Researchers Discuss Factors in Primary Prevention

By Chester Curtis, Directorate, Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessNovember 6, 2023

Opening the 2023 National Discussion on Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities and Military Service Academies, Dr. Shamus Khan, Willard Thorp Professor of Sociology and American Studies Princeton University and Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University, discussed the results of their study on college campuses regarding the sexual relationships among young people highlighted in their book, “Sexual Citizens.”

Dr. Hirsch defines sexual citizens as 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 right to choose their sexual experiences.

The 2023 National Discussion, which was held Oct. 24 at the United States Military Service Academy at West Point, NY, brought together experts and leaders at public, private and government-run educational institutions to better understand and address the challenges of eliminating sexual assault and sexual harassment on college and university campuses across the nation. This collaborative forum is intended to develop partnerships, share best practices in prevention and leverage research to create safe and healthy learning environments free of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Hirsch and Khan make the case that prevention starts with education, and they offer new approaches for universities, parents, and students on how to tackle the problem and empower people to feel like they have the right to choose their sexual experiences.

Their research involved interviewing over 150 students for up to six hours each about their views on sex in their lives. and having research assistants embedded within campus life in religious organizations, Social Clubs, and intramural sports teams to give a comprehensive view of what campus life is like and to understand why sexual assault happens.

“In our analysis what we point to is the tremendous silence around sex and sexuality throughout our community,” said Dr Khan. “A kind of profound failure to talk about sex and intimacy with young people. In fact, not to just talk about it but to shut down those conversations.”

According to Khan, people don’t like talking about sex and sexuality nor do they want to hear it because they’re embarrassed to talk about it. Is it a surprise then that later in life young people feel embarrassed about certain parts of their body and about intimacy.

“Part of what solving the problem would look like is starting out when kids are young and teaching them how to be respectful of other people's bodies,” said Hirsch. “It starts out in kindergarten. ‘Keep your hands on your own body.’ So those sort of early lessons in interpersonal respect, which are part of comprehensive sex education but are also part of just good education, are a fundamental first step.”

Part of the problem said Khan is people communicating with each other and a bigger part of the problem is people not hearing each other.

“Regarding communication skills, our focus needs to be both on how effectively people communicate their wants and desires but also how others listen to other people’s wants and desires,” said Khan. “When we talk about communication, one of the things we might ask is how do we build context where people both feel comfortable expressing themselves and context where people hear what others say?”

A big part of communication is making comprehensive sexual education part of the conversation, according to the researchers.

“When it comes to driving, we don’t just hand them the keys when they are kind of drunk and say I hope that works for you,” said Hirsch. “But that’s kind of what we do with sex and intimacy. We send them out into a context where we give them very few skills and then we expect them to not hurt each other and then we hold them accountable rather ourselves accountable when they do.”

“Campus sexual assault is not a campus problem,” said Dr. Kirsch. “It’s an everyone problem. If students showed up on campus with their math skills not so great or their reading skills not so great, they would get remedial math or reading training.”

Khan and Hirsch said Oonne of the things campuses can do is when students apply to college ask for a description on whether their school offers comprehensive sexual education.

“Now in the survey that was done as part of this research,” said Hirsch, “we showed that for women who had gotten a comprehensive sexuality education that included a skills-based component, which meant practicing refusal skills, those women were half as likely to be raped in college.”

“That would be a powerful signal to secondary schools that that is an expected part of excellence,” said Hirsch.

“We hope all higher education leaned in to character education,” said Hirsch, “because it’s fundamentally what people owe to each other. Not just in intimate moments but in general. Promoting sexual citizenship means having those values conversations about what people owe each other.”

According to the researchers,author (s)?, campuses can also control or moderate existing inequalities that serve as a foundation of not just sexual violence but a wide range of harmful behaviors by using space in terms of what campuses can do.

This concept is called “sexual geography” referring 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 said.

“One of the campuses we’ve worked with using our space-based toolkit brought back the firepits,” said Hirsch. “During COVID they had firepits that students loved to congregate around. Students were happy with these neutral nighttime spaces. Students could gather spontaneously. The spaces didn’t belong to anyone. Anyone could just meet up with their friends at the firepit.”

“So, there are lots of changes that campuses can make that involve reallocating existing space,” said Hirsch. “It’s seeing inequalities and choosing to build a more inclusive space.”

“Until we look at how our society raises children, organizes our schools, and structures, we’re not going to make much headway,” said Khan. “But if we are part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution.”