conduct a fair, professional investigation and the relevant prosecutors’ office can determine if there are grounds for prosecution. Otherwise, colleges should get out of the business of adjudicating bad dates.

As she puts it, “Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.”

In this sense, although she argues for involving the police at the start when a crime is suspected, Paglia offers a libertarian approach that protects students from the power of the college over their private lives while assuring that those investigating complaints of sexual assault are professionally qualified to do so and are constrained by due process. Otherwise, the moral climate (or collapse) of campuses is left undisturbed.

At present, colleges combine, on one hand, a permissive approach to sex that leaves students unprotected from the moral and psychological harms they face, with, on the other hand, an authoritarian, bureaucratic, infantilizing intrusiveness into their personal lives. Permissive and authoritarian at the same time, the result is the worst of both worlds.

The challenge, on the contrary, is to sustain a moral environment that makes it easier for students and faculty to behave well, to respect themselves and each other, and to be safe. It is to promote moral communities that support the good habits or virtues (including prudence, self-mastery, courage, and justice) that we all need in order to thrive.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

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Author: Paul Adams

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