The stories we tell about our sexual selves.
By Andrea Contreras
Content warning: This Conversation contains discussions of sexual violence and assault.
Canonically, a millennial white woman holds a red Solo cup. A millennial white man with overly gelled hair (also holding a red Solo cup) approaches her. Other millennials play beer pong in the background; grainy pop music fuses in the background. It’s implied that they are at a frat house, or else a dorm with low ceilings, dim lighting, and a cavernous living room space. The man approaches her to share a quintessential heartfelt heterosexual interaction: “Hey, aren’t you in my econ class? You’re looking hot.”
The white woman sways. She’s intoxicated, but she responds: “Heyyyyy.” They chat. The camera pans to the rest of the party, where couples are kissing against a wall and on a gray couch. It’s college—sex is in the air. Camera pans back to the couple. It’s implied that it’s been a few hours; the crowd is dwindling and the music is off. The white woman is drunker, almost unresponsive.
“You wanna get out of here? My dorm room’s nearby.”
“I should probably get homefgh.”
Here comes the moment of truth. Is Gel Hair Man a Good Guy? Another woman in the background steps forward into the spotlight. She breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at you, and you are reminded that the NSOP Sexual Respect Module is mandatory, so you listen to what she has to say: “Amy is really drunk. I don’t know her that well, but I know enough to not like where this is going. Let me step in real quick.”
She approaches Amy. “Hey Girl! Don’t you live on my floor? Let’s get you home and back to your friends!”
Gel Hair man turns forward as well, delivering his lines deadpan. “Amy was too drunk to consent. Always be aware of the power dynamics at play when you try to initiate sex or intimacy.”
He walks off the set and the screen goes dark. And just like that, sexual assault was avoided and eradicated once and for all. Columbia first-years are now knighted as well-equipped to be released into the college sexual landscape.
It’s a scene Jennifer Hirsch, co-author of award-winning book Sexual Citizens and professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, might laugh or cry about. Hirsch has a lot to say about the way that we teach and foster sexual citizenship, the right to sexual determination. Since 2015, she has conducted research on the sex lives of Columbia students: the messiness, the complexity, the painful, violent stories of sex and assault. Beyond archetype, beyond consent and punishment and perpetration and survivorship, Hirsch’s research paints a much more nuanced and intersectional portrait of campus sexual assault and the ways it can be avoided through social transformation.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
. . .
B&W: Your book Sexual Citizens has been out for two years now. The book details the sexual landscape of young adults in college, with a particular focus on the prevalence of assault. It’s particularly emotionally impactful because it takes place here, and features the stories of our friends and classmates and your students. It revealed Columbia and Barnard share a sexual landscape that’s often quite hostile—but also somewhat “normal.” When you first started doing research on sexual health on campus through the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) Initiative and interviewed people about their sex lives, did you anticipate that the majority of these conversations might revolve around assault?
Jennifer Hirsch: The goal of SHIFT, which I co-directed with Claude Ann Mellins, was to understand the broad ecology of sex and sexual assault among undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard. And so it was always our intention to map out how sexual assault is produced by the landscape—to take a public health approach, rather than focusing on individual behaviors or only understanding interpersonal interactions, to broaden out and to look at a whole landscape.
Sexual Citizens grew primarily out of the ethnography component of SHIFT. We always aspired to change—and I think actually have—the conversation about campus sexual assault nationally to help people think about it as something which is a predictable consequence of how campuses are organized. Which sounds depressing, right? To say that sexual violence is built into daily life. Except that once you see how it’s engineered into daily life, you can think about what it would look to reorganize campuses so that there’s less sexual violence.
B&W: You say in Sexual Citizens when you interviewed the 150 Columbia and Barnard students that it was made easier by the fact that people wanted to talk about their sexual experiences. They were “hungry to share about that part of their lives.” Why do you think that is?
JH: It’s a fundamental tenet of ethnographic research that people like to tell their stories. So that’s not limited to talking about their intimate lives. But a lot of the stories that students told us, they had never told anyone else. The stories of being assaulted, but also the stories of having sex that made them feel uncomfortable or ashamed or confused. We in America have have built a society where not a lot of young people can figure out what sex is for. That environment of silence and shame makes it not that surprising that for a lot of people, these were the first conversations that they had ever had of that nature.
