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The Case for a Mandatory Sexual Respect Class

amherst orientation
(Siraj Sindhu)– Amherst College has a well documented issue with sexual respect. The scandals that marred our school last year, both internal and public, fired up campus conversations but also caught the attention of people (and prospective students) from around the world. I’m concerned with the link between the two effects; with what happens when those prospective students become actual students, integrate into the community, and both participate in and contribute to a broad dialogue on sexual respect.

In the process of integration, it’s easy to slip through the cracks and it’s easy to miss vital information. Some of the new students are lucky enough to have access to upperclassmen friends who inform the first-years about Amherst’s culture of sexual disrespect. But many of us don’t. Both groups are similar, though, in that they often lack a formal, academic class about sexual respect, sexual identity, and related topics. This is a huge hole in the education that Amherst provides to young minds.

There’s a simple solution to this problem, though, and it’s one that has been gaining a lot of attention lately. I’m referring, of course, to the possibility of instituting a half-credit, graduation-required course on sexuality and sexual respect. This idea has the potential to make Amherst a leading institution in terms of education on sexuality, but drawbacks have been cited. Namely, opponents of the idea claim that such a course would stand in opposition to Amherst’s commitment to the open curriculum and would likely have to be held during an unorthodox time, such as over the summer or during Interterm. (Not that resurrecting Interterm is a bad idea.)

But neither of those obstacles are insurmountable. I’d propose a different plan, one that has also been suggested as a resolution to possible snags in the execution of the course: By removing the jocular, superficial skits regarding sexual health and respect from Orientation and replacing them with a semester-long, pass-fail, half-credit course on sexual respect integrated with the First-Year Seminar, Amherst as a community could take an important step toward becoming more self-aware of sexuality and of our behavior in sexual situations. This plan is doubly effective because it addresses both the problems with Amherst’s much-maligned freshman Orientation programming and our dearth of sexual education.

The Orientation programming that was designed to inform students about sexual respect and avoiding sexual assault was largely ineffectual due to both tone and content: the information was presented in a comical way that trivialized the gravity of the message, and the content itself was superficial and went hardly deeper than “Get consent!” As a result, first-years were dissatisfied, remarking that Orientation was redundant, simplistic and too long. More importantly, first years never had the opportunity to engage with material in a critical way, and instead had a barrage of common-sense information thrown at them. This is an ineffectual way to teach something as important as sexual respect.

In contrast, I envision this semester-long course as being, first and foremost, academic. I envision a small group of professors who are all experts in sexuality and feminism each teaching small lecture-discussion style classes of first-years in an augmentation of the First Year Seminar. Rather than teaching students to get consent, use condoms, and strive for .05, I envision us teaching students about (for instance) queer theory, Willa Cather, and the foundation of the feminist movement. Amherst students are academic intellectuals, and we should challenge them rather than trying to entertain them as we would children. Moreover, by shaping and inspiring thought in first year students, we can effect real, intrinsic change in these individuals. This, I think, is what we ought to be striving for; targeting the underlying cause of sexual assault and disrespect is a much more effective method of education than addressing the outward action of sexual disrespect that results from certain thought patterns. An ounce of prevention, they say, is better than a pound of cure.

Another objection brought up regarding the course is timing: when could such a class be held? I imagine this course as a pass-fail augmentation of the First Year Seminar; though the Seminar could stay much the same, meeting twice a week as usual, the additional class could meet for a third day a week. More importantly, integration with the First Year Seminar would allow for Amherst’s open curriculum ideals to coexist with the new required course. Because this plan doesn’t actually add a new class to the schedules of students, the open curriculum would remain unchanged.This is a year of big changes: traditions are being rethought, Orientation is likely to be completely redesigned for the future, and the way we deal with sexual assault has finally been given more serious attention. Do we want the best for future Amherst students? Should we prepare them properly and seriously for college and the life beyond our Amherst Bubble? Are we willing to consciously choose to take time out of our busy lives to think critically about our sexualities and behaviors and examine how we should act? I think we owe it to our community and ourselves to start a new tradition of sexual respect and awareness of sexuality at Amherst, one that starts with first-years and that is supported, through word and action, by the rest of the College.

