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NPR Arts & Life

In 'Sexual Citizens,' Students Open Up About Sex, Power And Assault On Campus

Editor's Note: This interview contains descriptions that some listeners and readers may find disturbing.

Sex, power and assault are at the heart of a new study that looks at what it is that makes college the perfect storm for misunderstandings around sexual encounters.

Beginning in 2015, Professors Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan interviewed more than 150 Columbia and Barnard College undergrads to learn about their sex lives. What they wanted out of sex, how troubling encounters unfolded, and how layers of misunderstandings led to assault.

In their new book, Sexual Citizens, Hirsch and Khan make the case that prevention starts with education — and they offer new approaches for universities, parents and kids on how to tackle the problem and empower people to feel like they have the right to choose their sexual experiences.

Interview Highlights

On why the students opened up to them about sex

Hirsch: So the research that we did that we share in Sexual Citizens was part of a bigger project, The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, which I co-directed with Claude Mellins. And so one of the ways that we worked with the students, we had a group of undergraduates who advised us and we also had a research team in the day-to-day data collection with students. And, so, some of the interviews I did, or Shamus did, but some of the interviews were done by this group of younger researchers. And we generally find in doing this kind of research that people are hungry to tell the stories of their lives.

Khan: I mean, we sent out this note as part of the broader project, just announcing the project. And students emailed back saying, I have a story to tell. And one of the things that we found was that people are often, you know, adults and young people's lives are often producing so much silence around sex and sexuality that many of the young people we spoke to expressed it as a relief that someone finally sat down and listened to them about their sexual lives. ...

Hirsch: There were so many of them that we had to hire another interviewer with experience in trauma-based research. I remember walking up Amsterdam after doing one of those interviews sobbing because the story [one woman] had told me about being assaulted and then trafficked was so intense. And yet she slung her backpack over her back and walked out of the interview room. I think, it seemed like she had a feeling of satisfaction that there was going to be somebody at the university who knew how she had suffered and was going to think about what that suffering would mean.

On consent and misinterpretation

Khan: So, so much of what we think about when we think about assault is predation, or sociopaths — that is people who are trying to assault someone. But what we found really frequently was that often people who assaulted others thought that they were having sex. They didn't think that they were committing an assault. They didn't think they were a predator. And, you know, we had one young man tell us a story, for example, and he said to us, I put on a tie so I knew I was going to have sex.

And, you know, he felt like she really liked him. She'd invited him to this formal and she had gotten very drunk. And he described to us her going in and out of consciousness as he, in his words, had sex with her. Thinking that's what in some ways he was obligated to do. And in that context, you know, it has to do with ... men who often think about their own needs and desires, but who also think about, you know, sex as something that they accomplish — and not really considering what the other person was thinking or what the other person's [plan] might be in that moment.

On enormous neglect and lack of awareness

Hirsch: There's neglect and there's also, in many cases, a lack of awareness of their own power. In the book, we tell the story of a freshman Lucy being assaulted by a Scott. Obviously, all of these are pseudonyms. ...Lucy was a freshman, it was orientation week. She met Scott in a bar. They stumbled back to the fraternity ... he led her upstairs to his room, started to take off her pants. She said no. He said to her, it's OK — but it wasn't OK. He raped her. And in that moment, obviously, he's a senior. She's a freshman. So it's not just gender that has power, it's also age. It's control over the space. It's control over alcohol. So there's so many forms of power that produce those experiences, those moments of vulnerability to assault. And the most charitable interpretation that we could give for Scott's behavior is that he was unaware of how much power he exerted in that moment.

On describing assaults as assaults

Khan: There are lots of reasons why people don't describe assaults as assaults. We need to remember that most people are assaulted by somebody they know, not by strangers. And given that, given that they know the person, given that they've often had some kind of sexual contact with them before, naming something an assault isn't just describing what happened to you. It actually fundamentally transforms your relationship with that person — and often your relationships with your shared friends. It's like saying, you know what, my boyfriend or my girlfriend is a sexual predator, is somebody who did something terrible to me. And many people don't want to do that. They don't want to say that. ...

