The Case for a Mandatory Sexual Respect Class

amherst orientation

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.