- Poetry & Prose
Sexual Respect Education Programs are Badly Thought Out
Last May, University President Lee Bollinger announced the creation of a “sexual respect” website in an email announcing it and other important changes to Columbia’s sexual assault policy. At the time, the term seemed like an aside compared to more important changes, such as the establishment of an executive vice president for Student Affairs (now the executive vice president for University life). But the term “sexual respect” would rapidly gain prominence and traction. By mid-fall, sexual respect became the administration’s favorite new term. It’s not hard to see why. Sexual respect puts a positive spin on what has been a public relations nightmare for the University. It’s a palatable way of discussing improper behavior because it phrases the issue of sexual assault in terms of respect. That’s fair—I don’t object to the University trying to spin the problem in a new light.
The real issue with the term is that the University has failed to define what sexual respect actually means. Nowhere in any press release or on the sexual respect website is the term “sexual respect” ever defined. Lack of serious engagement with the term on the University’s part implies that administrators are not
serious about the term “sexual respect” beyond its functionality as a PR strategy.
“But,” you might argue, “isn’t it obvious what sexual respect is? It’s the opposite of sexual harassment and sexual assault.” Is it? I don’t think the answer is that clear. For example: Is the opposite
of sexual harassment simply “not committing sexual harassment,” or is it something more? If it’s “being sexually respectful,” as I’ve heard some define it, what does that even mean?
The National University of Singapore (I had to search pretty far afield) has a thorough discussion of sexual respect that actually begins with the definition. Fancy that. According to its website, sexual respect is respect for others’ sex, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual boundaries—all of which are also defined.
For NUS, sexual respect is defined through a lack of disrespect, as opposed to a more affirmative definition of respect.
Its definition of respect for others’ sex makes this clear: “We expect men to respect women, and vice-versa, and we do not tolerate sexism, misogyny, or misandry.” Notably, this definition includes respect through both actions and attitudes. By including attitudes along with actions, NUS places value on more than just the appearance of sexual respect, but also the instillment of it— more than can be said for Columbia
That’s a jibe that I know can come across as flippant. But I’m not writing this as some sort of “screw you” to the University, nor out of resentment or infantile disrespect. Instead, I want to point out what I think is the real problem with the sexual respect program. Criticisms of the new sexual respect program are numerous: Workshops are too full, a one-time training does nothing, the art option is stupid, etc. No program will ever be perfect, but this one falls much too far from the mark to be satisfactory. Unfortunately, most of the criticism misses the point.
The real problem isn’t logistical snafus or even ill-conceived, one- time movie watching workshops themselves—these are symptoms. The real problem is a misguided goal to extricate the University from its PR woes.
I’m sure this program was thought through judiciously and I know people dedicated a lot of time and effort into seeing it come to fruition. But ultimately it was progress for progress’ sake; it was created so that Columbia could say, “Look—see what we’ve
created! We’re working on this!” It was this mentality that has prevented the program from being substantive and effective. This isn’t to say that the University doesn’t care about sexual
assault (or to deny that administrators are humans who also want to prevent sexual assault). In fact, that’s one of the good signs: We are taking this seriously—we’re serious enough to deny a diploma. But Columbia needs to refocus to make progress. We need to go back to the drawing board on this entire program, and we need to create it not to say we’ve created it, but to educate our community and fight sexual assault.
For a first step, how about we actually define “sexual respect” and stop using it as a buzzword?