Imagine what it would be like to have a campus where sexual harassment, assault, stalking, and other gender-based misconduct never occurred. Now, think about what it would take to get there, so that all students would see themselves as having a role in eliminating gender-based violence.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this recently when hundreds of Columbia athletes gathered for workshops on learning the difference between healthy and troubled relationships and how to help themselves or a friend who might be at risk. I continued thinking about this when another group of student volunteers jumped into a training session with MTV’s Francisco Ramirez so that they would be ready to lead their own workshops on sexual respect in the coming weeks.
So, what would it take to move from imagining change to making it happen? The easiest and most tangible way—this month and in the weeks ahead—is for every Columbia student to participate in the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative and to encourage your friends and classmates to do the same.
Skills, information, and support to create real change is what the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative is all about. It asks all Columbia students to reflect—and act—on the link between sexual respect and being a member of this community. The Initiative’s thought-provoking workshops, films, and other options are, in effect, calls to action and reminders: Ultimately, it is up to each of us to help shape the community in which we study, work, and live.
What is sexual respect? It is a commitment to communicating and acting with integrity and respect for others. And it is an unequivocal rejection of sexual harassment, sexual assault, partner violence, stalking, and all forms of gender-based misconduct.
Since the first week of classes, headlines on this issue have highlighted the challenges of responding to sexual assault on college campuses, and Trump administration officials have raised questions about future interpretations of Title IX.
These are critically important issues, of course, and at Columbia we will maintain an extensive gender-based misconduct policy and procedures, including a wide range of confidential and privacy-protecting resources for support.
Yet, the immediate challenge is the one I mentioned at the outset: What steps can you take to help make the vision of a campus free from gender-based misconduct into a reality? Margaret Mead really did have a point when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
For some, a first step will be learning about what we mean by sexual harassment or how to support a friend who has experienced sexual violence. For others, it will be learning how to listen and really understand that “I’m not sure” doesn’t mean “I consent” and that “no” doesn’t mean “ok.”
For others, still, achieving sexual respect will involve becoming more comfortable expressing what they want—whether “no,” “yes,” or “maybe”—or hosting a workshop during which friends discuss how hard it can be to talk about consent, healthy relationships, and how sexual respect fits into your life.
The Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative gives you a place to start now. It runs September 25 through October 29, with workshops and film screenings this week, and a special event with CNN’s Lisa Ling about the ways sex is stigmatized and politicized in the United States, even before people get to college.
Whatever you choose to do, by participating in the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, you will join more than 50,000 Columbia students who have taken important steps toward creating change. Check out the participation options on the Sexual Respect website—or design your own independent project. Let’s imagine what we can achieve—and let’s take the steps, working together, to get there.
Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg is executive vice president for University Life and the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. She directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law there, and co-chairs the Presidential Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault.
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