Editor’s Note: This post contains discussions of sexual assault.
When I spotted another undergraduate at the book launch for Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, I knew that this book’s publication was a big deal (As Bwog’s former Events Editor, I speak from experience when I say this is something of a rare occurrence for campus events). Written by Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, a professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Dr. Shamus Khan, the chair of the Columbia Sociology department, the book is one of the products of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a five-year study of Columbia undergraduates. Hirsch described it as “our interpretation of the portion of the data” from SHIFT. Among these data were ethnographic interviews with over 150 undergraduate students who opened up to researchers about some of their most intimate experiences, experiences which form the backbone of both the book and the discussion we attended.
Suzanne Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life, offered opening remarks for the panel largely by putting the SHIFT study into its recent historical context. SHIFT, of which Hirsch is co-director and Khan is co-head of the ethnographic team, was born from a particularly fraught moment in the conversation regarding campus sexual assault at Columbia. In 2014, Emma Sulkoicz’s visual arts senior thesis Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) brought the scrutiny of the national media to an issue that campus activists had, in Goldberg’s words, “protesting vigorously” for many years. SHIFT thus became an opportunity to “deeply understand what’s happening in our community” in regards to sexual assault and work toward finding a solution. Goldberg framed this effort as part of the university’s “unique capacity to take longstanding problems…and devote our resources to studying them” and noted that the study has already impacted how we think about sexual assault at Columbia—though both the talk and the Q&A would serve to highlight that we still have a long way to go.
After these remarks, the panel began in earnest. It was moderated by Dr. Jennifer Ashton—a Columbia alumna and parent, medical correspondent for ABC News, author, and OB-GYN practicing for 15 years—who was able to filter the perspective Sexual Citizens offers through a variety of lenses for the audience. Her guidance proved especially helpful because, unlike many of the conversations I’ve been exposed to regarding sexual assault on campus, Sexual Citizens is concerned not with the adjudication of sexual assault—whether professors should be mandatory reporters for instance or the ways in which the reporting process can be restructured to better support survivors—but rather the ways in which assault can be prevented in the first place. Khan and Hirsch both stressed that those issues are important but because only around 5% of assaults are ever reported; We need to “stop working one penis at a time” and begin dealing with this issue at its root, whatever that might be.
Of course, that’s easier said than done and much of the talk was simply laying out the different complexities at stake here. The “consent framework” that we all learn during NSOP, while helpful, doesn’t always help us get a complete picture of the problems surrounding sex on college campuses. Khan told the story of a young woman who performed oral sex that she didn’t actually want to give simply to get out of a situation. While the encounter was ostensibly consensual, it was a “fundamental failure of the sexual citizenship of two people.” The concept of a sexual citizen is defined as recognizing that you have the right to say yes and the right to say no to any sexual act or situation and that your partner has those same rights. Hirsch and Kan have found in their research that men, in particular, are more attentive to their own wants but not that of their partner, leading to a breakdown of sexual citizenship in these encounters.
This took us into the core of the panel, which asked: who is responsible for this failure to communicate that Hirsch, Khan, and the rest of the SHIFT team consistently saw in their interviews with college students? The answers are numerous but fundamentally, Hirsch pointed to families, schools and religious organizations because “they’re changeable.” Instead of teaching kids to “wait ’til marriage and maybe you’ll die,” from an unspecified STI, these groups have the power to teach teens how to “have sex that’s pleasurable.” Much of the blame was focused on a lack of health literacy and poor sexual education in schools. As many current Columbia students can probably attest, sexual education is very biological: We graduate knowing how HIV is transmitted and how babies are made, but not why people have sex and what role it plays in our lives and relationships. A metaphor Hirsch and Khan use in the book likens our current practices to teaching a teenager to drive; You wouldn’t do it “by teaching them about spark plugs.” Khan saw calling on state legislators to implement a comprehensive sexual education program in their state as the most important step to take in improving our sexual citizenship.
Still, parents play a huge role in how they talk to their children about sex. Khan brought up that college is probably too late to start having these conversations because the biggest predictor of whether someone will be sexually assaulted in college is an assault in high school. Parents, as such, need to be willing to have conversations with teens about sex, not, as in one paradigmatic anecdote, tell their daughters they don’t want to know if they’re even on birth control. Students who don’t have parents open to those kinds of conversations need to find people who are willing to talk to them about their struggles and experiences, answer their questions, and more. They also suggested that parents can read the book and use it as a case study to discuss the issue if they don’t want to think about their own child having sex.
