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Inadequate sex education and socialization collide in college spaces that stymie consent

Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus

Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan
432 pp.
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Although there are variations in format and content, there are also remarkable similarities in orientation programs designed to introduce freshmen to college life. All programs instruct students on practical matters such as course scheduling, academic advising, and choosing a major. But most programs also have sessions on navigating campus life outside the classroom, with at least one session addressing issues related to healthy relationships.

According to Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, authors of Sexual Citizens, these sessions help students become “acutely attuned to the importance of consent.” Nevertheless, as they convincingly demonstrate in this profoundly eye-opening book, in their everyday social interactions, many students rely on a variety of tacit signals and contextual cues to discern consent. In short, despite students’ ability to recite verbatim the legal standard of affirmative consent, their behavior belies their knowledge.

Sexual Citizens is one of the products of a 5-year study of undergraduates at Columbia University called the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT). The goal of SHIFT was to identify the social causes of campus sexual assault in order to develop more effective prevention strategies. This mixed-methods project, involving nearly 30 researchers from multiple disciplines, included a population-based survey, a 60-day daily diary study, 17 focus groups, multihour interviews, and hundreds of hours of ethnographic field observation of students socializing in various settings.

Throughout the book, we hear from a broad range of student participants. Some of their stories are harrowing, others are heartbreaking. But Hirsch and Khan succeed in relating all of the students’ accounts with empathy rather than moralistic judgment, and in doing so, they allow readers to recognize similarities to their own students, or their children, or perhaps even their younger selves.

Hirsch and Khan present a novel model for explaining and responding to campus sexual assault. At its crux are three concepts: sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies.

Sexual projects are the reasons why people seek particular sexual experiences. As Hirsch and Khan point out, many of the students studied were “figuring out their sexual projects through trial and error,” primarily because no one had talked to them much about sex, except to condemn it as bad or to scare them into not having it. The negative consequences for these students, they argue, derive largely from their lack of comprehensive sex education and the unwillingness of most parents to have conversations with their children that “conveyed that sex would be an important and potentially joyful part of their life, and so they should think about what they wanted from sex, and how to realize those desires from other people in a respectful way.”

The concept of sexual citizenship refers to one’s own and others’ equivalent right to sexual self-determination. In discussing this concept, Hirsch and Khan explore the reasons why “some people feel entitled to others’ bodies, and others do not feel entitled to their own bodies.” Again, students’ lack of comprehensive sex education and sexual socialization is a critical explanatory factor: “Sexual illiteracy reflects a denial of young people’s sexual citizenship, with a consequent climate of shame and silence that are part of the social context of campus sexual assault.”

Hirsch and Khan use the concept of sexual geographies to integrate the role that built environments play in students’ behavior and interactions. Think, for example, of the typical place on campus where a student couple can hang out with a modicum of privacy: a cramped dorm room where the most comfortable place to sit is the twin bed. As Hirsch and Khan demonstrate throughout Sexual Citizens, “these spatial dynamics—control, access, feeling at ease—are major players in sexual assault.”

Hirsch and Khan present the familiar statistics on campus sexual assault and also spend considerable time addressing one of the well-known risk factors: alcohol consumption, particularly binge drinking. But the authors’ three-pronged explanatory model is far more valuable in that it redirects our attention from individual bad actors to focus instead on the social roots of campus sexual assault. In the concluding chapter of Sexual Citizens, Hirsch and Kahn deftly draw on several recent public health campaigns to underline the possibility of successful interventions through collective action. Here, they make recommendations to parents, politicians, policy-makers, religious leaders, educators, university administrators, and community members more broadly.

If we wish to raise children for whom the risk of sexual assault is significantly reduced, we must all share responsibility for eliminating confusion around sexual projects, bringing clarity to the right to sexual citizenship, and creating sexual geographies that reduce power inequalities.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Research on Violence Against Women and the Department of Sociology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506, USA, and editor of the journal Violence Against Women (Sage Publications).