In order to register for courses in the spring, students at the University of Southern California were asked to detail their sexual history, including the number of partners they had in the past three months. Students were instructed to ask questions such as “would you like to try this with me?” in order to obtain consent. As romantic as this may sound, it appears that USC’s mission was not, in fact, to school the next generation on how to properly woo and win over a partner. Rather, the survey was designed as an “innovative, engaging and informative online course, created with students for students,” aimed, presumably, at trying to teach students about the risks of drinking, sex and the legal implications of the two combined.
In USC’s apology regarding the course, the administration made it clear that these courses are mandatory for all universities, and that many schools use the same module as USC. Despite the removal of said intrusive questions, the existence of the course in the first place demonstrates the widening gap between administrative action and student comfort levels. School administrations need to learn how to be more effective in dealing with sensitive topics, and need to understand where the boundaries of personal privacy are.
However, students should also keep in mind that these sort of personal questions come from a good place. College can be dangerous for students who are not properly educated when it comes to issues of affirmative consent and sexual health, especially when alcohol is involved — at least half of college sexual-assaults occur after students have consumed alcohol. That is what these surveys are primarily meant for, assessing potential alcohol-related risks. However, for these measures to be more effective, there needs to be more open communication between the students and the administration.
This survey and its repercussions should be a wake-up call for how we as a society talk about sex, drugs and alcohol. In these conversations, schools need realize that there is a line between indifference and caring just a bit too much about what their students are doing in their free time. Colleges should provide an academic environment where students can learn and grow. As the factors of these academic environments change, colleges must too. On the other hand, students also have an obligation to make it possible for college administrations to help them in the first place. They need to cooperate with their schools when these sort of mistakes are made, and be honest when questions about their general health are asked. Student privacy and earnest discussion about sexuality are both important — university administrations must take care not to sacrifice too much of one for the sake of the other.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, January 25 print edition. Email Patrick Seaman at [email protected]