Columbia spending $2.5M to study students' sex lives

Columbia University is spending $2.5 million to study students’ sex lives and drinking habits, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan announced last week during a talk.

“The trustees of Columbia wrote a $2.5 million check to the faculty and said, 'Figure this out. What's going on with sex and the sex lives of students?” Khan said during a talk last week, according to Politico.

SHIFT, or the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, is a comprehensive study assessing “students’ sexual attitudes, intentions, and behaviors” and examining how students interact with each other “sexually and socially.”

[RELATED: Clemson required students to submit sexual history or face discipline]

Khan remarked that as a result of this study, student sex has been on his mind a lot, saying, “My life over the past two years has been thinking about college students and sex, and it's both really boring and really disturbing in sort of twin ways.”

The study involves professors conducting ethnographic research in campus bars—a move that has come under criticism from students who feel the research is akin to spying.

“I think that would be pretty weird and uncomfortable, especially if it's a professor you've had in the past," Barnard student Sara Taffel told The Columbia Spectator when news of the research broke last year. “It's also problematic, because a lot of students are underage, and that would cause a lot of anxiety if you see a professor."

Students confirmed that professors have indeed been seen in campus bars taking notes, talking to students, and even spelunking in dormitories.

[RELATED: USC students required to detail sexual history before registering for classes]

In fact, students don’t even need to sign a consent form to be involved in some of the research. Instead, students approached at places like bars and dorm parties only need to give verbal consent.

While many ethical issues have been raised, however, Columbia Professor Jennifer Hirsh insisted that the researchers are taking every precaution to protect confidentiality.

"It actually reduces the risk of the participant for there not to be a written form of consent. Otherwise, we would have to have a written record of the names of every person with whom we interacted," Hirsch told the Spectator. “Our goal is to collect information not on individuals, but to observe general patterns of social behavior.”

[RELATED: Millennials even want safe spaces from sex, study finds]

The study was announced in February 2015, not long after Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz began carrying a mattress around campus in protest of campus sexual assault policies. Her “Mattress Performance” was the catalyst for many student demands for increased sexual assault prevention campus.

“As we work to address gender-based misconduct, our highest priority remains to prevent sexual violence before it occurs,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger wrote in a press release for the study.

The ultimate goal of the research is to reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus, according to the study’s website.

“SHIFT will culminate in a series of recommendations to promote consensual and satisfying sexual interactions and prevent sexual assault,” the website says. “SHIFT will advance the science of sexual assault prevention everywhere. It’s a serious issue, and one that transcends the boundaries of our campus.”

Professor Khan declined to comment about the research for Campus Reform. When asked whether the study funded in any way by student tuition, spokespersons for Columbia declined to comment on the record.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen