Amid ongoing discussions about sexual assault and consent on campus, the new General Education course Ethical Reasoning 42: “Sexual Ethics as Ethical Reasoning” asks students to challenge their preconceived notions about sex and morality.
The new offering comes on the heels of a recent sexual assault climate survey, which found that more than 30 percent of surveyed undergraduate senior women had experienced some form of sexual assault while at Harvard. Because of those findings, some of the course’s 125 students said they find the course deeply relevant.
“The class really makes you question your own sexual ethics, which is really important,” Gabriella A. Germanos ’18 said. “Sexual ethics related to consent and sexual violence is something people are talking about a lot right now, so I think it’s a particularly salient class.”
Mark D. Jordan, a women and gender studies professor, teaches the course. He is also a member of a University-wide task force assigned to review Harvard’s Title IX policies, which were introduced in 2014. According to Jordan, the course is designed to help students look critically at commonly held beliefs about sexual ethics.
“Ethics isn’t neutral information. Ethics is active formation,” Jordan wrote in an email. “So an essential part of teaching sexual ethics is getting people to reflect honestly both on what they believe and on how they have been led to those beliefs.”
In the course, students read a variety of texts to understand the antecedents of current thought and the differences in sexual norms that have existed across cultures and times. For students like Julia B. Wiener ’19, this study of older ethical texts is meaningful.
“A lot of the things that we take for granted are coming from these really old ideas,” Wiener said. “We can think that they’re really logical and someone decided them a while ago, but it’s important to rethink it.”
For Kira C. Telgen ’19, a student in the class, the course offers an opportunity to look at sexual ethics from new perspectives.
“I guess because I’m from a conservative town and I’ve been raised in a very Christian background, I’ve been raised with an idea of what my sexual ethics should be,” Telgen said. “I don’t necessarily want to challenge that, but I want to reflect on what my values are.”
Such self-reflection, along with discussion of topics like sexual assault, can sometimes be difficult for students, Jordan wrote. As a result, the course heads took steps, including talking with Title IX representatives, to ensure students are aware of the resources available to them.
“You can’t teach sexual ethics—or any kind of ethics—by avoiding painful questions on which there is strong disagreement,” Jordan wrote. “At the same time, you never want to teach ethics unethically, in ways that harm members of the class or manipulate them or treat them disrespectfully.”
For Telgen, some discomfort is a necessary part of the course.
“It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable,” Telgen said. “It’s supposed to put you out of your comfort zone, to challenge you to think about what your own ethics are and the ethics of the society.”
—Staff writer Jonathan Adler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.