A decade ago, I was a resident adviser in a residential college at a highly selective university. My colleagues and I used to roll our eyes at the highly legalistic “affirmative consent” model of sexual education that we were asked to teach first-year students. Focused on the idea that sexual assault could be prevented purely by telling students that they must hear their partners explicitly say “yes” to sex, it had little to do with either sex or education.
In fact, after the workshops, all talk of sex seemed to end. As the condoms in the envelopes we left outside our doors steadily disappeared, we resident advisers drew a veil of discretion over the sex that the students were—or weren’t—having. And so did they. A friend who wrote the sex advice column in the student newspaper in those days recently recalled that he had made up most of the questions he was tasked with answering, since no one ever submitted any.
I thought back on these experiences while reading Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan’s Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020). Over five years, Hirsch, Khan, and their research team conducted one of the largest-ever studies of undergraduate sexual behavior on one residential campus, Columbia University, to understand why sexual assault occurs and how it can be prevented.
It’s a grisly scene. Hirsch and Khan describe a campus culture conducive to sexual assault, its tone largely set by affluent, white, straight American students, young adults who have come of age without either good sex education or the communication skills to talk with one another frankly about their sexual desires. It is a world in which women find it easier to consent to bad sex they don’t want than to say what they do want. Masculine norms constrain men’s ability either to identify as victims of sexual assault, or to talk about their fears that they might slide over the line and become rapists. It is a world in which students rely heavily on alcohol in order to overcome their anxieties enough to have sex at all, and one in which social inequality contributes to markedly higher rates of assault experienced by students of color and LGBTQ+ students.
Through vivid examples drawn from extensive ethnographic interviews that sometimes make for difficult reading, Hirsch and Khan offer an extremely compelling, original analysis of campus cultures that set the stage for sexual violence. They also offer some promising suggestions for combating it, ideas that get to the heart of what the residential liberal-arts model of higher education might do to save itself.
Hirsch and Khan urge us to direct our attention away from the now-familiar paradigm of the malicious, misogyny-driven fraternity party assault. Instead, they reframe sexual assault as structural “rather than solely a problem of individual bad actors.” Sexual assault is produced through campus geographies, such as the lack of privacy for first-year students; power dynamics including race, socioeconomic status, and popularity; and lack of sex education prior to college.
But campus sexual assault may not even look like what we imagine rape to be. Instead of a violent attack, Hirsch and Khan’s research suggests that these unwanted encounters are more likely to be suffered by a woman who, late at night in a dorm room and probably while both individuals are under the influence of alcohol, performs oral sex on a man in order to end things more quickly because she does not know how, or feel empowered, to say “no” to sex.
Gendered power relations set the stage for sexual assault, as they always have. But the power dynamics in play are more diffuse than a narrow focus on toxic masculinity suggests. They cannot fully be addressed through rituals of consent, since the woman in this situation may well give verbal consent when she doesn’t want to have sex. And these power dynamics are not addressed by the kind of bystander intervention awareness that assumes assaults are committed by predators.
Because of this, Hirsch and Khan also conclude that the way universities punish sexual assault—by suspension and expulsion—are also flawed. Policy proposals which they believe might more effectively respond to campus sexual assault include a restorative justice model to replace the flawed Title IX system; better pre-college sex education that teaches the young about their own bodies; and addressing the social inequalities—wealth, race, gender, and other forms of marginalization—that make young people vulnerable to unwanted sex.
As someone who teaches college students, researches the history of higher education, and was fairly recently a college student myself, I found two aspects of Hirsch and Khan’s analysis especially compelling. The first was the complexity of their approach to social difference and power. They offer examples of students who may benefit from social capital in some situations, but are, in others, extremely vulnerable to exploitation: depending on the situation, the same student could be vulnerable to being assaulted or–unwittingly, perhaps– commit an assault. They are also persuasive that binge-drinking—thought of as endemic on college campuses—is a distinctively white, affluent, and mostly heterosexual college pastime. This not only clarifies how and where alcohol can create the conditions for sexual assault; but also how older white, affluent, college-educated adults—such as alumni, the trustees of Greek societies, and even university officials—find it easy to condone substance abuse and sex as normal rites of passage.
