Do the Arts Option: Lessons from Columbia's Sexual Respect Requirement


Today is the deadline for Columbia University students to complete their Sexual Respect requirement! The requirement comes in the wake of protests and scrutiny related to the administration’s mishandling of Emma Sulkowicz rape accusations against another student.

Announced roughly a month ago to the entire student body, undergraduates and graduates alike, students were given five participation options in order to complete the assignment:

  1. Attend a workshop or training on subjects such as consent, sexual harassment, or gender-based violence.
  2. Watch several videos and write a short reflection essay. Some of the videos included: Violence Against Women — it’s a men’s issues (TED Talk) , Find Your Voice Against Gender Violence (TED Talk) , Re-thinking Sexual Assault Prevention in High School and College (TED Talk), Tony Porter: A Call to Men (TED Talk), Who Are You? (An 8-Minute PSA from New Zeland)
  3. Attending a film screening and discussion. Two movie options were: The Line: A Personal Exploration about Sexual Assaut (90 mins) and Breaking Out of the Man Box (90 mins)
  4. Create a piece of art that reflects on sexual respect. Possible mediums: short film/video, visual art, poetry, short prose, drama, dance, music, performance art, or multimedia.
  5. Survivors of sexual assault could attend workshops on trauma and healing.

This week we asked students to write in with their experiences and the answers were pretty consistent across the various demographics. Here are some key findings:

  • People were uniformly pissed that they had to do anything. Either because of “midterms!!!!!!” or because they believed Columbia University was going through the motions of changing campus culture through a “PR stunt”.
  • Nobody had a nice thing to say about the in-person events, confirming that a) hell is other people and b) hastily-formed workshops done under the threat of not graduating/not being able to register for upcoming classes does not foster an atmosphere of engagement.
  • The bystander PSA from New Zealand was actually good.
  • The most controversial option, the arts option, actually proved to be the most engaging. Several students reported that they did it to get off easy and then were actually pleased by the opportunity to reflect.

A sample slide from one of the training options:

Some other highlights:


I don’t see the point of making the professional schools do this. For immature undergraduate teenagers? Sure, why not. For people in their mid-twenties with fully-developed brains and (hopefully) years of sexual experience? It’s a waste of my time and everyone else’s. If you’re a rapist at age 25 a stupid webinar isn’t going to change that
I think the only thing of value in the requirement is people who go to the workshops about how to help survivors because that’s something people don’t instinctively know (like don’t rape people – that’s pretty instinctive).
I’m studying to be a nurse. I chose this profession, as did all of my classmates, and it necessarily comes with a pretty big compassion aspect. I’m not trying to make generalizations, but a lot of us might already be more likely to step up and intervene than, say, the average Columbia undergraduate male.


The issue is not primarily about student behavior; rather, it is about the extremely poor ways in which Columbia’s student judicial and administrative structure operates. Columbia would rather not reform itself, so it has tried to market the problem as one of student culture. My response is: physician, heal thyself.


The movie we watched was incredibly problematic. It was a movie [The Line] filmed by a female survivor of sexual assault. She experienced the assault while working abroad in Jerusalem and was confused about her identity as a survivor because the act of assault itself was unwanted sodomy during consensual sex. So she made the documentary to raise questions about consent and victimization.
The issue of sexual assault on college campuses must be given context; it must be understood as a product of larger systems of patriarchy, economics (being that this is an “elite institution), privilege, and socialized gender. How is watching a movie and talking to the person next to us in any way creating a productive discussion about these systems that perpetuate violence?
The [Breaking out of the Man Box] was painfully gender normative/heteronormative and focused almost exclusively on physical and not sexual violence. You could walk away from the requirement without thinking about sexual assault or consent at all. I think it could have been useful for reaching some men who had not thought about gender issues very much before, but it was hard to connect to as a queer woman. I probably did not pick the ideal event for me, but even though the description said the film was about masculinity, I still assumed it would be something that could speak to a wider set of people (and the audience was pretty evenly split gender-wise, so I was not alone). There was a discussion afterwards, in which very little discussion occurred.
Consent is only defined explicitly once. By a sex worker at the BunnyRanch in Nevada. As “”if you’ve done something once, you consent to keep doing it. You didn’t consent to anal, that’s why what you experienced was rape.”” Leaving aside the voyeuristic nature of the filmmaker’s visit to BunnyRanch, this definition of consent is just terrible. It’s a terrible message to send to viewers, particularly in a context where we are meant to be challenging the current paradigm of consent culture on college campuses!


I chose the “Arts” option. I wrote my account of the time last semester when a guy cornered me, while I was writing an essay, in a study room and refused to leave me alone until I cooperated with his attempts to “joke” about the difference between jam and jelly (hint: he said he couldn’t jelly his dick up my ass).
I am pro anything that gets the straight, white bro culture of the law school to recognize other perspectives, so I think it was positive in that regard.


The performance art was much more thought-provoking and entertaining than a dry PowerPoint presentation, and being performed by my peers (many of whom were my friends) made it that much more powerful. It even got us olds talking about sexual respect, prompting various debates about how old is too old to be learning and discussing these issues. Completing the reflection was kind of a pain, but in the end, I think prompting yourself to be thoughtful about these issues is usually a good thing.
I poured myself a drink and started writing a poem about an encounter with a high school boyfriend (this being primarily, I thought, for undergrads, it seemed appropriate). And bizarrely, it felt cathartic and kind of explored questions that I’ve struggled with in the past… 14 years. I’m not sure I did the “assignment” but I tried to justify it in my “artistic statement.” Something about understanding the context of everyone’s experiences, that we should ALL try to understand one another’s backgrounds, experiences, male, female, transgender, cis, etc.


Today, after completing the requirement, I think it is something that everyone, especially men, whether in school or in the workforce, should undergo. I was amazed at how much an honest self-inventory could do to make me aware of my own privilege.
I came to graduate school in my late 20s, and it was a challenge to adapt to writing workshops where I received criticism from people I felt more qualified than. It was hard to reenter the workforce after a career change and begin again at the bottom serving people younger than me and less experienced. Graduate school has been an exercise in ego annihilation.
However, this one writing assignment forced me to distill my anger and frustration into a very powerful moment of personal responsibility. It is both humbling and inspiring to know that we can improve the world by improving ourselves.

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