Jennifer S. Hirsch & Shamus Kahn on Sexual Citizens

In recent years, college campuses have come to the forefront of national conversations about sexual assault: its causes, the stigma survivors endure when they report, the consequences (or lack thereof) perpetrators face if exposed. CPRC affiliates Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan discuss their new book, Sexual Citizens (W. W. Norton & Company, Jan. 14, 2020), 

January 13, 2020
Grey and cream striped book cover with Sexual Citizens in bold, red font

1. What’s the main takeaway from Sexual Citizens?

There’s so much fear – among parents, students, and administrators – about campus sexual assault, and the public conversation has focused a lot on predators, or on how to improve adjudication. Sexual Citizens’ focus is on prevention – on what we can all do to make campus sexual assault less common. And by all, we really mean *all* -- parents, students themselves, K-12 schools, faith communities, politicians, and of course institutions of higher education.

2. What did you find that was surprising? 

Our readers may find it surprising to see that you can’t understand campus sexual assault without also understanding sex on campus. Of course sex isn’t assault. But a lot of people who assault others actually think that they are having sex. But our point is not that this is a ‘he said, she said’ thing – it’s that no one has taught many young people to have sex in ways that don’t harm other people.

Another point that may catch people by surprise (and particularly white people) is the connection between campus sexual assault and racial discrimination. Every single Black woman we spoke with in the ethnography had experienced unwanted nonconsensual sexual touching. Every. Single. One. That points to the importance of grounding sexual assault prevention work in a racial justice framework as well as a gender justice one. Or, as people say now, thinking about this problem intersectionally. 

3. What’s not happening that should be, to prevent campus sexual assault?

Much more can be done to prevent the assaults that happen out of ignorance or self-absorption. One of the things that’s really unusual about Sexual Citizens is that we share the stories of people who assaulted other people without understanding that that is what they were doing. Those ‘acts of entitlement’, as we describe them, point to the need to prepare young people better to have sex so that they are able to do so in a way that doesn’t harm others. Comprehensive, K-12 sex education can teach young people to think critically about gender, sexuality and power, and give them the skills to listen to navigate complex interactions respectfully and kindly. And conversations between parents and children about what sex is for – as we discuss in the book, ‘sexual projects’, open the door to communicating values about sex and intimacy.

4. What role did CPRC play in enabling you to carry out this work?

Sexual Citizens draws on the ethnographic component of a much larger study, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), which was funded by Columbia University and co-directed by Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Ann Mellins. In some ways, SHIFT would never have happened with CPRC – it involved a team of eight faculty from across the campus, and some of those cross-campus connections (like with Louisa Gilbert in the School of Social Work) developed through CPRC.  And CPRC’s research computing support was vital in the implementation of both the ethnography and the population-based survey.