The Social Roots of Sexual Violence‎

Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. By Jennifer S. Hirsch & Shamus Khan; W.W. Norton & Company.

Sexual violence is both a cause and a consequence of inequality. It is also about who holds power individually and institutionally. In their book, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan seek to understand why campus sexual assault happens and what can be done to prevent it in the future by identifying its social roots. The book approaches sexual assault from an ecological public health perspective, but at its core, I think it is also an argument for dismantling power disparities within institutions.

Sexual Citizens is based on research from the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project at Columbia University, which Hirsch co-directed. SHIFT included a one-time survey of over 1,600 undergraduates in addition to a daily survey of 500 undergraduates regarding relationships, sex, stress, social activities, and substance abuse. Additionally, Hirsch and Khan co-led an ethnographic component of the project that resulted in more than 150 interviews, focus groups, and extensive participant observation, which forms the foundation of the book.

Hirsch and Khan define sexual assault as “unwanted, nonconsensual sexual contact,” while rape is defined specifically as “oral or genital assault” (pg. xxviii). They developed three concepts—sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies—based on their analyses which guide the reader throughout the book, and are both the question and solution to the problem of sexual assault on campus. Sexual projects are the reasons and desires individuals have for wanting or not wanting a wide range of sexual experiences. Sexual citizenship emphasizes the right each person has to determine their own sexual needs and recognize the rights and needs of others, particularly potential partners. Sexual geographies intertwine spatial contexts with shaping sexual experiences and sexual assault on campus, including the dorm room furniture and acceptable behaviors in different spaces like fraternities and sororities. Together, these concepts highlight power inequalities that take place on campus.

Sexual Citizens demonstrates how students make sense of a range of both wanted and unwanted sexual contact, and how power inequalities facilitate sexual assault. Respondents to the SHIFT study came from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, and Hirsch and Khan highlight how gender, race, cultural heritage, sexual identity, body size, and wealth contribute to students’ understanding of sexual citizenship, their own sexual projects, and the campus spaces they had access to. These themes are particularly evident at college parties where control over space is often tied to control of alcohol. For example, many students in the study reported they were uncomfortable engaging in sexual activity without alcohol, but generally only fraternities are able to serve alcohol, not sororities. Further, fraternity members often kept the “good” alcohol upstairs, only sharing when women agreed to accompany them to their rooms.

Several students preferred attending culturally specific parties, such as a celebration of Mexican Independence Day hosted by Latinx students on campus, where they felt both their bodies and favorite music would be more welcome than in other spaces. Inclusive spaces like this are important for building community and creating equitable sexual geographies. This is especially important considering Black women and other women of color are subject to higher rates of sexual assault than white women, contrary to popular depictions of sexual assault victims. However, Hirsch and Khan’s study poignantly describes the complexities of sexual assault as not just a problem for women, but also a problem for men and nonbinary students.

Gendered power relations contribute to a “masculine hierarchy” that makes some men more likely to commit sexual assault and shapes how others respond to unwanted sexual contact. Men at the top of the hierarchy were typically members of clubs, fraternities, and athletic teams associated with upper-class private schools like crew and squash, professed gender egalitarian values, upperclassmen, and were considered attractive. Men at the bottom of the masculine hierarchy tended to come from lower social class backgrounds, did not participate in highly respected activities, often held socially undesirable attitudes, and belonged to fraternities and organizations considered “rapey.”

Groups will go to great lengths to avoid being labeled as “rapey,” minimizing their own members’ behavior while shaming others for the same behavior. The “rapey” label had important consequences for many students. One student, who was raped by a high-status fraternity member, described deciding not to report an assault in part because of the perpetrator’s high status and social desirability in the campus community. Other students described going to great lengths to distract fellow frat members who appeared to be making women uncomfortable. They didn’t want to end up with a reputation for being unsafe, but also wanted to avoid embarrassing their friend.

While sexual projects are typically associated with gender, they also operate within a racialized and sexual identity-based context. Every Black woman who participated in the study had been touched without consent on campus, and several Black men described being groped by white women in public spaces off campus. They attributed this lack of respect for their bodily autonomy to hypersexualization and white sexual fantasies based on racialized stereotypes. For students who identify as LGBTQ, coming to campus can mean finding a new community that was not present in their high school. However, as Hirsch and Khan explain, the small size of this community at Columbia allowed violent behavior to go unchallenged to preserve the space.

Institutions, such as universities, are responsible for eliminating power inequalities that prevent students from seeking support and expose them to inequitable sexual geographies. As a start, Hirsch and Khan suggest universities eliminate mandatory reporting. First, this would allow students to access support services on campus without naming their perpetrators. Second, survivors would have increased control over what happens next. They could decide if they want to make a formal report, engage in mediation or an alternative restorative justice process, or engage with formal university processes. Instead of having to make this decision prior to sharing their story with a university employee, they would be able to discuss their options and make the choice that is right for them.

Both within and outside of universities, we must grapple with how the social location of survivors and perpetrators affects the criminal justice response and the solutions survivors are comfortable seeking. Racially biased jurors and court systems often fail to protect the rights of innocent men, as American history of lynching demonstrates time and time again based on false and exaggerated claims of rape by white women. The justice system also fails to believe survivors of sexual assault and value their life chances to the same degree as they value the life chances of perpetrators, as demonstrated by Chanel Miller’s case against Brock Turner. Black women and women of color are often viewed as less credible victims than white women. We cannot consider the ‘me too’ movement in isolation from the recent Black Lives Matter movement. They are linked. Just solutions will address both racial and gender equality.

Sexual Citizens is a timely and important demonstration of the good public sociology can do when in the hands of the right people. Not only should this book be in the hands of every college administrator, but also in the hands of every parent. Children must be taught to respect other people’s bodies and their own before engaging in sexual projects. We must intentionally dispel gendered and racialized stereotypes. We must believe survivors. We must dismantle the sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, and xenophobic institutions, which include our colleges and universities that allow a culture of sexual assault to thrive. Hirsch and Kahn have provided the blueprint.


Kelsey J. Drotning is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. She studies sexual violence, inequality, and time use at the intersection of race and gender.

Comments 1

James Simpson

December 22, 2021

This seems to be a refreshing alternative approach to that of carceral feminism which seeks to increase the power of police and the criminal justice system as the only possible response to allegations of sexual harms. Offering complainants choices in how to pursue the process and keeping the alleged perpetrators' names secret are signs of progress to a more equitable society on campuses. Restorative and transformative justice practices have been shown to provide more satisfying outcomes for survivors as well as preventing offending behaviour more effectively.


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