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When we talk about sex and romance on campus and in our communities, we need to go holistic. This means recognizing the attitudes, assumptions, and expectations that we bring to our social and sexual interactions, and the ways these manifest in our traditions and day-to-day practices.

Sometimes, attending to the unwanted “details” of our social culture—like a negative stereotype or an offhand comment—can feel like an unnecessary luxury. Understandably, we may feel it is more important to address violence and coercion directly. But those everyday negative interactions provide camouflage for the violence and coercion. When disrespect and disregard are normalized, it becomes more difficult for us to notice them escalating into behaviors that are undeniably harmful.

We all strive for a culture in which respect is the norm, and not only because such a culture is our most effective protection against sexual assault. A positive sexual culture makes space for encounters that are respectful, pleasurable, and satisfying for everyone.

To review your own campus culture and embrace positive practices, click on any element.

What are “cultural camouflage” and “unsexy sex”?

Sometimes we talk about sexual culture as though it falls neatly into two categories: sex that is enthusiastic and mutually consensual, and sexual violence. But that ignores large categories of interactions.

Consider these:

  • Sexual experiences that are consensual but not pleasurable or enthusiastic for everyone involved—the “unsexy sex,” described by Dr. Nicola Gavey, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, who studies the ways that cultural norms influence sexual behavior.
  • Instances of casual disregard and disrespect, and low-level pressure; for example, denigrating sexualities and desires that are different from our own.

In any culture that normalizes low-level pressure and disrespect, it is more difficult to spot acts of force and coercion. In other words, a culture of disrespect provides camouflage for violence. It functions as “the cultural scaffolding” of sexual assault, according to Dr. Gavey.

The dynamics of disrespect are particularly powerful in some parts of our culture, on and off campus. These spaces, traditions, and practices tend to share the following characteristics:

  • Rigid, inflexible roles and expectations (especially based
    on gender)
  • Tolerance for offensive comments, pressuring dynamics, and other low-level discomfort
  • A lack of bystander intervention
  • A feeling of resignation; e.g., “Yeah, our community is not great, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it”
  • Minimizing the importance of pleasure and desire (especially female pleasure)

Why focus on building a positive culture?

Safety

A positive culture is the best protection against sexual violence

When discrimination, double standards (especially gendered ones), and disrespect go unchecked, sexual violence is more common, research shows.

In contrast, when respect and mutuality are expected, it’s much easier to spot people and behaviors that go against that norm. People who try to manipulate, pressure, or take advantage of others become more visible. In this environment, no one would win any cool points for objectifying others or making disparaging comments about other people’s sexuality. Instead, we would celebrate those who are kind and attentive to their partners and peers.

“If we as a culture adopt enthusiastic consent as a cultural value, and the idea of sex as a pleasurable, creative concept, then the rapists among us become obvious. The rest of us are going to stop making excuses for the rapists,” says Jaclyn Friedman, sexual assault survivor and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).

Inspiration

A positive culture takes work, and is also rewarding

Building shared community values can be a powerful experience. Communities feel more connected and supportive when the people in them have a clear idea of what they want their culture to be like and are actively working toward that ideal. That’s according to Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, 2010), by Chip Heath of Stanford University, and Dan Heath of Duke University, which examines individual, organizational, and societal transformations.

Creating a positive culture makes room for creativity and resourcefulness. It invites us to rethink the disempowering or discouraging aspects of our culture and replace them with empowering practices. Cultural and organizational change may seem like an ambitious, abstract goal. But it’s achievable. Change is successful when it capitalizes on people’s identity (rather than external incentives); for example, when we see ourselves as helpers and active bystanders, according to Switch. Community change also requires a “growth mindset,” a shared goal and belief that the effort will be effective and worthwhile.

What this looks like  

  • Certain party themes—pirates and wenches, quarterbacks and cheerleaders, etc. dictate how men and women should dress and behave. While these events are often driven by good intentions, they disempower people whose personal values and desires don’t align with the party’s expectations (generally or in that moment). A more creative and flexible party theme opens up more possibilities. It also empowers everyone to be true to who they are.  
  • Positive change involves people inspiring each other. In a study involving 60 college students who reported drinking heavily, a brief intervention provided them with feedback on how much their peers actually drank (less than the students assumed) and other issues. Six weeks later, those students were consuming less alcohol less often, according to the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2000).

Comprehensiveness

A positive culture creates the community we really want

Focusing on the dynamics of sexual assault rarely addresses less sinister but still objectionable dynamics, such as being an inconsiderate member of the community or a selfish sexual partner.

