Margaret Eby
February 24, 2015 12:03 pm

Thanks to Emma Sulkowicz, the sexual assault survivor who sparked a national conversation when she began carrying her mattress to class as part of her senior thesis, Columbia University has been at the center of the ongoing debate over whether school administrations do enough to address rape and sexual violence on campus. Now, the school has finally responded with a new measure, but some students don’t think it’s enough.

Columbia’s new Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative includes a new educational requirement for all students, providing them with five options to choose between to complete their sexual respect coursework, including a discussion workshop and an arts initiative. The aim is to raise awareness and educate students on issues of sexual respect. But the problem, some students say, is that not all options are equally effective. According to the on-campus newspaper The Columbia Spectator, the arts option is particularly controversial.

The arts option requires participants to submit a piece of visual or performance art responding to a prompt about sexual boundaries. These can be dance, video, theater, photography, poetry, visual arts, prose, painting, or performing arts, as long as they represent what the school terms “a good-faith effort” to address the topic. While art is a powerful way to explore serious issues (in fact Sulkowicz’ mattress protest is an art project), some students argue it might be more effective as a supplemental project in addition to a mandatory workshop discussion on sexual respect.

“A creative project can be very powerful and very informative and can also definitely effect change,” student Nick Wolferman told the Spectator. “For our purposes, to self-impose a community standard revolving on self-respect — the workshops should have been the sole and primary means through which we did that.”

“There’s really no mechanism to say whether or not a student actually digested the material,” another student told the paper. “It’s not that students at Columbia aren’t incredibly smart — it’s just that talking about this requires a dialogue.”

Sulkowicz, whose “Carry That Weight” project is perhaps the best example of art in response to sexual trauma, thinks that the new requirement neither produces true art nor understanding of the issue. And that may be the core problem.

“True art is born out of necessity, not creative response assignments,” Sulkowicz told the Spectator. “The problem is that creative responses come from bureaucratic administrators telling you what to do, while art comes from the heart. The way things stand, most students will not be able to create any art, nor will they have learned anything about safe, consensual sex.”

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