Gandhi, Campus Sexual Assault, and U.S. Advocacy of Women’s Rights Abroad

No, I do not recommend teaching non-violence as a remedy for the plague of sexual assault on American college campuses, as one might first assume from the title of this. The only problem I have ever seen with any self-defense class for women was whether I could fit the class into my schedule or not.

But addressing the assault aspect of sexual assault in isolation from the sexual aspect is insufficient. This has implications not only for our college campuses but for our international engagement in advocacy of women’s rights and efforts to improve women’s condition.

The point on which I think Gandhi offers us wise counsel is on the sexual side of sexual assault.  He observed:

If we begin to believe that indulgence in animal passion is necessary, harmless and sinless, we shall want to give reins to it and shall be powerless to resist it. Whereas if we educate ourselves to believe that such indulgence is harmful, sinful, unnecessary, and can be controlled, we shall discover that self-restraint is perfectly possible.

The discussions I see happening across the media today about campus sexual assault are void of consideration about what sex even is. This absence of sex itself from these discussions results not at all from any squeamishness about the topic – hardly – but rather from a failure to question the now commonly held assumption that the purpose of sex is entertainment (and in turn that the purpose of entertainment is individual pleasure).

Gandhi rejected disassociating sex from its procreative aspect. He asserted:

I know that there are modern women who advocate these methods [of contraception]. But I have little doubt that the vast majority of women will reject them as inconsistent with their dignity. If man means well by her, let him exercise control over himself.

“If a man means well by her…” — this requires that he consider more than just his own amusement, that he consider who/what she is in a full and comprehensive sense, including her capacity to procreate in partnership with a man.

I do not advocate a ban on contraception as a way to counter sexual assault. But I do advocate that we need to address the sexual side of sexual assault. We need to foster public discussions which address fundamental questions too often ignored today such What is sex? What is woman? What is man?

At a time when Americans are a leading global advocate for improving women’s condition through both our government and private sector organizations, we would do well to view the problem of campus sexual assault as a plank we need first to remove from our own eye. We should consider the global implications of sexual assault on our college campuses not just in terms of our own credibility on women’s issues but also as an indication that there may be an impoverishment in our own notion of woman which we may be implicitly exporting in a variety of programs.

Viewing sex as nothing more than entertainment reduces those who engage in sex to tools for providing entertainment. Men and women become simply a means to an end for each other, with the end being a hook-up, namely a sexual encounter often even shorter than a one-night-stand. The result of the sexual liberation has become the hook-up culture. The result of the hook-up culture has become a culture of sexual assault.

To what extent are our foreign programs in the name of women’s rights rooted in a foundation informed by the assumptions of sexual liberation? To what extent might our sex-related foreign programs be laying the groundwork in other cultures for a transition into sexual liberation followed by hook-up culture followed by spread of sexual assault? These are hard questions we need to probe more actively and more deeply today.

Violence does not happen in a vacuum. Sexual assault does not come onto our university campuses out of nowhere. One of several sources which fuels the injustice of sexual assault is a culture that reduces sex to entertainment, and in so doing reduces women to objects of sexual lust. I think Gandhi understood this, and I think we could do more to serve men and women and to have greater peace between men and women both on our college campuses and in the world beyond if we understood this and took substantive and sustained action to reject the reduction of sex to entertainment and women to objects of sexual lust. Right now here in America is a good place to start.

About the author

Jennifer S. Bryson

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.