About Siraj Ahmed Sindhu

A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel.

10 comments on “The Case for a Mandatory Sexual Respect Class

  1. Craig Campbell
    November 12, 2013

    This is very well argued, and I agree with everything in principle. But many of the school’s problems (social isolation, binge-purge mentality of work and play, lack of involvement in meaningful extra-curriculars) are said (including by a number of posts on this site, the SMOC report) to be due to the unbelievable course load we have as students here. My first semester at Amherst, I was already drowning under the sheer amount of coursework (and I think a lot of students experience this) and I can’t imagine an extra class tacked onto that. And what would happen if you failed the class? I don’t mean to disparage the idea, it’s just, as with all things at AC, tricky. Maybe that first semester, freshman should only have 3.5 classes, with an emphasis on learning, in addition to whatever you learn in your freshman seminar and a half credit sexual respect course, how to actually take care of yourself as a new college student.

    • Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
      November 12, 2013

      This is a good point. There’s a lot of literature on the subject already (just Google “tips for starting college”), but condensing and refining that information would probably help new students adjust. I’m not sure if that ought to be an academic class, though. I think that sort of educational programming would be best placed during Orientation.

      We’ve fallen into the trap of trying to squeeze important lessons with a lot of scholarly depth into the 9 days(!) of Orientation, when these academic explorations could be done better in a classroom setting. On the other hand, teaching students how to budget time and take care of themselves properly–these are things that actually do belong in Orientation, rather than a classroom.

  2. Sam
    November 12, 2013

    A key argument you make, one which I believe is minimally discussed in talks here on race, class, sexuality, and power structures, is that discussion on these topics should be academic. As students at Amherst College, it would appear to me that academic arguments are the strongest arguments one can make. I could easily imagine a course in which a professor says, let’s look at scholarly literature on these various social problems. The scholarly/academic side of what we are facing is imperative. That being said, I question whether we should privilege a sexual respect class over a class which more generally looks at issues of privilege. I am not surprised that you take the point of view you do, as you are writing on a blog which is specifically queer-friendly and pro-feminist. In the blog What’s Left at Amherst?, one might expect to see an argument that we should all have a mandatory class on socioeconomic class. All of these different classes we could have – on sexuality, race, class, disability, etc. – are normatively good things to have. However, rather than privileging one of these, we need to privilege privilege when designing courses that seek to deconstruct and explain privilege. That is to say, we need to have a class which broadly considers the idea of privilege, power, and dominance and its manifestations in different dimensions (class, sexuality, gender, race, etc.)

    • Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
      November 12, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Sam! This is an excellent idea, and one that ought to be taken into consideration.

      In a theoretical sense, I think an academic exploration of socioeconomic class structures and hierarchical privilege and the ways in which they manifest in our daily lives at Amherst, a school with a remarkably high rate of students receiving financial aid, is very important. This is a topic that goes ignored far too often, and I think it contributes to the sequestration of social groups that happens early on; people naturally fall into friendship circles with people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it fractures our community in ways that are self-insulating and that defeat the purpose of our education at Amherst.

      In a practical sense, I’ve spoken with Biddy about restructuring Orientation for next year, and this is something that I will definitely bring up. Having a class that academically explores all the different sides to the issue of privilege is something that I feel the College ought to look into moving forward.

      My only qualm is that I worry whether there is enough time in the semester to fully explore all these realms of respect for different levels of privilege. As you said, in order for such a class to be successful, it must be sufficiently academic, and a time constraint that forces quick movement from subject to subject might detract from the academic nature of the class.

  3. Peter Crane '15
    November 12, 2013

    Siraj, we talked a bit about this yesterday – what about race? There are very serious outstanding issues of race & diversity (and I’m not just referencing the two recent hate incidents). Or economic class? etc. Why ignore the others and focus only on sexual assault? Wouldn’t tools you mentioned in terms of curricular learning (feminism, etc) be similar for race / privilege etc?

    • Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
      November 12, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Peter! I agree with your sentiment–racial tensions certainly come into play at our immensely diverse institution. I’ve written about race on AC Voice several times before, and I think that shows that my issue with race at Amherst hasn’t been completely resolved yet, either. My goal here is to educate students on something that is important: sexual respect. There are certainly other important things to discuss, including socioeconomic and racial diversity. Perhaps an integration of these into a redesigned FYS would be ideal, though it would likely be at the cost of depth of study of the actual FYS curriculum.

      Since it seems like Orientation will likely be completely redesigned next year, I think its possible that the FYS will also be redesigned in conjunction with Orientation. So, I think a class like the one that you propose, that critically targets and examines all the different manifestations of social privilege (sex, race, class, etc.) on campus would be a worthwhile endeavor that could be considered next year, as it would increase our self-awareness of our community and our roles within it.

      On another note, I’d like to talk with you some more about the outstanding issues of race and diversity at Amherst, since I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to and I’d like to be educated.

  4. Liya Rechtman
    November 13, 2013

    Great article and so glad to finally see people taking up this idea, which I’ve been floating in strategic planning and policy meetings since last year.

    Given faculty resistance to including this kind of class in the semester itself, I think that this should be a required pass/fail interterm course. Failure, and the standard for failure, are complicated questions that have yet to be worked out.

    One small issue in your writing here: I worry when people talk about sexual assault as a “scandal.” “Scandal” connotes something salacious, secretive and juicy, in other words, sexy or sexual in nature. It’s an easy rhetoric to slip into when the very word we most often use to tone down even the phonetic horror of “rape” is “SEXual assault” and when often in the media rape (especially on college campuses) is painted as something akin to “college girls gone wild” or, perhaps more subtly “young, unprotected innocent women need our help”. I am sure evoking that media-driven hyperbolic discourse was not your intention at all, but I think we need to be rigorously conscientious of how we use our language around sexual assault in all forms. The word “scandal” is often a way that I see the hyper-sexualization of women sneak back into discourse on gendered violence.

    • Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
      November 13, 2013

      The question of “What happens if a first year fails the course?” has been brought up before; the solution, and this is purely speculative, may be to have the interterm course be a makeup course. On the other hand, I acknowledge that it would be nice for interterm to draw more students back to campus, and this course could conveniently serve that purpose.

      And thanks for that catch, Liya. Diction and the unintended effects of word choice are exactly the sort of thing that I want to learn to be more conscious of, especially in the realm of sexual respect. I’ll watch out for that, and for other word associations that might alter the message I’m trying to articulate.

  5. Jamie Werner
    November 15, 2013

    I’m not sure I agree with your point about “removing the jocular, superficial skits regarding sexual health and respect from Orientation”. While sexual health and sexual respect are issues inevitably linked to each other, I don’t see a skit talking about the proper way to put a condom on (something that many high school health classes don’t sufficiently explain) negatively influencing a First-Year and their knowledge of sexual respect. I’m very much in favor of a class that covers sexual respect, but as you said in your article, you envision a much more academic approach, one where students learn about feminism and queer theory. When are the kids who’ve had a sub-par 10th grade health class supposed to learn how to put a condom on, or what a relatively “safe” level of inebriation is? These are skills and pieces of knowledge that are taken for granted by the students who were lucky enough to learn them in high school.

  6. terrairradient
    November 24, 2013

    Half a mandatory course on sexual respect is a beginning, but I would suggest that the important underlying issues of the relationship of men and women in today’s society require more. Readings could be assigned over the summer, discussed in orientation and not “apologized” for in a half course, but legitamized by a full course. Strongly recommend Rosalind Wiseman’s article “What Boys Want” (Dec. 2 TIME magazine) and her latest book “Masterminds and Wingmen.”

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