Exploring the intersection of sex, consent and chastity at the nation’s Christian colleges
As students return to campus for the fall semester, here’s a look at how leaders at BYU, Liberty, Wheaton and other Christian schools talk about consent.
SALT LAKE CITY — Consent is having a moment right now, and Christian schools that oppose premarital sex are part of the conversation.
Amid a society-wide effort to address sexual assault and encourage healthy relationships — fueled, in part, by the #MeToo movement — leaders of schools like Wheaton College and Brigham Young University are talking more openly and directly about how people you care about deserve to be treated.
They’re leading a push to integrate positive, faith-based guidance about sex into violence prevention efforts.
“Talking about what abusive relationships and assault look like is so important, but I also think it’s important to counterbalance that with a discussion of what healthy relationships look like,” said Tiffany Turley, BYU’s Title IX coordinator.
Many administrators at the hundreds of religiously affiliated colleges in the U.S. remain hopeful that students will wait until after marriage to have sex, and they often help enforce conduct codes that set that expectation. However, increasingly, they no longer believe advocating for chastity requires delaying conversations about healthy sexual encounters.
“A concern we hear from time to time is whether Wheaton is doing this because of the law or ... because of a biblical conviction. The answer is yes. It’s both,” said Paul Chelsen, vice president for student development at Wheaton, a prominent evangelical Christian school.
Rather than feeling constrained by campus morality guidelines, leaders like Chelsen and Turley say conversations about consent are easier when the people involved share common values and beliefs.
”I would never say the religious aspect of our university is negative when it comes to addressing these issues on campus. It provides unique opportunities,” Turley said.
Consent and religion
In many ways, conversations about consent at Christian colleges and universities are the same as conversations at secular schools, campus leaders said. Orientation sessions or dorm events on the topic help students understand how their actions affect other people and where to turn for help if they’ve been sexually harmed.
The goal is “to provide students not just with right or wrong answers, but with the space to discuss consent and its complexities,” said Briana Maturi, director of the LMU CARES program at Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic school in Los Angeles.
Private religious schools that receive federal financial aid dollars are required to cover the same sex-related bases as nonreligious ones, Chelsen said. That includes training administrators on how to respond to sexual misconduct and training students on how to prevent it.
”We were not as intentional about sharing a campus vision about sexuality until we were required to do so. But I think the good part about (the requirement) is that it has helped us take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
Wheaton uses the same online sexual violence prevention training as many non-Christian schools, Chelsen noted. However, Wheaton prefaces it with a short video from the college president on why such training matters for people of faith.
”There’s a lot in scripture about mutual submission to one another, bearing one another’s burdens and considering the interest of others above your own,” Chelsen said. “There’s a whole host of teaching about human relationships that can be applied to sexual relationships.”
This biblical wisdom should also apply to less intimate interactions, like kissing or holding hands, according to Christian leaders. Establishing consent is part of loving your neighbors.
”Consent is … an expression of respect and love for someone, not just in terms of sexual touch, but how we relate to one another in all manners of life,” Chelsen said.
Like Chelsen, Turley helps BYU students connect conversations about healthy relationships to their school’s faith-based mission. Events on consent, like a semiannual campus program called “Just ask,” include references to students’ religious beliefs.
“When we’re having these conversations, the message is not just that consent is necessary because consent is necessary and a legal principle. The message is that consent is necessary because it’s part of showing respect for one another as children of God,” she said.
Similarly, Maturi links lessons on sexual misconduct and consent to her school’s Jesuit Catholic values. She asks students to think about what the school’s guiding set of moral principles, called the Lion’s code, has to do with “hooking up.”
“Part of the mission of Jesuits is to help people be more fully alive. If you can’t understand consent and what that looks like in terms of healthy relationships, how can you be most fully alive?” she said.
Using a faith-based framing helps make conversations about sex and relationships less awkward, Maturi added. Students with varying levels of sexual experience and knowledge can rally around a shared set of values.
“It’s harder to do that at a secular school,” she said.
In other ways, it’s much easier to talk about sex at public universities than at schools with a religious orientation. Christian school leaders have to tread carefully to ensure conversations about consent don’t undermine or contradict moral guidance offered elsewhere on campus.
“We are a Catholic campus and the Catholic church does not advocate sex before marriage. The concern is how can we talk about consent without it seeming like you’re advocating for sex,” Maturi said, noting that she used to joke about expecting to arrive at her office one day and finding a priest asking her to resign.