We heard from many young women who told us that they were in a room with a man and they didn't really want to be there anymore. And so they just performed oral sex on him to get out of there. And those young men didn't force those women to have sex — but I think that they fundamentally didn't realize what it was that the person they were with wanted to do.

We had other stories of a young woman who was asked to go out for a walk with her ex-boyfriend, who was very upset about the fact that his sister had just gotten a cancer diagnosis and she was thinking she was going to comfort a friend. And he ended up raping her up against a tree and dragging her to the ground. And she told us this story — chuckling, laughing about how she later found dirt on her body. And she didn't describe this as a rape, but instead as a weird experience that she had. For these women, it's not that they're fundamentally denying the experience of their assault. It's that they're enmeshed in so many relationships that are important to them that they don't want to call it what we see it as, which is assault.

On changing the conversation

Khan: We're trying to change the conversation away from: Did it happen or didn't it happen? Did she say no or did she not say no as vigorously? And instead to say: How do we prevent this in the first place? So, I think that adjudicating that situation with that woman in the room, with that young man, is nearly impossible. But I think what we outlined in Sexual Citizens is a way to make sure that that situation is less likely to happen in the first place.

On race

Hirsch: So, yes, I think that the stories that black men shared with us about an acutely racialized fear of false accusation drove home the way gender is not the only form of power that shapes experiences of assault or accusation. And, so, there was a sense of racialized precarity. Black men, students, that we spoke with felt like they were marginal on campus, didn't fully belong. Were less secure. And so the way they navigated consent reflected not just gender, but also race in ... a really painful way.

Khan: As Jennifer has said so many times, racial justice is fundamentally an issue of preventing sexual assault. We may not think about those two things together, but it's really important that we do. In addition to black men, every single black woman that we spoke to told us a story of unwanted, sexualized touching — every single one. It was profoundly disturbing when we analyzed our data that that occurred to us. And this reflected the ways in which black women's experiences in college was something where their bodies were seen as accessible, things that people could touch without consent in in ways that other students didn't describe to us.

On LGBTQ rates of assault

Khan: I think there were a lot of reasons why LGBTQ students experienced assault at higher rates. One was that they didn't accept as normal the kind of touching that happens at parties. So, you know, if you're in a college basement, at a party rubbing up against each other and someone, you know, casually uses their hand and grabs your butt or something like that — a lot of LGBT students were like, this is not what I'm here for. I'm here for a different kind of experience. Whereas for heterosexual students, you know, there was sort of an understanding that this was part and parcel of being a college student. But there are other reasons why LGBT students also experienced assault at such high, high, high levels. And that's because every single LGBTQ student that we talked to told us that they had sex ed that wasn't at all relevant to their own sexual experiences, or sexual identities. And so, really, they just had to figure out sex on their own without any guidance from the communities and families that had raised them.

On solving the problem

Hirsch: Part of what solving the problem would look like is starting out when kids are young. Teaching them how to be respectful of other people's bodies, right. It starts out in kindergarten. Sit criss-cross applesauce. Keep your hands on your own body. So those sort of early lessons in interpersonal respect, which are part of comprehensive sex education but are also part of just good education, are a fundamental first step.

Khan: And I think further steps are: comprehensive sex ed. You know, it wasn't just LGBTQ students who described sex ed that really didn't meet their needs. Most young people describe the sex ed that they received as a sexual-diseases course, or something that was incredibly fear-based. Here are the risks of pregnancy. Here are the risks of sexually transmitted infections. Here are the risks of sex — sex is something terrifying and really dangerous. And instead, we need to think about talking to young people about sex that's something that will be really important in their lives. That's going to be one of the ways in which they connect to some of those [that] are the most meaningful relationships that they'll have. And to talk to young people about sex where they treat the other person that they're having sex with as a human being — not just a toy that they're going to be playing with. And if we don't do that, what's going to happen is that young people are going to learn about sex, but they're going to learn about it from things like pornography.

On what parents can do

Hirsch: I think, as parents, we have a choice. We can have conversations with our children and, you know, the other children in our lives, about sex and values and how to treat people and what feels good. Or we can let our kids have their sexual values be formed by pornography and advertising.

Aubri Juhasz and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.