The second compelling aspect of the book was Hirsch and Khan’s indictment of a culture in which we have abdicated any responsibility to systematically teach young people how to communicate clearly and ethically about their needs, desires, and boundaries. The saddest part of Sexual Citizens is the accumulation of examples of young people who do not know that it is okay to say “no;” and who have so few social bonds in their lives that they are afraid to alienate their friends and even casual acquaintances by saying “no.” Many have never imagined, at any point in their lives prior to being blackout drunk in someone else’s dorm room at 2 a.m. during orientation week, how to activate their “sexual citizenship”: the right to sexual autonomy and self-determination.
Hirsch and Khan’s call for parents, teachers, university administrators, and policymakers to better develop young adults’ sexual citizenship reminds us that decades of retracting sex education have, in part, produced this crisis. At the same time, a minority—a significant minority, but a minority nevertheless—of students experience a sexual assault during college. Sexual Citizens does not explain why, under the same campus conditions, most students do not experience sexual assault: students in long-term monogamous relationships who do not experience intimate partner violence, the growing percentage of students who do not have sex at all in college, and students for whom an adventurous sex life is a positive and an important aspect of their identity.
In fact, some students do seem to have their sexual citizenship figured out. One of Hirsch and Khan’s interview subjects, Lydia, talks in an articulate and self-aware way about how consent operates in her active, BDSM-inflected, sex life. But Hirsch and Khan shy away from offering more cases like Lydia’s, or students who have positive experiences with sex outside committed relationships. They also do not ask whether Lydia might have anything to teach her peers about self-determination, consent, and erotic fulfillment. Without wishing to place any undue burden on young people to educate one another, Lydia’s story caused me to wonder if making institutions and authority figures responsible for education in sexual citizenship is likely to be as effective at getting students to listen.
Nevertheless, I was struck that Hirsch and Khan came to the “sexual citizenship” paradigm through teaching at Columbia, which has existing resources to address this problem that are driven neither by student services nor by students themselves. Unusually among elite US universities, all traditional-age Columbia undergraduates are required to complete an extensive Core Curriculum, including one course, Contemporary Civilization (CC), whose remit is to prepare students to “confront the insistent problems of the present.” These days, CC is a rather stale “great books” course in the history of western philosophy. But what might it look like if colleges like Columbia framed sex and sexuality as an “insistent problem of the present”?
It would require a rigorous program of teacher training—most instructors are not well-prepared to treat sensitively sexuality in, say, Plato or the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths. But it might create a space in which students could practice their nascent skills in talking frankly—outside of the charged context of a sexual encounter—about sex, and about building an ethical community with one another.
Because of COVID-19, students will be having less sex on campus this year than ever before—if they are even on campus at all. But the “sexual citizenship” paradigm can also offer avenues for thinking more broadly about community norms around the ethical treatment of others that matter to public health. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, commentators such as Julia Marcus have shown that lessons and analogies drawn from sexual health research can help us to think about ways to live our lives more safely. A robust sense of our own right to self-determination and of respect for others’ dignity, autonomy, and boundaries, of the kind that Hirsch and Khan advocate, can help to guide us through a maze of new norms around social distancing and clearly communicating our needs to others.
Thinking about how to meet students where they are in relation to sexual citizenship can also help us to think about how to meet them where they are in relation to COVID-era safer socializing. The difficulty university administrations are having in containing and controlling their students this fall, resulting in new virus clusters, is not unrelated to their failure to address sexual assault as a structural problem.
Above all, Sexual Citizens reminds us that universities are not just destinations for ambitious young people, they are societies in miniature. They allow us to examine on a smaller scale questions about how we establish social norms, relate to others who are different from us, and conceptualize the role of the state in adjudicating such norms and relations. Universities have long been especially charged sites for the working out of wider social conflicts about gender and sexuality. But through the academic research they support and a renewed commitment to helping young adults to grow into more critical, reflected, and socially well-adjusted versions of themselves, universities also give us the tools to do better.
Emily Rutherford is a historian of gender and sexuality in modern Britain and a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. She is writing a book about how coeducation transformed the structure and culture of the British higher education system. Follow her on Twitter @echomikeromeo.