The Columbia researchers responsible for conducting a $2.2 million study on the sexual behaviors of college students emphasized the necessity for an intersectional, holistic approach to addressing sexual violence—one which takes into account factors ranging from mental health to campus space—in an interview with Spectator last week.
The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, or SHIFT, is a years-long research project that aims to explore the factors that shape sexual health and violence for undergraduate students at Columbia. The directors, Jennifer Hirsch, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Claude Mellins, a professor of medical psychology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, focused their work on a broad spectrum of identities and other ethnographic factors—including campus space, mental health resources, and community norms—that may contribute to sexual health.
Their most recent paper, published last September, drew on interviews of more than 150 Barnard and Columbia students to examine how race, class, and education contribute to the disparity between students’ understanding of the legal definition of affirmative consent versus actual sexual and consent practices.
In the interview, both Hirsch and Mellins advocated for a more intersectional understanding of sexual assault prevention, which they said would sit at the juncture between mental health and well-being, substance abuse, sexual assault, and diversity and inclusion.
“Policies that affect any one of those affect all four of those … comprehensive sexual assault prevention really involves a much broader vision of what universities can be doing to create a healthy learning environment,” Hirsch said.
In the paper published last September, both men and women voiced that they felt going back to someone’s room from a bar implied their consent to having sex in the near future. Citing these behaviors, Hirsch pointed to factors, even those that relate to physical spaces on campus, as contributors to sexual behaviors of students on campus.
She highlighted Columbia’s decision to open JJ’s Place for 22 hours and the increase of communal spaces in Lerner Hall as something that could reduce the prevalence of sexual violence.
According to Hirsch and the SHIFT study, open and accessible community spaces encourage students to spend more time in public after nights out, meaning that they are less likely to congregate in private spaces where sexual assaults typically happen.
“If you look at a number of changes that Columbia has made to the spatial environment over the past couple of years … you wouldn’t think of them right away as sexual assault prevention, but that is a part of that big picture,” Hirsch said.
Even in light of these potential solutions, the researchers emphasized that change starts with better and more comprehensive K-12 sex education that isn’t isolated to health classes. Mellins pointed out the importance of providing mental health education and resources for students through high school, as programs covering topics like substance abuse can be used in schools to teach younger generations to engage in healthier behaviors earlier on in their lives.
“How do you bring this all together in some interventions and policies that will really make a big difference? That is the challenge,” Mellins said. “We’re always looking for one magic pill that’s going to make everything better … and that rarely happens so we really have to think systemically about how to intervene at each of these pieces.”
However, in lieu of these resources, Mellins also pointed to opportunities for student groups across campus to engage with holistic sexual education and conversations that consider intersectional standpoints. Due to the complex nature of this approach, Mellins emphasized that these conversations cannot simply be delegated to the University and administrative efforts, but rather have to be more widely distributed.
Hirsch encouraged universities and students to go beyond programs that simply discuss what prevention might look like:“Sexual assault prevention is everyone’s job. It’s not just something that sits in health services and in the Office of University Life, but it’s also about what kind of spaces do students have access to for socializing and what kinds of opportunities are available to students for leisure time practices and the kinds of stress that students deal with.”