Sexual assault ‘built into design of university environment’

Universities should urge their students to behave better but also must consider how they may enable abuse, argue Columbia professors

February 7, 2021
People at a house party
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When studying HIV earlier in her career, Jennifer Hirsch was strongly in favour of prevention strategies that went beyond working “one penis at a time”.

Something similar applied to campus sexual assault, she has argued, saying: “Focusing on individual-level decision-making is not an effective strategy.” In their book Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, she and Shamus Khan – professors of sociomedical sciences and sociology at Columbia University – explain why.

Their analysis draws extensively on a major research programme conducted at Columbia, including fieldwork, a survey of 1,600 undergraduates and more than 250 in-depth interviews, for the Sexual Health Project to Foster Transformation.

While much discussion of campus sexual assault puts the stress on the “toxic masculinity” of predators and “post-assault procedures”, the authors adopt a public health perspective to explore “social models of assault” and preventive approaches.

One of their key concepts is “sexual geographies”.

Universities should use their power to “produce an environment which is less likely to produce sexual assault”, argued Professor Hirsch. “Now it has sexual assault built into the design.” At Columbia, for example, sororities cannot serve alcohol and even fraternities are not allowed kegs or “hard alcohol” in their “public” party spaces. This means that women who want a drink but do not like cheap, warm beer can get one only by going to the private rooms of the men who live on-site.

Although Professor Hirsch acknowledged that the details of the work were specific to the US and even to particular institutions, “the idea that the spaces the university controls are part of what produces certain forms of sexual interaction and vulnerability to sexual assault – that’s an optic that’s applicable everywhere”.

As students acquire seniority, continued Professor Khan, “they get access to better space. That effectively funnels young people into spaces older people control, which exposes them to considerable amounts of risk. It also exposes the older people to considerable risk of potentially – and perhaps unwittingly – harming someone.”

So if universities genuinely want to “design safety into campus life”, the authors suggest in Sexual Citizens, they should ensure that “party spaces” are controlled by those most likely to be assaulted, namely “women, queer students, younger students and people of colour”.

Universities are obviously places for sexual experimentation, and the book includes cheerful examples of couples “hooking up in the stacks of the East Asian studies library”. But it also explores how students often arrive at college with specific “sexual projects” in mind. Some familiar examples – having many partners, sleeping with someone in order to impress one’s friends – treat other people as just a means to an end. A striking example in the book concerns a woman who is determined to “turn [a gay friend] straight”, despite his repeated attempts to deflect her.

Yet such “projects”, as Professor Hirsch put it, “lend themselves to assaultive sex in a way that other projects may not”. It was useful for students to reflect on and clarify their sexual goals, and “if they choose those which involve treating other people like objects, they are at least aware of the risks of doing so”.

Universities also had a wider role in promoting “sexual citizenship”. Professor Hirsch was supportive of consent training, on the grounds that “it is good for universities to communicate to incoming students a shared expectation of how people should treat each other, including everyone’s right to sexual self-determination”.

Unfortunately, as Professor Khan saw it, consent classes were often too brief and “cognitively based”. While many students could talk fluently in focus groups about the need for “sobriety and clear communication” within sexual encounters, this bore little relation to their descriptions of how they actually behaved in noisy clubs. One useful option was to incorporate more “embodied practice” or role play into consent training, in light of research evidence that “women who had sex ed which included practising refusal skills were less likely to be raped in college”.

Much sexual assault on campus takes place within social circles and sometimes involves people “setting up” friends with potential partners. Students can be reluctant to report an incident for fear of the acrimony and abuse that can arise in adversarial adjudication processes – particularly when the perpetrator can afford an expensive lawyer. But they can also be worried about “ruining the life” of someone they know, friends taking sides and social isolation.

“Victims often want recognition and repair,” the authors write in Sexual Citizens, “not revenge.” One way of achieving this is through “a process of ‘no-fault reporting,’ as exists on many campuses for alcohol abuse”.

“Part of the idea is to centre the process on those who experience harm and give them control over it,” said Professor Khan, while also making clear to people who have behaved badly that “they have failed to live up to the expectations of the community”.

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