Right now, UChicago is at an inflection point. We recently elected a new slate, Thrive, to lead the student body; Paul Alivisatos is joining UChicago as the new President; and the school has announced that it intends to bring students back to full in-person classes this fall as our community gets vaccinated. Now is the best time to implement changes that will positively affect the future culture on our campus, including a comprehensive sexual health education quarter-length course that is a requirement of the Core.
Of course, there already is a requirement to complete a self-guided sexual assault prevention course when students begin at UChicago and to briefly review the material at the beginning of each academic year. The course is composed of slides and short videos that explain topics relevant to sexual assault, such as bystander intervention. I also recall that during O-Week when I began as a first-year at UChicago, there were a couple of large sessions in Mandel Hall that provided information about the resources available to students at UChicago. While this form of prevention education is certainly an important place to start, there is so much more that can be done.
As a member of the Title IX Student Advisory Board, I recently read the book Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus by Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, who are both faculty and researchers at Columbia University. The two authors recently spoke at a virtual UChicago event about their work. One of the major takeaways from the book and the talk is that students’ knowledge about sexual health and autonomy varies greatly.
As students from all over the world join UChicago, there are a variety of systems in place that account for differences in academic background, ensuring that everybody gets the information they need. Students come in with differing mathematical abilities, which is fine because they can choose what type of math they want to use to fulfill the math requirement (and what difficulty level best suits them). In addition to the Core humanities sequence which most students start during the fall quarter of their first year, there is a required Writing Seminar course that is graded on a pass/fail basis. Like the variety of math courses, this seminar is meant to bring everyone up to speed with the writing skills deemed necessary by the University. UChicago’s academics already recognize that students may not have the same knowledge of certain topics coming into college. Nevertheless, it is important to provide the resources for students to obtain this knowledge to make the best use of their college career and life after. This same logic translates to sexual health education.
Sexual health education is an extremely normal component of education. Many high schools already provide courses about those topics along with other health classes. The problem, one that Sexual Citizens emphasizes, is that the quality and content of this education may heavily vary on a district-by-district basis. For instance, in Illinois there is no state-wide standard for sexual education in K–12 (although the REACH Act would change that if passed). A short crash course is not necessarily enough information for everyone coming into college.
A solution could be a quarter-long course, graded on a pass/fail basis, that provides comprehensive, intersectional education about sexual health. This format could facilitate discussions among peers that have positive impacts outside of the classroom as well. This course could be formed in coordination with UChicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Title IX Office.
Perhaps historically sex education has not been viewed as central to a liberal arts education. However, it involves topics that fall within multiple categories of the Core, such as social sciences and biological sciences. According to the Core Curriculum website, the purpose of the Core is to “engage students with the range of insights, habits of mind, and academic experiences that can enrich their own reflections and activities in the world.” A sex ed course has the potential to embody that goal and help set the standard for future education on the topic at a college level. Not only could an in-depth course create healthy change on and off our campus, it could provide an interesting lens through which to think about topics like consent, gender, sexuality, race, and access to health resources in other classes. Furthermore, it would be an opportunity for UChicago to explore new methods of sexual assault prevention education in college environments. Through the development of the course, in-class discussions, and projects, the body of knowledge on the topic would grow.
The upcoming changes in leadership and the logistics on UChicago’s campus present an opportunity to prioritize sexual assault prevention. A great way to institute this change would be through the system, the Core, that is already in place. A course that is comprehensive enough to serve the needs of all incoming college students would have positive effects for the wellbeing of individual students and the future of our university.
Sylvia Ebenbach is a third-year in the College.