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Sex and Politics on Campus

Campus censoriousness varies by party, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Key points

  • Sexual orientation among college students is more diverse than among the wider American population.
  • The more liberal the student, the greater the likelihood of identifying as something other than heterosexual.
  • Liberal students and LGBTQ students are more likely than non-liberals and heterosexuals (respectively) to endorse censoring campus speakers.
  • Non-binary students are more likely than male or female students to say violence could be acceptable in order to stop a campus presentation.

This article is co-authored by Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Source: Quil/Shutterstock
Source: Quil/Shutterstock

According to Gallup, 87 percent of American adults say they are “heterosexual or straight,” and 6 percent identify as “LGBT.” But sexual orientation among college students is more diverse. In a recent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Campus Climate survey of over 37,000 students in both college and universities around the nation, only 75 percent of students on campuses nationwide identify as heterosexual; 5 percent say they are gay or lesbian; 2 percent identify as pansexual; 2 percent as queer; and 3 percent say they are “questioning.” Twelve percent of college students identify as bisexual, and of those, 72 percent are women.

Nationally, Gallup finds that 6 percent of women and 5 percent of men identify as LGBT. On-campus, however, while 6 percent of men identify as gay, another 6 percent identify as bisexual, with smaller numbers identifying as queer or pansexual. As a result, only 82 percent of college men identify as heterosexual. An even smaller proportion of college women say their sexual orientation is heterosexual (69 percent). More than half of college women who say they are not heterosexual identify as bisexual (52 percent). Bisexual women represent 16 percent of college women, while only 3 percent of college women identify as lesbians. In fact, 90 percent of LGBTQ women on campus identify as something other than lesbian/gay.

Small liberal arts colleges are home to a lower proportion of heterosexual students than are universities. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of university students report identifying as heterosexual compared to just over two-thirds (68 percent) of those at small, liberal arts colleges. (Princeton Review’s list of the most LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges is mostly liberal arts colleges.) This could be a result of small liberal arts schools historically having a deep relationship with and being open to promoting sexual identities.

Political identification also makes a difference. Nationally, 13 percent of political liberals say they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, contrasted with 4 percent of moderates and just 2 percent of conservatives. A similar trend emerges when looking at the breakdown of college students. The more liberal the student, the greater likelihood of identifying as something other than heterosexual.

Among those students who identify as ideologically very liberal, only slightly more than half (52 percent) say they identify as heterosexual. Almost a quarter (23 percent) identify as bisexual, 10 percent as gay or lesbian, 5 percent as queer, and 5 percent say they are questioning. Strong conservatives, on the other hand, look very different. Fully 95 percent say they are heterosexual, and just 3 percent identify as either gay or bisexual (2 percent are bisexual and 1 percent are gay). Among moderates on campus, 85 percent say they identify as heterosexual, 7 percent as bisexual, and 6 percent identify as gay or questioning (2 percent are gay, 2 percent questioning, 1 percent queer, and 1 percent pansexual.)

FIRE survey data also reveal a relationship between sexuality and the willingness to censor. Fewer heterosexual students (61 percent) say that there are at least some cases in which it is acceptable to shout down speakers than those who identify as gay or lesbian (84 percent). The number jumps to 91 percent among those who identify as queer. And more than half (53 percent) of students who identify as queer believe that violence is an acceptable way to stop campus speech, at least in some cases. That’s significantly higher than the proportion of gay or lesbian students (37 percent) and more than twice the proportion of heterosexual students (20 percent).

One might think that given the higher proportion of non-heterosexual students whose political affiliation is more liberal, the difference in attitudes about shouting down and using violence might be a result of partisanship. But while there are differences among heterosexual students—the more liberal, the more likely to agree it is ever acceptable to shout down speakers (75 percent of liberal heterosexual students versus 55 percent of moderates versus 41 percent of conservatives)—heterosexual students are less likely than their LGBTQ peers to endorse using the heckler’s veto regardless of political affiliation. And across the political spectrum, LGBTQ students are more willing than their heterosexual counterparts to endorse the use of censorious violence.

Even among male and female liberal LGBTQ students, however, the idea that violence is ever acceptable to stop a speaker is far less accepted (37 percent) than it is among those who identify as non-binary. More than half (54 percent) of students who identify as non-binary say there are cases where violence would be an acceptable means by which to stop a campus presentation. That’s more than twice the proportion of the overall population of either male (22 percent) or female (25 percent) students.

While acceptance of diversity, including diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity, is laudable and overdue, data regarding the campus speech climate are concerning. Regardless of how the numbers break down by political affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender identity, when two-thirds of college students overall (66 percent) find it acceptable to shout a speaker down to prevent people from hearing a disfavored view, the difference between offense and injury has been lost. And if close to one-quarter of students overall find that it is ever acceptable to use violence on campus to stop someone from speaking, the line between speech and violence—and the purpose for the distinction—is unclear to too many.

Higher education is trending illiberal. It’s up to all of us to protect and defend liberal education.

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