The desired content of sex education in universities
When we think of the sex education debate in the United States, the argument over abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex ed comes to mind. This debate often focuses on middle and high schools, ignoring university campuses. However, many college students have voiced desires for a wide range of lessons related to the topics of sex and sexuality, so it is important for us to better understand what students are looking for. This way, we can structure our programs and curriculum to meet the needs of the student body.
Recently at Rice University, a Critical Thinking in Sexuality course has been proposed as a response to the results of a Survey on Unwanted Sexual Experiences that indicated 24 percent of female undergraduates and 7 percent of male undergraduates on campus had experienced unwanted sexual experiences. While the course originated as a potential tool for the prevention of sexual assault, many students voiced their belief that the course should cover more than just issues of consent. We need campus programming to start and sustain conversations about sexual assault and self-defense without posing women’s safety at odds with sexual pleasure. One way to do this is by expanding ideas past consent into more nuanced conversations about intimacy. To do so, CTIS must provide students with an understanding of sexuality that not only covers basic comprehensive ideas of sex, but physical wellbeing, issues with nonconsensual sex and other topics relating to sex on campus.
Rice can learn from the experiences of other universities as we begin our own course. Beginning with Yale in 2002, student groups across the country have begun hosting “Sex Weeks,” with programming involving seminars and meetings to discuss sex-related topics. These Sex Weeks have been greeted with both support and vocal opponent from the student body, faculty and general public, and have raised difficult questions about inclusion, funding, and language.
Sex Weeks are often accused of being exclusionary for students of certain religious backgrounds. Schools like Harvard have tried to counter this criticism by hosting talks by religious leaders during their Sex Weeks, providing for a broad range of views (Madeline R. Conway, 2012). There has also been backlash about the funding source for these Sex Weeks, and questions of whether students should be obliged to pay for the activities. This issue led to University of Tennessee’s Sex Week being defunded, and now students can “opt-in” and pay $20 for the programming (Lindsay Sandoval, 2014). Other students have voiced concerns about the titles ofevents during Sex Weeks, fearing they sensationalize the content and trivialize possible outcomes of sexual activity. Discontent over the titles of events, among other things, provoked the vice president of student affairs at University of New Mexico to issue an apology to the student body (Eliseo Torres, 2014).
Some students feel that Sex Weeks distract attention from sexual assault. As university of New Mexico student Sade Emsweller said, “If you're going to say you're talking about sexual assault then let's actually do it. We all have the common goal of helping women." Emsweller aims to emphasize sexual violence prevention and self-defense. The unfortunate undertones in her claim, however, posit women as perpetual victims and continue to construct sex and sexuality as dangerous. The victimization and sexual objectification of women excludes people of other gender identities who suffer sexual abuse, and reinforces the idea that women need protection.
Although it is complicated, we feel that students can learn to procure consent and avoid assault while still taking part in courses that teach more holistic approaches to sexual and general well-being. Many members of our student body here at Rice share this view. A series of op-eds penned by a variety of undergraduates and published in the Thresher called for an exploration of healthy relationship skills, societal gender norms, bystander intervention and emotional/mental health.
Naturally, university students want to see a range of topics covered in sexual education,including consent, sexual assault prevention, bystander training, reproductive health, physical anatomy, mental health, emotional well-being, relationship skills, sexual pleasure, and queer experiences. This knowledge should be utilized in the formation of sexual education content geared towards college students.
Zoe Matranga, Jones College ’16
Veronica Mendez, McMurtry College ’16
Wendy Wu, Lovett College ’18
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