This article is part of Spectator’s series, SexEd. Follow for coverage of research surrounding the unspoken rules of sexuality that inform student’s ideas of their sexual citizenship.
Through over 150 interviews spanning five years, two Columbia researchers have tried to “pull back the curtain” on the sex lives of Columbia undergraduates. As concerns around sexual assault have become a central part of the undergraduate student experience, during which as many as one in three women and almost one in six men will report being sexually assaulted, the researchers sought to find the factors of college living that enable these acts and the ways in which colleges can best prevent them in the future.
Last week, Jennifer Hirsch, professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Shamus Khan, chair of the department of sociology, released the culmination of their work in their book, “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus.” Through their work, Hirsch and Khan argued for a need to reevaluate popular notions about consent to empower students to feel as though they have the right to choose their sexual experiences.
To begin their book launch, Hirsch and Khan participated in a panel at the Forum on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, where they discussed the scope of their project to an audience of hundreds of students and faculty.
“The thing that complicated consent for us was that people consented to sex that they didn’t want to have and people had sex that they wanted to have without ever consenting to that sex,” Khan said.
“Consent education thinks fundamentally not about the moment of transaction between two people in the presence of the ‘yes’ or the expression or affirmation, but tries to understand bringing that social world into that moment,” he added.
Hirsch and Khan’s publication follows the 2018 findings from the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation tam, which noted that race, gender, and class play significant roles in shaping students’ experiences with consent. In interviews with Spectator, students noted that these factors contribute to their complicated experience with consent, which the straightforward “yes means yes” model that is taught during the New Student Orientation Program fails to address.
At the panel, Hirsch and Khan highlighted among these factors the “Seven Dimensions of Consent”—““gendered heterosexual scripts,” “sexual citizenship,” “intersectionality,” “men’s fears,” “alcohol,” “peer groups,” and “spatial/temporal factors”—as wrinkles that have yet to be ironed out by the affirmative consent model.
Gendered Heterosexual Scripts:
In heterosexual sexual encounters, the male-identifying partner is traditionally expected to ask for consent, affirming the idea that masculinity is associated with “unceasing sexual desire.” According to their findings, this expectation has reinforced the expectation for men to ask for rather than provide consent, making it difficult for men to recognize their own experiences as nonconsensual.
The book recounts the story of Boutros, a pseudonym for a student, who was leaving a pub crawl in Edinburgh when a woman undressed and groped him, even after he repeatedly asked her to leave him alone. The account of the story became very muddled, the researchers wrote, as he hesitated over his words.
“Come on, a girl can’t really sexually assault a guy,” Boutros told the researchers, noting that he would never “sue her” or seek compensations. “Unless I get grievous bodily harm or come to serious financial detriment.”
Personal experiences, including childhood, sexual education, and interactions with family and peers inform one’s right to determine one’s own sexual involvement, according to the researchers. Khan said that sexual citizenship is more than having the “right to say yes or no” due to differing conceptions of social responsibilities; rather, he emphasized, it entails engaging both partners’ personal desires.
Adele Chi, BC ’22, told Spectator in a 2018 interview that she received a comprehensive affirmative consent education at her private high school, which allowed her to feel more confident in making decisions about her personal experiences with sex and consent in college.
“When I walk into [a] frat house, I don’t think, ‘Oh, I am setting myself up automatically to enter into a sexual relationship.’ It is my own free will, and I am my own person. I don’t feel like women should feel like their bodies are entitled to other guys, even if [they] enter into an environment where it welcomes that sexual context to happen,” she said.
Factors such as differences in race and ethnicity, physical strength, social status, and age further complicate consent. These differences, which are indicative of social inequalities, contribute to a fear of physical intimacy, according to the researchers, who highlighted the importance of underscoring social inequalities that contribute to sexual assault.
“Sex is not a cognitive behavior, it’s not a health behavior, it’s a social behavior,” Hirsch said. “You can’t understand what people are trying to do when they are having sex without understanding the world [around them].”
Gender and race are both factors that affect people’s ability to contest or request sexual encounters. Additionally, Hirsch noted in the discussion that every single black woman who spoke to the researchers had experienced unwanted sexual contact.
“If you’re thinking of sexual assault prevention, you have to also think about racial justice,” she added.
Men worry that there is a gap between actual consent practices and the legal standard that they were taught. While there is no evidence to suggest that false accusations are common, men still largely fear the possibility of being accused because they are usually responsible for obtaining consent.
The paper emphasizes the fear on the part of students of color, and particularly black men, who have an “intense awareness of racialized risk of sexual assault accusations.” Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen attributes this notion to the impact of “overcriminalization, mass incarceration, and law enforcement bias” that disproportionately penalizes racial minorities.
During the panel discussion, Khan raised the question of why alcohol and sexual activity are so commonly paired; Hirsch noted that “people get drunk in order to have sex” to avoid the awkwardness that arises from social interactions that limit sexual opportunities. Their work notes that although one can’t give consent while intoxicated, drunk sex is a normalized part of the college experience.
“If you view sex as something that is so shameful or you’re so afraid of that you can’t do it until you get really drunk, we need to ask ourselves why is it the case that we are relating to sex in [through sex],” Khan said.
A number of high-profile cases of college sexual assault have recently involved intoxication, leading the two researchers to examine alcohol as an important component in the discussion of sexual assault prevention.
However, Khan also noted that many incidents of sexual assault occur when people are sober, so looking to alcohol as a major contributor of sexual assault “isn’t going to get us very close” to understanding the complexities of consent.
Students’ lives are centralized around peer communities that maintain an identity through group harmony and a collective reputation. As such, peer groups can facilitate sexual interactions that will benefit the standing of the group, the researchers emphasized. However, members of these groups may also downplay instances of assault so as not to cause a disruption in the community’s cohesion.
While the peer group benefits from a student’s decision to engage in a sexual encounter or avoid labeling an incident as “assault,” the student consequently sees their sexual partner only as a means of social leverage rather than as a result of personal desires.
“Part of the idea of sexual citizenship is not just if you have the right to say yes or say no but that you treat the other person that you’re active with like they’re a human being and not a sex toy,” Hirsch said.
The urban setting of Columbia causes a divergence from the quintessential New England college campus; space is limited, and the University is not the most prominent feature of its city. Space and time are noted as contributors to “implied” consent throughout their research; in certain “sexually charged” places and at certain times, such as party spaces and bars, sexual activity is an essential component of the experience for students.
Most recently, Columbia researchers at the Society for Applied Anthropology suggested that there are specific times within the calendar year, relationship stage, and span of the sexual interaction when a person establishes expectations for their partner and limits the ability to refuse consent. Students perceive an invitation to a fraternity formal, a long-term relationship, and an encounter organized through a dating app as temporal factors that indicate consent.