At Wheaton, where most students come from theologically conservative Christian backgrounds, discussions about sex typically begin with a refresher on biblical teachings about it, Chelsen said.
“Part of (God’s) design is that sexual intimacy was created for a permanent relationship between a man and a woman in marriage. When we step outside of that context, of that intention, we open up a ... greater possibility of harm,” he said.
This belief is enshrined in Wheaton’s community covenant, just as it is in the honor codes at most conservative Christian schools. Having open conversations about sex and consent doesn’t change the fact that sex is meant to be reserved for marriage, Turley said.
“Even though we know or hope that our students aren’t having sex before marriage, we still want to have these conversations and let them know what a healthy relationship looks like,” she said.
However, Turley and other Christian college leaders also want students to feel confident that they’ll be there for them if they’re sexually assaulted.
Whether someone is married or not, “the question is whether there was consent and, if there wasn’t, how can we help,” Turley said.
Federal regulations related to campus sexual assault, which are contained in Title IX, require schools to respond promptly when they become aware of incidents of sexual harassment or violence. Religious schools can’t ignore student concerns just because they involve premarital sex or LGBTQ relationships, which are outlawed at BYU, Wheaton and many other Christian institutions.
“For same-gender sexual violence, we would go through the same (reporting and response) process,” Chelsen said.
Efforts to simultaneously uphold campus codes of conduct and sexual violence prevention regulations sometimes fail. Leaders at religious colleges and universities have been criticized repeatedly for punishing victims of sexual assault instead of prosecuting their abusers.
“We’re talking about things in ways we’ve never talked about them before and addressing them in a more head-on way than we’ve ever done before,”
For example, protests broke out this spring at BYU over how the honor code is enforced. Student participants described being afraid to turn to campus officials for help after traumatizing sexual encounters. As a result, BYU updated honor code-related procedures and vowed to improve the dialogue between students and campus officials.
The Title IX office went through a similar transition a few years ago after an advisory council outlined how BYU was falling short in addressing sexual misconduct. The school’s recent interest in discussing concepts like consent grew out of past missteps, Turley said.
”We’re talking about things in ways we’ve never talked about them before and addressing them in a more head-on way than we’ve ever done before,” she said.
Welcoming new conversations
In addition to learning from criticism they’ve faced in the past, Christian schools are taking cues from cultural conversations about sex and relationships.
The #MeToo movement opened everyone’s eyes to the idea that many Americans lack an awareness of how to treat their fellow human beings, Maturi said.
“I want my students to be change agents, not just on campus but beyond campus,” she said.
Students want that, too, Maturi added. Her position was created because students spoke up and said Loyola Marymount wasn’t doing enough to raise awareness about consent and healthy relationships.
“Some of our student leaders who were residence hall advisers approached the senior vice president for students affairs and said, ‘We understand we’re a Catholic institution, but we need to figure out a way to talk about these things,’” Maturi said.
It’s misguided to act as if students don’t have questions about sex and consent, campus leaders said.
“I firmly believe we should be starting conversations about consent in kindergarten.”
“We live in such a sex-saturated culture,” Chelsen said.
These days, Christian schools can seem sex-saturated, too, in a slightly different sense. Orientation programs on sexual misconduct, consent and healthy relationships have inspired a variety of other events.
For example, Wheaton’s president recently offered a sermon series on the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible best known for its racy sexual imagery. He preached about what God has to say about good sex.
“It was a great way to talk in a positive, proactive way about sexuality and sexual ethics,” Chelsen said.
At BYU in 2018, students had an opportunity to hear a devotional on consent. Around the same time, students at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia, enjoyed a visit from Sean Lowe, a former “Bachelor” contestant who, while on the show, spoke openly about how his Christian faith influenced his sex-related decisions.
Robert Van Engen, an associate professor in Liberty’s divinity school, said events like Lowe’s visit and related discussions in the classroom expand upon the basic guidelines about sexual conduct offered during orientation.
During the course he teaches on the Christian worldview, Van Engen aims to help students apply general religious teachings on sexual ethics to their own life.
“Do we want them to repeat exactly what we say? No. But do we want them to embrace a biblical worldview? Yes,” Van Engen said. “The goal is for it to become their own.”
The recent rise in consent-related programming may seem a bit overwhelming, especially compared to Christian schools’ silence on the topic in the past. But campus leaders said they’re just getting started.
“I firmly believe we should be starting conversations about consent in kindergarten,” Maturi said.