How to be better sexual citizens

Scholars present research of the complex dynamics at play when it comes to sex and assault on U.S. college campuses.

Sarah Pruitt '95
April 5, 2022

Shamus Khan (left) and Jennifer S. Hirsch, authors of Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, address Exeter uppers and seniors in Assembly Hall.

A pair of scholars addressed members of the upper and senior classes in the Assembly Hall earlier this week to discuss their eye-opening work on the complex dynamics at play when it comes to sex and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses.

Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan, authors of Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, joined four student moderators for the panel discussion on April 4, which kicked off Exeter’s recognition of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Moderators Elina Yang ’23, Jennifer Finkelstein ’23, Ana Casey ’22 and Janessa Vargas ’22, all active in campus groups including Exonians Against Sexual Assault (EASA) and Feminist Union (Fem Club), asked Hirsch and Khan questions based on those generated by students after reading the book, which was widely distributed on campus. Uppers and seniors were asked to look through the book prior to the panel, which they were required to attend, and prepare for follow-up discussion in their Health and Human Development classes.

Based on extensive research with students at Columbia University as part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), Sexual Citizens aims to change the nationwide conversation around campus sexual assault. While that conversation often focuses on how to adjudicate individual cases, Hirsch and Khan offer a more complete understanding of why sexual assaults happen and how students, parents, teachers and administrators can address gaps in sexual education and understanding starting long before students get to college.

“Instead of looking at sexual assault as a product of individual bad people intentionally doing bad things, we look at how it's engineered into campus life,” said Hirsch, an anthropologist and professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. “Which seems grim, [but] once you see how it's built into life, you can think about building a different kind of campus.”

Early in the discussion, Casey asked the authors to discuss the framework they created for understanding issues of sex and sexual assault on campus, including three key concepts: sexual projects, sexual citizenship and sexual geographies.

Instead of looking at sexual assault as a product of individual bad people intentionally doing bad things, we look at how it's engineered into campus life."
Jennifer S. Hirsch, author

Sexual projects, Hirsch explained, are “what people are trying to get out of sex.” This can range from simply gaining experience to impressing friends to sharing pleasure and intimacy. Sexual citizenship, as Hirsch defined it, is “people’s understanding of their own right to choose the sexual experiences that they engage in, but also...their understanding that other people have the same equivalent right to choose their sexual experiences.” Finally, sexual geographies refers to the role that space, including physical spaces like dorm rooms and libraries, plays in shaping sexual interactions. “Sexual geographies also have broader implications in terms of who controls valuable social spaces on campus,” Hirsch clarified.

“We use these three concepts in a way that we think can be applied to a place like Exeter,” added Khan, a professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton University. “It doesn’t need to be in a college setting or in an urban environment.”

Vargas asked what the authors learned in terms of “marginalized populations…such as LGBTQ students and students of color,” and what that means for their sexual citizenship. “Gender is not the only form of power on campus,” Khan responded, acknowledging that “multiple different people who are in disadvantaged positions are at risk for all kinds of harm,” including sexual assault.

“We need a language and analysis of power and inequality to make sense of assault,” Khan argued. “If we begin to think about conditions of transforming our communities…equity has to be at the center of it.”

Asked for advice for Exeter students preparing to go to college, Hirsch urged them to use the three core concepts in the book and think carefully about how they applied in their own lives. “Think about the people with whom you’re interacting, sexually but also socially, and try not to be a terrible person,” Hirsch said. “Recognize that they are also not just self-determining people, but people with feelings.”

Hirsch and Khan later met with faculty members and administrators to discuss their work in a meeting organized by Christina Palmer, Director of Student Well-Being.

EASA co-head Lyric Zimmerman ’22, who helped organize the student panel discussion along with other upcoming events marking Sexual Assault Awareness month, was looking forward to the ongoing conversation about the issues covered in Sexual Citizens. “I think [Hirsch and Khan] found a way to connect and speak in a way that students could hear,” Zimmerman said. “A way that didn't paint a victim and a perpetrator or a clear bad and good, but put everyone on the same communal level of understanding.”