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Study finds difference in sexual assault statistics

By James R. Vanderwoerd

The back to school season often brings yet another disturbing story about a student sexually victimized on campus. Colleges and universities continue to struggle against violent hazing rituals, misogynist frosh chants, crude Facebook posts and drunken sexual assaults.

These are fearful news reports to read for any parent sending a child, especially a daughter, off to university. Or at least a public university.

New research on campus sexual violence suggests independent Christian colleges may provide greater safety, according to an academic article I just published with Harvard scholar Albert Cheng.

Full study

“Sexual Violence on Religious Campuses,” the new research I’m referring to, is available online. It was published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (vol. 47, no. 2).

Our review of more than 35 years of research on campus sexual violence shows overall rates have remained stable. Tragically, between 21 and 31 per cent of female students report experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact within the past year. Between three and five per cent reported being raped in the past year.

We surveyed nearly 700 students from eight independent Christian colleges in Canada. Almost all these schools are in the evangelical Protestant tradition. We found 18 per cent of women in our study reported unwanted sexual contact, while less than one per cent reported being raped.

Let’s be clear: This is not good news. It might comfort Christians to see the incidents at private Christian colleges are fewer than in public and secular universities. But it is still troubling that nearly one in five women studying at an (evangelical) Christian institution are experiencing some form of sexual violence.

Even one rape is too many. For the two women in our study who reported being raped, these experiences were undoubtedly traumatic, devastating and life altering.

But it’s not all bad news either. Our study confirms what other researchers have found. When it comes to sex, a higher percentage of students at Christian colleges (especially evangelical Protestant ones) follow traditional Christian practices. For example, fewer women at “conservative Protestant” colleges engage in casual sex, according to a 2009 American study (“Hooking Up at College,” Amy Burdette et al, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion).

And now in our new study we can also see sexual abuse is less common – compared with secular and even Catholic campuses.

What’s unique about evangelical schools that shapes the sexual behaviour of their students?

Such colleges have faced controversy over the years for their conservative guidelines on sexual behaviour. Many explicitly affirm biblical teachings and longstanding Christian traditions about sex, and call their entire community – from board members to professors, receptionists, accountants and custodians – to live within these guidelines.

(Such guidelines will again be in the news in November when Trinity Western University, the largest school of its kind in Canada, defends its proposed law school in a case sure to touch on its Community Covenant.)

These guidelines may be out of step with the sexual freedom chosen by other Canadians, but clearly Christian colleges are attempting to create communities where everyone “walks the talk.”

Sociologists refer to such environments as “moral communities” – not because they are moralistic, but because they demonstrate a near-unanimous commitment to a set of beliefs and practices taught, modelled, and reinforced as part of what it means to belong to these campuses.

Arguably non-evangelical college communities have their own beliefs and practices, but studies show they are not as unanimously shared or strongly reinforced. Students there report they have no guidelines about sexuality beyond their own personal opinions – as in “Just go with your heart,” or “It’s up to you to find what’s right for you,” or “You need to find your own way.”

Sadly, this situation appears to be true at Roman Catholic colleges as well, to the consternation of conservative Catholics and contrary to official Catholic doctrines on sex.

Of course there’s a lot more that could be said about evangelical Protestant beliefs and practices about sex (both good and bad), but for our purposes one of the key shared ideas is that sex needs boundaries or restraint – a radically countercultural affirmation in a society where most affirm sex need have no limits if it is consensual.

To be fair, our study does not prove moral communities of sexual restraint are the main cause of reduced sexual violence. That was not the aim of the study.

It’s possible the differences can be explained more by the characteristics of the students who choose the different kinds of schools – such as socioeconomic status, individual religiousness and so on – rather than the “moral community” of their campus. Our study didn’t test for this selection bias, so our conclusions are tentative and still need to be confirmed with further research.

However, other researchers have consistently found the unique moral community in which students find themselves does have an effect on their behaviours, such as delinquency, religious practices and casual sex, even beyond individual differences among students.

Our study can be a wake-up call around sexual violence at Christian colleges. Such institutions need explicit policies and procedures for addressing sexual violence, including procedures and training on how to respond, and programs focused on prevention and raising awareness. Christians should be asking the colleges they support about these issues and how vigorously they are implementing their policies and procedures.

Our study may also encourage Christian colleges that they do not need to be apologetic about traditional teaching on the appropriate parameters for sexual intimacy. While such teachings and practices are dismissed by many in mainstream society as archaic (and reviled by some as being oppressive), we can be bold in promoting a sexual ethic that leads to genuine flourishing for all people.

Surely all Canadians, whether or not they accept the God-given design for sexuality, can agree reduced rates of sexual violence would be a good thing.

Diversity, inclusivity, and openness do not require Christians to cave in on biblical teaching and practice on sexuality. There is emerging evidence, as suggested in our research, that a commitment to traditional Christian sexual practices actually provides greater protection for women from sexual violence.

Ten things about sexual assault
students should know

Read part two of this article, written by Vanessa Eisses, a fourth year Redeemer student who helped create its sexual assault policy as well as establish a Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

James R. (Jim) Vanderwoerd is chair of the department of applied social sciences at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont. Albert Cheng, his coauthor for the new research article discussed above, is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. For more meaningful articles on Christianity in Canada, subscribe to Faith Today, which is currently offering a 2-for-1 gift deal.

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