Emory’s freshman health program lacks a key topic: sex education.
I am not a fan of the mandatory health requirement; the course detracts points if students exclude dates on homework assignments, charges $45 dollars for a textbook that repeats the same lessons as the course’s free online presentations and is taught by undergraduate students.
That said, if the health program is to exist, it must be better.
Emory is a diverse university. Students come from urban cities and rural towns, foreign countries and a range of religious backgrounds. While almost all students know that exercise and sleep are important, we cannot assume that students have received adequate sex education.
According to the 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) School Health Profiles, less than half of all high schools teach all 16 components of sex education that the CDC considers essential. Those components include lessons on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and consent. Additionally, the percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds who receive formal education about birth control has declined in recent years.
Currently, only 24 states require sex education in public schools. Of the 37 states that require abstinence be taught in sex education, only 18 require educators to also share information about birth control. Ultimately, while many states have some legislation related to sex education, decisions about how, when and what to teach are generally left to the discretion of school districts. Therefore it should be no surprise that socially conservative areas often lack quality sex ed. The Guttmacher Institute found that in recent years, the percentage of rural young women and men acquiring birth control information declined from 71 to 48 percent and 59 to 45 percent, respectively.
Sex ed is especially crucial in a college environment, given that one in four women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. Teaching sex ed has been proven to make individuals less vulnerable to and less likely to commit sexual assault. A recent poll by Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) found that sex education during high school has lasting protective effects for students.
While I commend Emory for making Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates (SAP-U) a mandatory part of the first-year curriculum, it is not sufficient.
For one, SAP-U falls short in its description of consent: Consent is so much more than just saying “no.” As Megan Garber of The Atlantic argues in a piece on the allegations against Aziz Ansari, a healthy understanding of consent encompasses more than just legal definitions.
Garber writes, “‘No’ is, in theory, available to anyone, at any time; in practice, however, it is a word of last resort — a word of legality. A word in which progress collides with reticence: Everyone should be able to say it, but no one really wants to.”
A good health program should teach everyone, especially women, to feel bold and empowered to express what they do or don’t want, to be able to say “no” without feeling awkward. At the same time, it should also teach us to recognize that “I’m a bit too drunk tonight” or “How about another night?” or “I’m really not feeling it” are all subtle ways of saying “no.”
Consent education can be transformative; it corrects antiquated moral standards for sex and teaches that sex is supposed to be mutually pleasurable. Our health program should present a discussion of consent that is based on mutual respect and empathy rather than on the underlying, self-protective message presented through SAP-U: ask for consent to avoid trouble.
SAP-U presents an over-simplified version of difficult yet necessary conversations on sexual assault and consent. These conversations should occur in real life, not through corny skits and online videos that I’m sure at least 50 percent of students clicked through while watching Netflix in another window. The Office of Health Promotion and the health program directors should take initiative and start teaching students about sexual assault prevention in the classroom, not through an online platform that can easily be ignored.
Emory’s Health Program Director Lisa DuPree said that, although conversations about sex, drugs and alcohol are crucial, they do not work with the program’s peer-to-peer teaching framework.
She said it would be difficult for peer health mentors to grade the meaningful conversations students might want to have on topics including sexual assault. Further, DuPree expressed concern that having this discussion over just a few class periods in a setting in which students wouldn’t be able to opt out of the class could be destructive or triggering for students.
I agree that undergraduate peer health instructors are not necessarily equipped to guide these difficult conversations, but other solutions are possible. For example, the program could step away from its framework for a few class periods and replace some lessons with ungraded discussions on sex ed led by health professionals.
The demand for these conversations is clear: DuPree said that, in surveys completed at the conclusion of the course, a large portion of students said they wished to see conversations about preventing sexual assault, dealing with unhealthy relationships, initiating sex and other related topics.
It is apparent that the current health framework is the product of careful thought. That said, shouldn’t the significance of discussing sex, drugs and alcohol in undergraduate life, and the student desire to do so, outweigh the ease that comes with sticking to the “framework”?
DuPree said the Office of Health Promotion offers programming and resources for students who actively seek out information on these topics. Still, I believe students would be better served if this knowledge were available to all. Although incorporating these topics may not be convenient, it would be worthwhile.
On the first day of Health 100, first years learn about the five pillars of health: spiritual, social, mental, emotional and physical. I hope that our health directors will recognize that knowledge of sex education, including STDs and consent, is fundamental to improving students’ lives in every single one of those five pillars.
Kimia Tabatabaei (22C) is from Newton, Mass.