These behaviors are beyond the reach of laws and university or college regulations. That makes sense. Most forms of rudeness or disregard can’t be effectively outlawed or disciplined—nor would we want them to be.

Instead, it’s on us to build a culture that consistently fosters kindness and respect, and to establish those values as social norms. The power of social norms lies in their ability to shift attitudes and set more positive expectations. New community members match their behavior to the norms they see around them. Shifting our social norms is the most effective way to create sustainable, long-lasting change.

Encourage mindful behaviors

The vast majority of people care deeply about their communities and the people around them. In a culture that encourages mindful actions and decision-making, we have opportunities and motivation to act on those commitments. Wherever possible, we can work on creating spaces for ourselves and others to reflect, check in, and make thoughtful decisions.

We do this by working against rigid gender roles and “scripted” interactions. For example:

  • All too frequently, we expect men to initiate sexual or romantic interactions and women to act as “gatekeepers” by rebuffing those advances. That’s a dangerous dynamic because it doesn’t account for what the people want—they simply follow a script. How can you and your community validate a range of roles for people of all genders? How can you incorporate this approach into your traditions and daily practices?
  • Often, we use terms such as “dating” or “hooking up” as though they have a singular meaning. In reality, sexual and romantic relationships come in all forms and configurations. People vary greatly in what they expect out of such relationships and what they enjoy. How might you affirm relationships and interactions of varying forms that have the potential to be pleasurable and fulfilling for those involved?

What we want our sexual and romantic lives to look like varies greatly from one person to the next. Figuring that out can take work. Some of this happens individually, and much of it takes place in conversation with people we love and respect: partners, friends, and communities. Wherever possible, work to build a community that has reflective, mindful conversations about pleasure, desire, and values.

Build respect

  • Make it abundantly clear that your house, apartment, residence hall, or organization is no place for pressure or disregard. Agree on your house rules and post them where they are visible to everyone. This is a great way to establish clear expectations about how people should behave and treat one another.
  • Consider having designated hosts at parties. Encourage people to touch base with them if anything comes up. This fosters a stronger sense of community support and accountability.
  • Support each other when one of you notices a troubling dynamic. Make it a habit to step in or ask for help when you see something worrisome.
  • Practice what you preach. Respect your own desires and those expressed by your partners. When you’re unsure, check in and ask.

Make space for more options

If a more positive option is available and accessible, people will almost always choose it.

Some aspects of sexual culture can be rigid. In our communities, there may be pressure to embody gendered roles and to approach encounters in limited ways. Ask yourself and your peers these questions:

  • Do your communities, events, and traditions allow people to participate in a variety of ways? For example, is there room for people who want to drink a little bit or not at all? For those who are interested in meeting new people? For those who want to hang out in a group rather than in a couple?
  • Can you share stories of positive encounters that were unexpected or non-traditional? There are a number of dangerous myths about campus sexual culture, such as the false beliefs that everyone wants to be having more sex than they are currently having, that no one wants to date because everyone is looking for hookups, that “casual” sexual encounters can’t be intimate, and so on. Sharing diverse experiences and stories is a powerful way of disrupting these myths and offering more positive alternatives.

Strengthen community

The communities you know and understand best are ones you are already a part of. These are also the communities in which you will be best positioned to make a difference. What do you notice? Who can you collaborate with?

The first step is answering these questions:

  • What do we want?
  • What are our goals and why?
  • If everything went as well as it possibly could, what would our community look like?

When you and others are driven by a clearer vision of what your community would ideally look like, you can begin to re-evaluate the elements of your culture, including traditions, expectations, practices, and attitudes. When thinking about how your culture can become more positive and respectful, always look for allies.

For example, if you’re bringing new members into your group or organization:

  • How do you want the new members to feel? What kind of experience do you want them to have? Generally, the goal is to get new members to bond together and feel welcome in the group. Do you have more specific goals? Why? How does this connect with your group’s mission or values?
  • How can you shape their experiences with the group so that your goals are accomplished? If you want a community that looks out for one another, how can you set that tone? If you want everyone to feel comfortable bringing their full personality into the space, are there ways of modeling that?

Get help or find out more

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Broadway Business, 2010

Sexual empowerment webinars & info: Amy Jo Goddard

What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame–Free Guide to Sex and Safety: Jaclyn Friedman
Seal Press, 2011

Step Up! intervention program: University of Arizona

Communication and Consent Educators program: Yale University

Find local services and other resources: NotAlone.gov

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Hana Awwad is a former student affairs fellow at Yale University, where she worked on alcohol harm reduction programming and sexual culture change. She helped manage a diverse group of undergraduates tasked with building a more positive sexual climate. Currently, she is based in Toronto.