At 3:30 pm on Friday, sociologists Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan joined Being Barnard for an Instagram live stream where they discussed some findings from their book, Sexual Citizens, an investigation of the culture of sexual relations at Columbia and Barnard. 

Being Barnard’s 2021 season of “Friday Focus” kicked off with an Instagram livestream of an interview with Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan, the authors of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. Hirsch is a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Khan is a professor at Princeton University who taught in the Columbia sociology department for thirteen years. 

The two authors, interviewed by Cristen Kennedy, the Program Coordinator for Prevention Education at Barnard, discussed the purpose and findings of their research into the sexual lives of students at Columbia University, including Barnard. Hirsch and Khan agreed that the motivation behind their book was to “change the national conversation about sexual assault.” Acknowledging the scope of this goal, Khan joked, “Jennifer and I are not modest people.” He described Sexual Citizens as being “the most optimistic book you could read about campus sexual assault;” however, because of the authors’ determination to make concrete changes into the way college campuses allow for a culture of sexual assault.

Professor Hirsch emphasized the intersectional nature of the issue of sexual assault. She described the ways in which the systems of wealth inequality, racial inequality, and gender inequality can combine to shape students’ experience of sexual assault. According to Professor Hirsch, because of the way that whiteness and wealth function in a campus space, “men who may not be bad people end up being put in a position where they end up hurting people.”

She also addressed the key role that sexual education plays in shaping how or if college students experience assault. The authors discussed the inadequacies of America’s current sexual education system—they described it as being too shame- and risk-based and not focused enough on students’ pleasure and bodily autonomy. According to their research, women who had received comprehensive sex education before coming to college were half as likely to be assaulted as women who hadn’t. Noting that students who came from privileged backgrounds were more likely to have had this comprehensive sex education, Hirsch said, “It’s as if we have the vaccine already, we’re just choosing to let only rich kids get it.” 

Professor Khan addressed the issue of how campuses themselves enable sexual assault by their very design. Giving the example of Barnard, where upperclassmen have access to “better housing” than freshman, Khan noted that in a situation where a Barnard senior and a Barnard freshman were hanging out together and wanted to go to one of their rooms, they would most likely end up going to the senior’s room. This is an example of a systemic problem whereby younger students are funneled into spaces that older students control, giving the students less power and less autonomy. He added that this issue also exists with regard to whiteness, with white spaces being privileged on the college campus.

However, Khan sees the COVID-19 pandemic as providing an opportunity for the reconfiguration of campus space that was not available before. Because conversations about quarantine, distancing, and space are now widespread, there is a window for the rethinking of spaces that may contribute to power imbalances. 

Professor Hirsch pointed out that, as a result of the pandemic, many freshman and underclassmen are missing out on the opportunity to experiment with sexual intimacy and are potentially missing sexual milestones that they had been anticipating. Hirsch and Khan stressed the need for American culture to avoid creating a moralistic sex panic out of the issues of the pandemic, noting that it is far safer for a college student to have individual sex partners at various different times than for a college student to go to a “frat party in the basement.” 

When asked for the one thing that they believed would help shift the social trajectory of campus sexual assault, Professor Hirsch answered that “equality is a sexual assault prevention strategy.” In other words, because sexual assault is so influenced by and combined with systematic inequalities—of race, of gender, of wealth, of educational background—there is no good way to address assault without addressing all the factors that contribute to it. Professor Khan answered that we need to “build in more stakeholders” to the issue of campus sexual assault by making people around the country aware of the issue and of the part they can play in reducing or exacerbating it. 

As the conversation ended, the authors reiterated that their aim with the book was to create a national campaign to address the problem, and that they felt optimistic, rather than defeatist, about the issue of campus sexual assault. By bringing the conversation to wider attention, they hope to increase the sense of investment and empowerment that college students seeking to combat sexual assault can feel. 

The paperback edition of Sexual Citizens comes out on Tuesday, January 26.

Image via Being Barnard’s Instagram