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James Carroll

Sexual assault and a culture unmoored

Senator Claire McCaskill will soon introduce a bipartisan bill to strengthen federal protections of undergraduates.AP/file

A spirit of crisis marks the discussion of sexual assault in America lately, as pressures build in colleges, courts, legislatures, and the military to address the problem of abusive behavior that overwhelmingly victimizes women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in five college women have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, while the Pentagon estimates that 26,000 sex crimes occurred in the US military in 2012. Senator Claire McCaskill, who last spring shepherded a military sexual assault bill through a unanimous Senate, is soon to introduce a bipartisan bill to strengthen federal protections of undergraduates. “We refuse,” she said, “to let students fend for themselves against such violence.”

Last week, more than 50 colleges were represented at the Summit on Sexual Assault at Dartmouth College. The event raised some perennial questions: Why do hard-drinking fraternity members and entitled athletes stand at ground zero of the danger zone? Why are the bureaucracies of academia so inept when it comes to keeping students safe? Why are the brightest and most privileged people in America the owners of this grotesque problem? For the armed services, similar issues apply. When the military draws its recruits from among the most idealistic and patriotic youngsters in the country, why do so many behave like vultures? Why does the chain of command so consistently put its own privilege above the welfare of service members?


But if neither the university nor the military is capable of establishing due process, which institution is? And when consciousness is raised about what may, in fact, be an age-old problem, why are revelations still met by authorities with apathy and self-exoneration?

At the Dartmouth summit, one session was entitled “The water in which we swim: The role of media in promoting a rape culture.” And there is much to be said about movies that demean women and celebrate brute violence, the skewed masculinity of beer commercials, the exemption of superstars from minimal standards of decency, and so on. But the roots of the assault problem run much deeper: Sexual contempt has become mundane, and we are all implicated in this new amorality.

Sexual assault comes in multiple forms, targeting men and women both, across an age spectrum. But let’s focus on the particular plight of the young, with a concentration on females who are vulnerable to abuses and on monumentally self-indulgent males who act with no grasp of consequences. In truth, a whole population of young people, trapped in the faux freedom of hooking up, seems to have been cut loose from moorings of right and wrong.


But why not? Everywhere one looks in today’s US society, a profound loss of ethical awareness shows itself: Our economy has unapologetically reduced itself to a base form of predatory capitalism. When legions of endangered children arrive at America’s southern border, officials look only to speed up their expulsion. Powerful voices think the solution to immigration reform is the restriction of admission to elites. A vast population of impoverished citizens, including the imprisoned, have been universally written off. Although concerned for its veterans, the nation has blithely failed to reckon with the effects of its 21st-century wars on millions of others.

Social justice, in sum, has been pushed to the margin of American public discourse. But is that surprising? Today’s young people have grown up without religion as a credible source of moral instruction — with, especially, the hollowing out of Roman Catholic integrity through the church’s own sexual assault crisis. Among other forms of religion, the notion of ethical concern has mainly spiraled around lowest-common-denominator culture-war questions, a morality that boils down to “just say no.” Because of the way the otherwise precious tradition of separation of church and state has made authentic moral education all but impossible in public schools, such discrediting of institutional religion has been doubly damaging to the social ethos.

Sexual nihilism among the young, in other words, is the tip of an iceberg, betraying a vast culture of amorality. When sex is wholly impersonal, an offense is committed against the core value of human life. Love and empathy can be lost. That is what the unmoored young among us are warning of. We have made them moral orphans. This is the water — to adapt the analogy from the Dartmouth event — into which we have thrown them. To sink or swim.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.