Hook-ups, football players and the question of morality

tcf-stadiumI 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.

9 thoughts on “Hook-ups, football players and the question of morality

  1. Very eloquent and insightful, Linda.
    I think the young men also acted in a situation where their coach had failed them. There are very clear expectations about what is and is not acceptable for a recruited student to do while visiting campus. The head coach is responsible in his contract for making sure the NCAA rule on this are followed. Clearly the coach failed in this, as well as in his later comments about how proud he was of the team.
    Here’s my take, in a newspaper column that will appear in a number of suburban and rural Mn newspapers. http://hometownsource.com/2016/12/21/joe-nathan-column-university-of-minnesota-should-fire-football-coach-tracy-claeys/

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  2. I had to look away from that report too, Lynda. It was so much worse than I imagined. Your words are poignant and capture the horror of the assault and the factors — immediate and broader — that led to it.

    One outcome for me is kind of a personal leave-taking from writers who in my view failed the test on this. Those who scorned Kaler’s “lack of leadership,” for example (ignoring the legal bind he was in regarding disclosure before the KSTP leak) were exposed for the lax, self-branding promoters they are. I thought Kaler was clear as he could be when the players had their tantrum.

    One other point is to appreciate the EOAA investigators. What an awful assignment. They did their job with diligence and courage. It’s instructive that we would have no idea as a society how bad things have gotten but for the illegal act of leaking their report. Now that we know, what are we going to do?

    I wonder if the coach saw that document before his “proud of our kids” tweet. Sure hope not.

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  3. I agree that seeing the report made a huge difference and that the EOAA investigators have a very difficult and painstaking job. Let’s hope conversations like this widen the discussion beyond the he-said-she-said model we so often see reported from college campuses. How can we get young people to promote that conversation?

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  4. This is very well said, and an important perspective. I read a well written editorial by Sami Rahamim ( a U of M student) and was most disturbed and shocked by the comments section. It is no wonder young women don’t feel safe speaking up, given the scrutiny and disrespect they are given in these situations, and equally concerning how disregarding of ‘rape culture’ and mysogyny many men are…..I feel very anxious and protective of my daughters in this world.

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  5. Here’s a thought. First let’s get out of the way that anything that isn’t 100% consenting is wrong and unacceptable. Now let’s look at the headline of this article in the StarTribune: “How has sexual intercourse become so degraded?”. I don’t think we can label anything “degraded”. Seems like every activist/feminist/etc preaches that if everyone is consenting than absolutely anything is OK. I’ve come to believe that myself (although there are certain things I find very unappealing).

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      1. I probably worded that badly. What I mean is that I think/hope we can all agree that anything not 100% consensual is wrong and unacceptable. And once we have that agreed upon and “out of the way”, I was thinking about the headline, “How has sexual intercourse become so degraded?”. That question throws me, because I always had the impression that absolutely ANYTHING that consenting adults want to do is “ok”.

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