Sexual assault on college campuses continues to be a major focus of news media and to demand serious attention from campus administrators. In spite of, or perhaps due to, recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to cut back on the government’s Title IX oversight and enforcement, many campuses are recommitting themselves to following the best practices for protecting against and dealing with sexual assaults.
Regardless of any changes in oversight, we all know sexual assault is a pervasive problem on college campuses. We’ve read the stories, we’ve seen the statistics. Campus administrators generally agree that a college or university should continue to serve a distinct role as both an active educator and as a reactive support system on issues ranging from sexual health and behavior to assault and misconduct.
While institutions offer a variety of resources and support, one-size-fits all, blanket approaches intended to reach all students may very well miss a vulnerable population on the campus: international students. They come to our campuses from all around the globe looking to seize the rich and rewarding opportunities that our higher education system provides. In turn, they bring with them a cultural diversity that can be seen and felt across the institution. And when it comes to sexual education, international students have distinct needs that programs designed for their domestic peers don’t typically address.
Colleges and universities must take appropriate steps to educate, support and protect those students, taking into account varying levels of sexual education as well as cultural and social norms that may differ greatly in students’ home countries. A lack of understanding of what domestic students consider to be social norms and sexual cues -- like “no means no” -- can lead to confusing or awkward situations. Or worse, those misunderstandings can make international students vulnerable to victimization.
As colleges develop sexual health resources and support programs, they must consider who on campus is best equipped to lead those efforts for international students. Even though many campuses have established specific positions and sometimes entire departments to prevent and respond to sexual violence, those officials aren’t necessarily trained in the nuances of international student experiences and may overlook crucial elements in discussing sexual education with this distinct population. We would argue that a better and more comprehensive approach brings together a variety of campus departments -- including the international students office, the violence prevention office, campus police and the mental health and counseling center -- to develop and deliver programming that doesn’t make assumptions of prior knowledge and establishes a strong foundation of understanding.
It’s not enough to simply hand international students a pamphlet or give them a 15-minute safe sex lecture. In talking about sex with international students, not only will institutional administrators be talking about topics the student has potentially never discussed, but there are also language and cultural barriers to overcome. A student might not know the proper English term for a vagina or penis, or that slang like “Netflix and chill” is a euphemism for sex. Programs must address topics that may be considered common knowledge among domestic students, such as the definition of sexual assault and what a culture of disclosure means.
Further, international students may not have a strong understanding of the laws and rights that protect them or those that make them potentially vulnerable. For example, a finding of misconduct can result in their being dismissed from the campus or removed from certain classes, which can threaten their visa status. Those are pieces of assumed knowledge among domestic students, but if not explained to international students, it can lead to potentially dangerous situations and result in an increased risk of mental health issues. It can also significantly hinder student retention and persistence.
A required program at Fraser International College at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, incorporates sexual education into the transition curriculum for all new international students. The material is embedded in a course that lasts a semester and covers everything students need to know to get used to their new lives. The sexual education portion covers consent and healthy communication, sexual health and gender orientation, and the cultural and societal norms around sex.
With each topic, the program starts with ensuring that all students have a common understanding and realize the importance of communication around such issues. The key is making students feel comfortable enough to ask questions. Students are able to submit questions anonymously and discuss the answers together, which helps to build a safe community through peer support. It’s important to open up a dialogue and demonstrate there is a wide range of views, from conservative to more liberal, about sex and to ultimately help students navigate those views so they can make safe and healthy decisions.
In addition, the university takes great care to let students know that they can ask questions throughout their academic program. It actively recruits instructors who teach other subjects, like accounting or media studies, to facilitate sexual education workshops and classes. Having a familiar face opening the conversation up about sex, relationships and identity builds a rapport between instructors and students and reinforces a culture of disclosure. Each interaction helps open the door a little wider so students know they do not have to approach uncomfortable, serious or dangerous situations alone.
Creating a safe campus experience for all students is a major priority for colleges and universities. Campuses that start to recognize and embrace the power of creating dialogues through sexual education will be helping protect vulnerable populations like international students while simultaneously making their campus a safer and more positive environment for all students.