Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on College Campuses

Groundbreaking Research

Sexual Citizens, by Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, offers a new paradigm for understanding and addressing the persistent problem of sexual assault on college campuses. It is the culmination of five years of research presented with clarity, empathy, and powerful stories of young people who are both survivors and perpetrators of assault. It is an important new book for teens and young adults, for the parents who love them, the educators and advocates who care about them, and the policy makers whose decisions impact their lives.  

Hirsch and Khan define sexual citizenship as every individual’s right to sexual self-determination and every individual’s responsibility to recognize that right in others. Their work broadens our perspective from the good guy/predator dichotomy to a fuller picture of where, how and why sexual assaults happen and what colleges can do to move beyond adjudication to prevention. They focus on creating institutions and cultures that foster diversity, freedom of self-expression, and sexual agency. Their conclusions are based on research done as part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT).

SHIFT was launched in 2015, funded by Columbia University and lead by Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Ann Mellins. Its goal: “to advance the science of sexual assault prevention and to contribute to building a healthier and safer undergraduate community” For five years they worked with nearly thirty other researchers; talking with students, spending time with them in places that are meaningful to them and observing them in their daily lives. They accomplished one of the most comprehensive studies of campus sexual assault to date. Sexual Citizens draws primarily upon ethnographic research led by Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan which consisted of over 150 interviews with Columbia and Barnard College undergraduates who shared stories of their lives and how sex fit into them.

What is sexual assault?

They define sexual assault as any unwanted, nonconsensual sexual contact including rape, attempted rape, and nonconsensual sexual touching. Rape is not sex. But comparing assault to sex helps to better understand both. Many campus assaults begin as consensual sex, then there are critical moments when the encounter shifts from consensual sex to assault, sometimes with one person still thinking they are having sex. On the other hand, sometimes the withdrawal of consent is recognized and respected and the encounter stops. This research looks at what makes the difference.

Consent and adjudication

Consent has been a primary focus of rape prevention since the 1990’s. There has been a lot of discussion and education about consent, but this hasn’t significantly reduced incidences of assault. Neither has Title IX, The Cleary Act, or The Violence Against Women Act, all focused on adjudication and holding offenders and institutions accountable.  While these are all important to the movement toward gender equality and safety, statistics tell us that little has changed regarding sexual assault on college campuses. The SHIFT survey found that more than one in four women, one in eight men, and more than one in three gender non-conforming students said they had been assaulted. Many of these students were assaulted not once but, on average, three times.

Consent in the context of power

Most students are well informed about consent, but consent alone is not sufficient to prevent sexual assault. First, it is important to consider consent in the context of power. Sexual Citizens looks at the relationship between institutional power – based in gender, racial, and economic inequality – and sexual assault. It also explores the shifting interpersonal dynamics among students and student groups where power may be defined by age, sexual experience, status, or access to space or support. Students describe unwanted sexual encounters that happen in a variety of contexts where they were disempowered; assaults that were the result of confusion, feelings of obligation, fear of rejection, or vulnerability because they lacked resources to gain access to transportation or a safe space. They also found that while students talk about the importance of consent many, particularly women, acknowledge they rarely, if ever, have specifically asked for consent before having sex.

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Engaging in an adversarial process

Since 2011 most colleges have developed procedures for filing a formal complaint against a student for sexual assault. This offers one important form of redress, but adjudication is an adversarial process that focuses on punishment rather than prevention. It does not address the complexities students deal with in the aftermath of an assault. 75% of students are assaulted by someone within their friend group, often someone they have an intimate relationship with. They are concerned with preserving their friend group, with their own feelings of confusion and self-blame, and with destroying the reputation and future of someone they genuinely care about. They are also aware that power and privilege skew the process. Even though many institutions provide a free attorney advisor to students filing a complaint, assailants who have economic privilege and social status have advantages including hiring high priced attorneys and using their connections to destroy the reputation of the complainant. Once involved in the process students find their experience, their needs, and their voice are ignored, and many feel revictimized. While most students say they would like their assailant to be aware of the harm caused and take responsibility, they are not interested in retribution. When filing charges is the only recourse, they choose instead to turn to friends for support and do their best to move on.

Three paradigm changing concepts

Through three concepts – sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographiesSexual Citizens offers a new way to frame student’s experiences with pleasurable sex and sexual assault. Together these concepts help us understand why sexual assault is a predictable result of how institutions are organized, but also highlight changes that can make it less likely.

Sexual projects

When students were asked why they had sex, most had never fully considered the question. Identifying sexual projects answers the question why. Sexual projects encompass a person’s reasons for seeking a particular sexual experience. Researchers identified five basic sexual projects: experiencing pleasure, connecting emotionally, exploring or defining one’s sexuality, gaining sexual experience, impressing others. A person might have sex to increase status, or for comfort, or to fulfill a specific fantasy. People don’t have just one sexual project. They have many. Wanting sex for one reason does not exclude wanting it for another. Many students felt confusion, shame, and fear about their sexual desires because no one had engaged in open, non-judgmental communication with them. They were left to navigate this complicated terrain on their own. Some used alcohol to quell their discomfort. Rather than having sex because they were drunk, they were drinking in order to have sex.

