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

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


Monday, November 16, 2020

with Authors
Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan

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. How can we make college campuses safer so that sexual assault isn’t such a prevalent danger? How can external social pressures even before college predispose kids to commit assault? How can parents start dialogues with their children to teach them what constitutes healthy sexual behavior? And how can we change high school sex education in ways that make assaults less likely, and people’s sexual lives more fulfilling?

In SEXUAL CITIZENS: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus [W.W. Norton & Company; January 14, 2020; $27.95 hardcover], Columbia professors Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan answer these questions. The book is rich with the testimonies of over 150 Columbia students who participated in the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT). Startling in their frankness and revelations, these experiences encompass explicit acts of violent rape and more subtle violations of consent that many people may not realize is assault, set in comparison to consensual sexual experiences that range from sweet and caring to startlingly impersonal and objectifying. Hirsch and Khan’s goal, in sharing these stories, is not to make moral judgments or decide what the ideal legal ramifications of assault should be. Their approach is steeped in empathy, seeking to elucidate the social roots of sexual assault, approaching it as a public health problem, and to explain it by setting out a broader understanding of how sex is organized and what it means to young people in college. They put forth powerful new concepts to help explain the forces in young people’s sexual lives: sexual projects (the various motives college students have for pursuing sex), sexual citizenship (the possession of one’s sexual agency, and the respect for another’s), and sexual geographies (the landscapes, both physical and social, that shape the power dynamics and contexts of sex).

Hirsch and Khan have a remarkable eye for nuance—at every point in their exploration of campus culture they identify the ways race, class, age, and sexuality can intersect with gender to influence who is most at risk and who is most likely to commit offenses. In the chapter “The Toxic Campus Brew,” for example, Hirsch and Khan focus on the role alcohol plays in hookup culture, observing the way drinking laws often force students to enter spaces controlled by older men if they want alcohol—especially wealthy men from historically white fraternities.

Grounded in the intimate, often painful accounts of the human beings at its center, SEXUAL CITIZENS is a bold, comprehensive analysis of a social ecosystem where sexual assault is a regular feature. Eradicating this endemic problem in college life must begin with empowering teachers, policy makers, parents, and students. This text will be an essential impetus and resource for such progress.

 About the Authors

Jennifer S. Hirsch is a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and codirects SHIFT. Shamus Khan is a professor and chair of sociology at Columbia University, and coheads the ethnographic team of SHIFT.

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