A Rocky Reception for a New Sex Policy

A Rocky Reception for a New Sex PolicyAn initiative requiring students from the undergraduate and graduate schools at Columbia University to participate in a sexual-respect educational program has left some of them confused, skeptical, and, in a few cases, angry, NY City Lens found in a series of interviews.

“It feels like we’re being treated like children,” said Isaac Bautista, a Columbia College physics major. Bautista said the option to create artwork—one of several choices students must pick from in order to fulfill the requirements of the program—may lead some to not take the program seriously, which “is detrimental to the whole cause,” Bautista said. “I think that forcing people to do something like this, almost at gunpoint, is definitely not the way to do it.”

Anthony Barnes, a sophomore in Columbia’s School of General Studies, said the program comes off as an attempt to fulfill an administrative obligation, similar to the way a private company might send out briefs on etiquette and conduct. But he added that he thinks the core of the idea has potential: “Anything to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault, and raise awareness, I don’t object to,” Barnes said. “I think it’s good.” But in “a college like Columbia University,” with a history of student involvement, Barnes said he thought student opinions should have been a larger factor in the formation of the program.

The new program requires students to select from several options: attending a film and discussion; creating an art project; attending TED or TEDx talks of varying lengths and writing up their reflections; or choosing from among various workshops, one of which is called “Bystander Intervention and Healthy Relationships.” There is a fifth option, aimed at those who have experienced trauma, titled “Finding Keys to Resiliency.” The program must be completed by March 13th.

The program, called the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, comes after months of student lobbying, fraught with tensions. These included an attempt by students from the anti-assault group No Red Tape to hand out flyers at an event for prospective students, and being blocked by campus security, according to The Huffington Post. The flyers were critical of the university’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Students interviewed from both the graduate schools and Columbia College questioned the effectiveness of a program that can be completed in as little as an hour. Some blamed cultural issues for an atmosphere that leads to sexual harassment and assaults, and wondered how a university can change a culture.

Chalmers at work

Engineering student Aine Chalmers studies in the Butler library. (Yvonne Marie Juris/NY City Lens)

Aine Chalmers, 20, like other Columbia students, expressed doubts about the program. She said she has experienced physical and sexual aggression from men she met at Columbia, and attributes some of these behaviors to a party culture. “When someone is sexually assaulted when participating in hookup culture, people kind of say you were asking for it,” Chalmers said. She also spoke of frustrations she has encountered with the dating culture at Columbia University, where she says men often “dictate the terms” of the relationship.

Aine Chalmers describes sexual and social pressures from peers at the university.

“I don’t think that making somebody watch a video is going to teach them the appropriate behavior,” she continued. “And I think that it’s built into our social structure that men treat women a certain way. And it’s unfair, but I don’t think watching a TED talk on how to treat women is going to make men behave any differently.”

Another student, Luke Foster, a Columbia College English major, also did not see how the initiative can work, though he did not blame Columbia. “I really don’t see what the university could have done better. It’s the typical bureaucratic response,” he said. “It’s not that I fault a bureaucracy for being bureaucratic. It’s just that I don’t think it’s something that the university can do something about, because, ultimately, it’s a cultural and moral issue.”

Senior Columbia College student, Luke Foster

Senior Columbia College student Luke Foster (Yvonne Marie Juris/NY City Lens)

Foster—a senior, and a contributor to the columns section of the campus paper, The Columbia Spectator, and also a member of the Columbia Faith and Action group—spoke of a need for a “shift in dynamics” that peer groups might have a better chance of altering.

Luke Foster says Columbia’s policy is a bureaucratic solution to a cultural problem. 

Foster said that he avoids fraternity parties because of the stereotypes they reinforce. Sexual harassment and assault “tends to be more associated with a social scene that I avoid, because I find it ugly,” Foster said. “Men are set up to assume sexual availability among the women present, which is wrong, of course, but that’s how the men setting up these parties interpret it. It’s that kind of context that I find wicked and predatory.”

Luke Foster suggests an alternative solution.

Sexual assault on college campuses has long been a topic of debate and fury. In a Justice Department-funded  study, The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study, published in  2009 and 2014, 7.2 percent of women surveyed from two colleges said that they had experienced completed or attempted sexual assault, and nearly 20 percent of seniors surveyed said they had experienced  assault that included attempted or completed sexual assault or sexual battery. Sixteen percent of the seniors surveyed said they were assaulted while incapacitated from alcohol and/or other drugs. The statistics were drawn from women surveyed in only two large public colleges, one in the South and one in the Midwest.

At the heart of the issue, there remains a central question about accountability: To what extent can the university eliminate sexual assault? Or even affect the culture of sexual behavior? Recent reports of sexual assault at universities such as Stanford and University of Virginia have placed the safety protocols and accountability of universities in the spotlight. “I think that sexual liberation is very difficult to handle for both sexes, and we are in a transitionary moment, where both men and women are trying to find out where the boundaries are,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie professor of American History and also a professor in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia.

The Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative has been running for two weeks, and students have already begun to sign up for the various options.  While any student can attend, university officials have said that the workshops in particular will be structured to target first and second year students. Already, at the New Student Orientation Program held this past summer for incoming students, freshman Paula Pineros Medina said there was an emphasis on respect and consent. “They ingrained this idea of consent,” Medina said. “The fact that we are instilling these values of respect for other peoples personhood and their bodies and their decisions—I feel like that’s how things start.”

Student groups like the Coalition Against Sexual Violence and No Red Tape have spent months calling for reform in the way the university addresses sexual assault cases. These efforts came on the heels of the protest led by a Columbia College art major, Emma Sulkowicz, who says she was a victim of a sexual assault and who received national attention for her performance art piece, “Carry That Weight,” a mattress that goes wherever she is on campus. Sulkowicz has vowed to carry the mattress until Columbia University expels her alleged assailant. He has strongly denied his guilt, most recently in an article in the Daily Beast. Last April, as reported by the The Columbia Spectator, Sulkowicz and 22 other Columbia and Barnard students filed a 100-page federal complaint against the university around issues of sexual assualt.

“I don’t want to believe that the administrators leading these decisions don’t care about the safety of their students,” said Michaela Weihl, a second year student at Barnard and a prominent voice for the group No Red Tape. Weihl says she spent months working with Suzanne Goldberg, Columbia’s Executive Vice President for University Life, on the initiative. But she is disappointed with the result. She does not fault the videos, she said, but the program is “not completely comprehensive. Seven minutes of a video will not change issues. I don’t know why they made that decision. It’s really upsetting and unacceptable.”

Goldberg declined to comment but pointed to an earlier blog post she had written for the online arm of the Spectator on February 11th. In the post, Goldberg notes that “students—both undergraduates and graduate students—have been essential partners” in creating the program, along with “deans of students from throughout the University who work extensively with each school’s richly diverse student body and faculty.”

She also made mention of the wide range of choices within the program, so as to “maximize choice so that all students can find ways of learning, reflecting, and acting on the link between sexual respect and community membership that are most personally engaging and meaningful.”

Meanwhile, New York University will be rolling out a mandatory online educational program for the entire student body later this semester.