Bottom-Up Sex Ed

April 10, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- Scott C. Brown, associate vice president and dean of students at Colgate University, isn’t afraid to talk about sex. More specifically, he isn’t afraid to listen to students talk about sex. In fact, he encourages it.

“Lots of institutions are too afraid to talk about sexual assault. It’s something we would argue should be happening all over the place, because it’s something that’s central to the academic mission,” Brown said here last week at the annual conference of the American College Personnel Association. “This is an issue that we know -- unfortunately, like alcohol -- will be on campus forever.”

Brown says Colgate officials didn’t necessarily set out to deliberately change a campus culture traditionally dominated by men (the university didn't accept women until 1970) and Greeks. But over the last few years, he and his colleagues have found that the best way to encourage a healthy sexual climate is to let the students take ownership of it.

Sometimes, that means taking a risk. When students complained that they couldn’t throw a successful party on campus, administrators covered the keg and simply asked students to report back on how it went. Eight hundred of Colgate’s 2,900 students showed up, no vandalism was reported, and nobody knew the administration had anything to do with it.

If you can make the argument that the presence of kegs and absence of hard liquor will slow down alcohol consumption, Brown said, why not try it under controlled circumstances?

“It feels like [this approach] is beginning to see a lot of promise,” Brown said, “and not because it’s anything new, but people support what they create.”

A fraternity is planning an identical event for next week. (It’ll also be on campus – Colgate bought out its fraternities in 2005.)

Brown and his colleagues shared what they’ve learned about collaborating with students and departments to reach a “sex-positive climate” here at the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Colgate is not one of the dozens of institutions being investigated by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for mishandling or failing to prevent sexual violence on campus. But the university has had its share of the negative media spotlight, namely from a letter published last month on the The Huffington Post. In the letter, a Colgate junior and editor at the student newspaper questioned whether administrators had responded appropriately to an on-campus incident and suggested the university was “covering [sexual violence] up or putting the larger issues aside.”

Nearly everyone in the room at ACPA said the people on their campuses are “very concerned” about sexual assault issues. And with OCR’s interest in the issue reaching fever pitch, the time is right to pitch administrators for programming funds, the presenters said. 

Colgate started with its Sexual Climate Advisory committee, a group of faculty and staff charged with “developing, coordinating and evaluating initiatives that improve the sexual climate.” That includes prevention and education programs, but with an overarching focus on “positive sexuality,” which administrators say allows students to “embrace their own identity” and be accountable for their own lifestyle choices.

SCAC members are expected to dispatch reports and ideas from the front lines of the counseling center, women’s center, student government and elsewhere, which capitalizes on work that’s already being done and limits additional staffing expenses.

“We just kind of said we were going to do it,” Brown said, “and then it happened.”

The committee is using a “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (PDSA) cycle to tackle its not-insignificant goal: to “improve the climate,” evidenced by a reduction in the number of incidents of attempted rape and harassment and an increase in the percentage of students who can define consent and believe they are empowered to make their own choices.

“You fail fast, and you fail often, and you fail well,” Brown said of Colgate’s philosophy favoring action over years-long committee work. If a project seems like it would take a year in higher-ed time, Brown said, budget a month and see what happens. “Figure out what success looks like, then take a step back and fix what doesn’t work.”

Not everything does. Colgate discontinued its “Womentoring” program after the older student mentors got fed up waiting for younger women to show up to their mentoring sessions.

But things appear to be going well so far with the SCAC’s main goal. After dozens of lectures, performances, training, student groups and consistent communication, plus a flier campaign that drilled home the definition of consent, the data suggest the message may be getting through.

Most promising is the increase from 60 to 85 percent in the percentage of students (measured by a "pretty good" response rate to a student-government issued quiz pre- and post- education campaign) who could identify and define consent. Rates of sexual assaults involving attempted and successful sexual penetration dropped by 12.5 and 8 percent, respectively, from 2012-13, according to Colgate-specific data from the National College Health Assessment. And 82 percent of students reported feeling empowered to make “healthy sexual choices that work for them.”

One of the most successful programs is a five-week course (soon to include academic credit) where students talk sex – everything from pleasure to consent – collaboratively, with the goal of helping students decide what they want from their relationships, rather than what they should avoid. The course has been wildly popular: its second iteration, Yes Means Yes 2.0, filled up in two hours and has doubled in size since its launch.

The Yes Means Yes seminar is grounded in "an understanding of sexuality as a natural and healthy aspect of human life," and is meant to complement Colgate's other programs, like bystander intervention. "The goals of this sexual education curriculum include creating healthy sexual beings who are comfortable engaging in safe, consensual and pleasurable sexual activity," Brown co-wrote in a journal article about the program. "A positive sexuality curriculum prioritizes developing sexual agency and making healthy decisions for oneself." In one exercise, for example, students collaborate on a common definition of "hooking up" and then discuss the pros and cons of such a situation.

"The Colgate administration is really concerned with student buy-in, and I think our most successful positive sexuality programming initiatives are student-run,” Colgate student Evan Chartier, who put together and runs Yes Means Yes 2.0, said in an email. “Giving the students more ownership over the programs has affected campus culture more positively than a top-down program would have been able to…. If the initiatives were not student run (or seemingly student run, even if they were administrator initiated), fewer students would buy in to the program, and be excited to talk about it with their friends.”

Chartier admits he’s not much of a rager – and knows they have “a long way to go” – but believes he’s seen the positive effects play out at some parties.

“I have seen people respect other peoples' privacy when hooking up in a public place, check in with friends to be sure that everything is consensual, I have seen people catch themselves slut shaming, etc.,” he said. “Overall, even if people only do these things because I am around, they still demonstrate that they know what consent is and are knowledgeable about the discourses around the sexual climate at Colgate.”

The university plans to commission an external climate review next year.

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