But, before we can improve our sex education or reframe our familial conversations about sex, the researchers first dug deeper into these questions of the role sex currently plays in the lives of college students. They asked students “what is sex for?” because that’s fundamental in starting to understand what risk factors for sexual assault might be. It boiled down to five main “sexual projects”: building a self-identity, impressing others, connecting with partners, being good at sex, and pleasure. Khan called this question “an absolute failure” because participants often didn’t know how to answer it and the answers they did offer were complex. But, this complexity is the point. People have sex for different reasons at different times and as such “there is no vaccine for sexual assault.” Instead, we have to think seriously about how all these different projects can affect how we think about ourselves as sexual citizens and how we treat others. Hirsch and Khan stressed that they tried not to be judgemental of the reasons anyone was having sex, and no one should be, but we do have to create different frameworks for talking about sex in these different situations. For example, people who choose to have sex because they’re afraid they’ll be bad at it and want to improve might need guidance toward realizing “good sex” is partner-specific—no matter how much you practice, different people enjoy different things. On the other hand, those who have sex because they want to look good in the eyes of their peers might not realize how this sexual project leads to the objectification of their partner—which Khan and Hirsch mentioned can then result in someone being more likely to commit sexual assault.
This complexity also gestures toward the thing I most appreciated about this talk: its focus on inclusivity of all kinds. When Dr. Ashton asked Dr. Hirsch about the book’s intended audience, she answered: “anyone with any kind of parts—we’re outside of the binary.” The experiences of LGBTQ+ students, who face some of the highest rates of sexual assault are discussed at length both in the book and during the panel, boiling down to a central idea that queer students are, in Khan’s words, “not taught how to have a sexual voice.” Sexual education, when it’s given at all, focuses largely on heterosexual experiences (something I myself experienced in high school) and society as a whole have made “those desires shameful” by ostracizing and ignoring the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. Khan also highlighted some of the racial dynamics at play in discussions of sexual assault; for example, every Black woman SHIFT interviewed had experienced unwanted sexual touching. It becomes obvious then that we have to talk about racial justice in conversations about sexual assault prevention. The inclusion of “power” in the book’s title is very deliberate—and it’s at this point that it became most clear to me why it is vital we discuss more than just gender when we have these conversations. Power operates on so many different levels and contexts: gender, race, age, sexuality, religion, and more. If we don’t include these voices in conversations about sexual assault prevention, we will never be able to solve the problem.
Columbia has been criticized again and again over its handling of sexual assault cases, with Sulkoicz’s project being merely the most high-profile example. However, Hirsch brought up a step Columbia has taken to tackle the problem in the face of this new research. It’s not the NSOP training or the great work SVR does on a daily basis; rather, it’s JJ’s being open 22 hours a day. As Hirsch noted, that opens up a space for people who don’t want their night to end after the bars close and the parties end that isn’t a dorm room where the only comfortable space to sit is a bed. By opening up that space overnight, Columbia has taken a small but tangible step in the right direction that many students probably haven’t even thought to include in their thinking on “sexual assault prevention.”
I’m skipping over most of the Q&A, in part because it was one of the best-run Q&As of any event I’ve attended. I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the sheer amount of information they managed to pack into an approximately 30-minute segment. However, there is one moment I would like to highlight, as felt like it showed me one of the ways in which sexual assault prevention requires all of us to take charge and work to better the community even as we push university administrators and American legislators to do their part. It was in response to a question I asked regarding the ways student groups can help promote sexual citizenship. Hirsch noted that, in part, student groups can do their part to be more inclusive of non-first-year students. The exclusivity of clubs is something Columbia continues to struggle with, forming the platform of many a CCSC candidate and the inspiration for my very first Bwog post, and it’s important that we open up clubs for a variety of reasons. But more than that, as Hirsch pointed out, exclusive clubs encourage people to stay in environments with someone who assaulted them because they don’t know if they’ll be accepted anywhere else and don’t want to give up extracurriculars they’re passionate about.
There’s much more to say on this subject, at least enough to fill one entire book (one that I’m eager to dive into), so forgive the many things I’ve had to skip or summarize to keep this piece from being a novel itself. Still, even after just an hour and a half of discussion, I can confidently say that I feel like Sexual Citizens adds something vital to the conversation about campus sexual assault. College students are angry that their voices and the voices of people they live with, learn with, and love have been ignored in these conversations for so long. This book amplifies that voice, makes it the center of the conversation without the victim-blaming I’ve seen time and time again in these discussions. It takes our lives and experiences seriously and empowers us all to work together to build a future where we will all have our sexual citizenship respected.
But as important as it is, conversation is not enough to create a better world. So pick up a copy of the book, call your school board, or rethink your club’s admissions policies. It’s time to be good citizens and get to work, together.
The following are some of the resources available on campus for survivors of sexual assault. Further information about the confidentiality and services they provide is available through the websites and phone numbers linked below:
waiting for the panel to begin via Bwog Staff