Parents and educators fail young people when we don’t open the door for honest, non-judgmental education and conversation about sexual intimacy. When we don’t help them define their own reasons and values around sex, we leave it to them to glean what they can from their peers, from the media, and from pornography. And we indicate that there is something shameful about talking about sex when it is these very conversations with potential partners that can make the difference between engaging in consensual sex and either purposely or inadvertently engaging in unwanted sex.

Sexual citizenship

While sexual projects are personal and focus on the individual’s right to self-expression and self-determination, sexual citizenship is about creating a social contract which promotes the right of self-determination for all people. This concept directly dismantles the status quo where some people feel entitled to others’ bodies and others don’t feel entitled to their own body. Hirsch and Khan see sexual citizenship as a community project in which the state has a fundamental role.

Providing comprehensive, medically accurate sex education on a variety of topics that address birth control, consent, power and entitlement, and topics relevant to LGBTQ youth is fundamental to fostering sexual citizenship. Unfortunately, rather than creating policies that promote sexual citizenship, we are moving in the opposite direction. Young people who suffer most often come from rural and poor communities where they have little access to medically accurate information. These important conversations can begin at home, but to assure all young people have equal access to education it must be integrated into school curriculum, college orientations, and workshops offered in variety of workplace and educational settings.

Sexual geography

Sexual geography is literally about physical space. The authors cite work done by social scientists that shows how space can significantly influence behavior. For example, they point out that a person will likely behave differently in a place of worship than at their best friend’s house. They look at the elements of campus geography that increase risk and how campuses allocate space in ways that perpetuate power inequalities.

While freshmen are the least experienced and most vulnerable to sexual assault, advanced students have better housing and more access to privacy. Younger students are left to build relationships in crowded spaces, often dorm rooms where a room mate has been asked to leave, with no place to sit but a bed; a scenario that sets the stage for one or both people to feel obligated to have or pursue sex that they may not actually want. Or, seeking more desirable gathering spaces, younger students gravitate toward socializing with older students whose age and social status create an unequal power dynamic. National Greek-life policies allow fraternities to serve alcohol, but not sororities, giving men control of spaces where gatherings and parties take place. LGBTQ students and students from non-white cultural backgrounds find the music and general atmosphere of campus social gatherings predominately reflect the preferences of heterosexual white students. A number of students describe leaving campus to connect with young people they feel more aligned with, only to find themselves stranded without money or public transportation to make their way back to campus. As colleges attract and admit a more diverse population, they have an obligation to create safe space that reflects and supports this diversity. Understanding space as more than a backdrop, but an actual player in how social interactions unfold is critical to creating safer campus experiences.

The power of the group

Sexual relationships generally happen in the context of the community or group to which participants belong. Friends often set up relationships, weigh in on whether the partner is desirable, and help interpret sexual encounters. Individual behavior within a group either enhances or reduces the status of the group. The power of the group is why bystander programs that train students to recognize and interrupt unwanted sexual advances are shown to reduce campus sexual assault, but SHIFT researchers found that bystander interventions can have unintended consequences.

They found that most interventions were done by men who saw themselves as “protectors” of women. This gendered approach operates in a framework that maintains male power over women, leaves men at risk by ignoring their need for protection, and does not recognize that LGBTQ students face the highest risk for sexual assault.

SHIFT also found that group members were more likely to interpret an outsider’s behavior as “creepy” or “rapey” and less likely to acknowledge high-status group member’s behavior as unacceptable. The group has the power to destroy the social life of one student, while protecting another in order to preserve the status and harmony of the group.

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Investing in the future

Hirsch and Khan take a deep look at the complex power dynamics underlying assault on college campuses. They dismantle what isn’t working and build upon what is. They do not address the predatory rapist. The one who intentionally targets someone and sets them up, who plies them with alcohol, rufies their drink, forces themself on another for their own pleasure. While a small percentage of students fit this description, most do not. Most students do not want to rape each other. They want an empowering college experience which includes, among other things, meaningful, consensual sex. Sexual Citizens is for and about them.

This thoughtful, nuanced work is a roadmap to implementing systematic change. It calls for a public health approach that acknowledges the physical and mental harm that is happening and invests in research and widespread programs for prevention. It calls upon all of us to help young people learn to navigate their own desires in the context of respecting the right to self-determination of all people. The authors ask that we break the silence around sex, move beyond fear-based messaging, and share the responsibility to foster educated, empathetic sexual citizens. And they provide the direction to do exactly that.

Go HERE to listen to nationally recognized self-defense teacher Silvia Smart interview Jennifer Hirsch about Sexual Citizens as part of Silvia’s podcast series The Empowerment Project.

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