by Poppy Coburn
Friday, 16
April 2021
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07:00

The uncomfortable truth about sex at university

Wherever men and women live together, there will be instances of sexual assault
by Poppy Coburn
Credit: Getty

The expansion of higher education over the last few decades has turned an undergraduate degree into a highly valued coming-of-age ceremony, socialising the newest generation through a combination of binge drinking, boring seminars, scurvy-inducing diets and casual sex. But, for most students, it is also a time of contradictions. While you are given your first taste of freedom, the nastiness of the adult world is kept at arm’s length by the safeguarding network of tutors and administrators. At least, that is what most people believe.

The naming of more than 80 British universities by the anti-rape anonymous submissions site ‘Everyone’s Invited’ speaks to the rot at the heart of our academies. Marketisation has encouraged and rewarded ‘window-dressing’ policies that, while successful in luring in students, fail to actually achieve any material changes.

It is an unfortunate truth that, wherever men and women live together, there will be instances of rape and sexual assault. University is a time of sexual exploration for many young people, some of whom would never have been educated alongside members of the opposite sex before. There is, without a doubt, a kind of moral panic around uncomfortable, fumbling attempts at intercourse that cannot be neatly applied into the victim/predator framework.

Casual, drunken hook-ups do not fit the model of consent presented in university-held classes, where sex is legitimate only if it is between enthusiastic, fully informed and sober adults. Consent classes don’t work, nor do they really need to. The important thing is that they feel good — a totally ineffective, low-cost activity that reaffirms liberal sexual orthodoxy (autonomy reigns above all else, morality and safety be damned).

There is a conflict of interest between university administrators, whose primary goal is to protect the good reputation of their institution rather than the well-being of their students. After all, paying a little hush money to an abused undergraduate is much less taxing than the financial costs incurred from reputational damage. It is unfair and dishonest to force women and girls into a state of hyper-vigilance, always on the lookout for any potential infraction against them while also failing to then support those who come forward.

What good are all the flashy, proudly promoted ‘safe sex’ feminist events put on by universities if tutors relinquish their duties as soon as they have to actually act? Universities cannot both be centres of enlightened egalitarianism and sordid sexual abuse. Parents will not wish to send their children somewhere they may be raped, regardless of the excellent careers service provided and their position on the league tables.

This is an issue far beyond the scope of top universities and elite private schools. All young people are to some extent victimised by a culture that simultaneously exposes them to hard-core pornography and normalises violent sex acts while simultaneously posturing as ‘progressive’ and even ‘feminist’. University is the perfect coming-of-age ritual for our times: a crash-course in cloying sentimentality and safetyism masking the sordid, amoral underbelly of our culture.

Join the discussion


  • There may well be some isolated cases of assault. And there are most assuredly a lot of instances of regret which wind up being cast as something else. With genuine assault, there is a criminal justice system already. Multiple unis, certainly in the US, have demonstrated gross incompetence in attempts at adjudicating alleged sexual offenses.
    Universities cannot both be centres of enlightened egalitarianism and sordid sexual abuse.
    Schools have solved that by being neither. Anyone seeking enlightenment could hardly find a worse atmosphere than an environment steeped in groupthink and a demand for conformity. And few places are safer for young women than a college campus. If that was not the case, no sane father on the planet would willingly put his little girl in one of those places.

  • Brilliantly put, Waldo. If you don’t have maturity to assume responsibility for yourself, you don’t have maturity to leave the house without a chaperone – never mind attending university.
    Handling cases of actual assault will always be police work (regardless of the victim’s gender), and university staff is neither qualified nor welcome to do police work. As for the cases that simply do not qualify as assault – and every honest person can tell the difference – we should make it clear that libel is a crime. Full stop.

  • They don’t have to be convicted to have their career ruined.
    ‘There’s no smoke without fire’!
    I know of a number of cases where the accused was proven without any doubt that they were innocent, but still people believe they are guilty.

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