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The results of a survey of female college students came out this week, and the numbers are distressing. The Association of American Universities commissioned a “Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” focusing on “the incidence, prevalence and characteristics of incidents of sexual assault and misconduct.” 

The effort drew respondents from twenty-seven campuses. Fully 23 percent of females stated that some kind of “sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since enrolling in college” had occurred. (See summaries herehere, and here).

The definition of “contact” in the survey is wide, ranging from forced penetration to “rubbing against the other in a sexual way, even if the touching is over the other’s clothes.” Some might argue over just what constitutes “assault,” but we shouldn't miss the larger problem that this survey raises: the over-sexualization of American youth.

In that sense, these findings aren’t surprising at all.

What else did we think was going to happen when we mixed nineteen-year-olds in close quarters and dismantled all the old barriers between the sexes—curfews, chaperones, separate dorms and bathrooms, a courtship culture, and standards of sexual propriety? (Vigen Guroian and William Wilson’s recent essay in First Things, “Sex and Danger at UVA,” poses precisely that question). When we laughed at religious strictures and bourgeois norms regarding male-female relations, we had to realize that youths would take us seriously and act accordingly.

How can we be surprised when nineteen-year-old men do the same things that they see other guys doing in movies, music, videos, and social media? They never hear authority figures denouncing that material, and they certainly don’t hear their peers doing so. Naturally, they assume, “C’mon, am I really doing something wrong when I grab that girl’s rear end?”

For five decades, too, sex has been dropping down the age ladder, especially in the presentation of females twelve and thirteen years old. Madonna made millions off of girls in the middle of puberty dying to be just like her. But they didn’t learn from her that there are predatory young men out there ready to take advantage of an incapacitated young woman. Naturally, they assume, “I’m grown up now, and I want to have fun, and drinking is part of it.” (The report confirms how big a factor alcohol is in the problem.)

The question these results pose to college administrations will no doubt be answered in bureaucratic language and clunky policies. What we will not hear from them is precisely what is needed: a restatement of old-fashioned etiquette, firmer separation of the sexes, upheld models of gentlemen and ladies, disapproval of pop culture, and bans on raunchy music and media.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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