I got 13 pages into the University of Minnesota’s report on football players’ sexual assault of a young woman last September before I had to stop for a time. Reading the account of football players piling onto a young woman in a teammate’s bedroom was like witnessing a deer brought down by one wolf and other pack members rushing in to tear off a piece of flesh. The young men jostled for position, asserted rights to “my turn” and assaulted her two or three at a time while she clutched a blanket to cover her naked body. Even wolves wouldn’t Instant message videos inviting others to the scene.
The events of September 2 encompass enough themes to supply a TV series material for a full season. The young woman downed 4-5 shots of 100 proof vodka before going out with girlfriends at 12:30 a.m. looking for parties. The young men, a high school recruit and several first-year members of the Gophers, exchanged Instant messages bragging about hoes and bitches. They were so bonded that one player expressed more regret about trashing a teammate’s room than about the young woman they’d assaulted there.
Binge drinking, the demigod status of young athletes, the objectification and insecurity of young women – it’s all there.
Let’s be clear: The events of that night had nothing to do with consent, something to do with hook-up culture and a lot to do with a society that has so degraded sexual intercourse that a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals is elected President.
To quote Michelle Obama, “This has shaken me to my core.”
Because the players were black and the young woman presumably white, some may want to view this episode through the ugly, old, racist lens that casts black men as sexual predators. Others will blame the sexual revolution that decoupled sex from marriage and the power of young women to control their fertility with contraceptives and abortion. I disagree.
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the sexual lives of women were bracketed by the Pill and Roe v. Wade. Getting pregnant in high school could still get you expelled, but there were no more shotgun weddings or forced adoptions. We were too young and lusty to be persuaded by the lines from 1 Corinthians: “The body is not for sexual immorality…Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” But the question of morality was still part of how we decided whether to have sex.
“Is your relationship moral or immoral?” my mother challenged when I came back from one date with my blouse buttoned wrong.
“It depends how you define immorality,” I challenged back.
My norms were these: Good girls had sex, but we didn’t go all the way outside a committed relationship.
What’s normative today is drastically different. A 2013 survey of research studies on hook-ups estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of U.S. college students have had some sort of brief, uncommitted sexual experience. Researchers cite two main reasons. First, the widening period between the onset of puberty and the time one settles down to create a family. Second, pervasive media messages that uncommitted sexual relationships are prevalent and a turn-on physically and emotionally.
The reality is more complex. Asked how they felt the morning after a hook-up, most of the young people surveyed were positive, although men far more than women: 82 percent to 57 percent in one study. But long-term reactions are more complex. In a Web-based survey of nearly 1,500 undergraduates, 27 percent reporting feeling embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner.
One-night stands are a particular source of regret. One researcher found that men had stronger feelings of being “sorry because they felt they used another person,” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used.” And women were more likely to hope that a one-night stand would be a prelude to a deeper relationship.
I was at that football game last September, when the Gophers won the first game of the season against Oregon State. Classes had begun a few days earlier, and the stadium held the bright promise of a new semester and a new season.
Long after my husband and I were home and fast asleep, that young woman and those young men were downing shots and heading in the warm fall night, looking for parties, people, pleasure. Their actions that night will cost them dearly. But they acted within a context that is equally disturbing and also to blame.