Content warning: This blog includes accounts of sexual assault and rape.
An interview with Jennifer Hirsch, a Professor and Deputy Chair for Doctoral Studies in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences and co-Director of the Columbia Population Research Center, at Columbia University in New York City. Hirsch co-directed the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a study supported by Columbia University that examines sexual health and sexual assault among Columbia and Barnard undergraduate students. She is the co-author, with sociologist Shamus Khan, of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, which was named an NPR best book of 2020.
Location: New York City, USA
Sexual Citizens primarily draws on ethnographic research as part of the SHIFT project, which consisted of over 150 interviews eliciting young people’s broad accounts of their lives and how sex fits into them. SHIFT also included a large survey led by Claude Mellins of over 1600 undergraduate students’ histories, relationships and experiences with sex and assault, and another that surveyed nearly 500 students daily for 60 days, asking them about stress, sleep, socialising, sex, sexual assault and substance use in the prior 24 hours.
When Hirsch speaks to her groundbreaking work in understanding and addressing sexual violence on university campuses, she always begins by telling the stories of those with lived experience. Here are some examples:
I just, like, literally had no energy to open my mouth or say anything, I just laid there....It was just sad.
Charisma conveyed in nonverbal ways that she wasn’t enjoying their sex, but he didn't listen. In fact, he ignored the way she moved his hands away as he tried to touch her sexually, showing a lack of respect for Charisma’s citizenship.
Everything was fine until it wasn't. As if on cue, all the guys except one got up to leave.
Octavia was raped by an older student at his fraternity that night. This was her first sexual experience. It may have been a sexual situation, but for Octavia it wasn’t sex; it was rape.
I just lay down next to her and she was like “Oh I just threw up, like, I don’t want to do anything,” but I kind of just laid next to her for a bit and kind of rubbed her body for a bit.
Austin came to realise during the interview that this experience he describes in orientation week was sexual assault. He is the perpetrator.
These real-life stories reflect the all-too-common experiences of sexual violence that students experience on a daily basis.
Hirsch and Khan conceptualise these experiences through three core pillars:
Sexual projects: The reasons people have sex, such as for pleasure, to connect with another, to have children, etc. These projects are formed by young people’s experiences and shaped by messages from family and community.
Sexual citizenship: People are sexual citizens when they know they, and everyone else, have the right to say 'yes' and the right to say 'no' to sex. Sexual citizenship is developed through education and supported by communities.
Sexual geographies: The spaces people move through are essential to understanding both sex and sexual assault. Access to space and the control over space is essential to understanding power structures and sexual violence.
As Hirsch and Khan show, there is a lot of evidence that one-off interventions telling people not to assault each other do not work. We need to stop focusing on consent as this magical ingredient to solving the sexual violence epidemic on our campuses (or society at large). Rather, we must look beyond interpersonal relationships and into the landscapes of inequality, ignorance and power structures. This is exactly what Hirsch speaks to in her research, in that there are too many cases where institutions may be focusing on specific actions or programs rather than looking at the bigger picture.
When speaking with Hirsch, I reflected on the fact that no undergraduate student she interviewed or surveyed had experienced sexual harassment by a staff member at the university. Whereas, in my own context of the university I attended this happened time and time again.
There is no room for staff to have any sexual relationships with students.
And yet, in Australia (and beyond) we still have a problem of inappropriate sexual relationships between staff and students. This wasn't uncommon when I was living on campus between 2016 to 2019. There were multiple instances of sexual harassment by staff towards students, or sexual relationships between staff and students, particularly in residential settings. This is why it is so important to stop siloing prevention approaches to sexual harm on campus and instead take a more nuanced, intersectional and whole-of-community approach.
The problem of sexual violence is not within the student population themselves. The problem is in the community we raise students. It's not the choice of students, it's the choice of the community. This is why addressing sexual violence on campus through a public health lens can help us to create community-level cultural change because it focuses on primary, secondary and tertiary levels of prevention to bring about holistic change at every point of intervention. Sexual violence is not unique to universities - it’s a societal problem embedded within all institutions.
Sexual Assault Prevention And Community Equity (SPACE) Toolkit
Core to Hirsch and Khan’s work, the SPACE Toolkit is a compilation of resources, suggestions and ideas about how communities can come together to address sexual violence on campus.
The four phases of the Toolkit are:
Commit: Buy-in from senior level administrators is important.
Convene: Bring together a wide range of stakeholders with the shared intention of redesigning campus spaces and policies that govern those spaces. A wide range of perspectives will be important to remove the oppositional dynamic between students and administrators on campus by focusing on a collective commitment to a shared vision of preventing sexual violence.
Consider: Bring a group of people together to consider the problem. Give people an overview of what the ideas of Sexual Citizens are so people can collectively see the framework used in the book and deploy it in their own context.
Change: Focus on what change would look like on campus utilising the timeline and workflow plan available in the Toolkit.
The SPACE Toolkit is a practical resource that can be used by institutions to start thinking about how to address the problem of sexual violence differently to how they have been. It's a model that aims to change the environment where sexual violence is the norm by reshaping how space is privileged and used by everyone in that community, therefore giving more power to those that are more vulnerable and removing ultimate control over certain spaces by the powerful.
If I could takeaway one main point from speaking with Hirsch, it would be that we need to work on equity more broadly to address sexual violence on campus. We can't separate out all the power inequalities when they are inherently interlinked. An intersectional approach is essential.
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