B&W: In Sexual Citizens, you describe the five sexual projects and five primary reasons why students are interacting with each other sexually and what they seek to gain from sex. Can you talk about these?
JH: When we developed the interview guide, we thought it was such a great idea to ask people what sex is for. You might think that’s the kind of thing that only two professors would cook up. And in fact, when we tried to ask that specific question, mostly we got blank stares, because people hadn’t really thought about what sex was for.
But in listening to their stories, we could see that there were a range of projects that people were trying to accomplish through sex. Sometimes pleasure, sometimes figuring out who they were. That was frequently for queer students. Sometimes just gaining experience—you know, trying to up their number. Occasionally, expressing love and care for another human being.
But the students were very unclear a lot of times about their sexual project and they had to figure them out through trial and error. Because mostly, they’d have a lot of conversations with the adults in their lives about their career projects. Get this internship and do this extracurricular. This is how you’re gonna get into college, and this is how you’re gonna be on the right path to be financially secure. But very few of them had had the opportunity to sit down with an important grownup in their life and, like, figure out what sex was for. So that confusion is not surprising because they haven’t been in institutions that enabled them to figure it out.
B&W: We’re used to talking about sex to our friends and people our age, but what’s the impact of talking to an adult about sex? Someone with much more experience and someone who is interpreting their experience as a young person differently than their friends are.
JH: The point isn’t that an adult is going to tell you the right sexual project and your friends are going to tell you the wrong sexual project. It’s just that it’s ultimately a values decision, what you want sex to mean in your life. As adults, we work so, so hard in so many other ways to teach young people values. If you stomp on someone’s foot, say you’re sorry. But we don't help them connect that to how they interact with other people sexually.
B&W: In your conversations with students, you speak to many, many people who experience assault. But you also describe hearing from people who perpetrated sexual violence as well: Individuals who were articulating their sexual experiences, believing them to be consensual, when they were actually performing what you and Shamus later described as rape. What is it like as a researcher and a professor in the university to hear these stories and write and interpret them in an academic context?
JH: It’s obviously really important to center the experiences of survivors and to understand those experiences. But we’re not going to prevent assault by getting people who are assaulted to act differently. So fundamentally, it’s really, really important to understand what shapes someone’s likelihood of harming someone else through sex.
Obviously, there are people in the world who intentionally seek to cause sexual harm, and we doubt very much that any of those people showed up to be interviewed. What we capture in Sexual Citizens is three kinds of experiences of causing sexual assault: people who had sex in a way that they thought was normal and they always thought it was normal and it was clearly assault as they described it to us. People who came in to tell us a story because they knew that they had assaulted someone and they were wrecked by it, or because they had subsequently understood that what they did was assault. And then there were some people who realized in the conversation that they had assaulted someone.
Understanding and holding those stories with compassion doesn’t mean that people shouldn't be held accountable for the harm they cause, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to make amends for that harm. Understanding those people as people in our community who need to learn to do better and who didn’t learn to do better because nobody taught them to do better—it’s not about not holding them responsible. It’s about having a more social analysis of the roots of sexual assault, which is important ultimately if you want to make a sustained change.
Changing people, one person at a time, that’s not what we do in public health. It’s very inefficient. Thinking about some of the commonalities that underlay those stories opens the door to community-level prevention.
B&W: When you are trying to widen the lens on assault, it often means changing the language and the understanding of those perpetrating assault. You say things like sexual assault is “normal” or “something that everyday people do,” and you use words like “misunderstanding.” You de-emphasize punishment and you extend beyond that antagonism, but you also address harm, inequality, and failure. What’s the purpose of this dialogue shift? How do you execute it without undermining the experiences of survivors who themselves might desire punishment?
JH: It was never our goal and it wasn’t our job to say this is how any particular interaction should be adjudicated. Certainly there are, across the nation, ways in which systems of campus adjudication can and should be improved, but that’s not our lane. We’re social scientists. We wanted to represent the whole problem in all of its nuance and complexity and also to go beyond instances in which the law might have been broken, and bring into the conversation instances in which people just treat each other in a way that is unkind or demeaning.
The conversation needs to go beyond, Did you break the law? And towards, Did you interact with this person sexually in a way that is respectful and recognizing of their humanity? That required hearing everyone’s story with compassion and focusing not only on the bad decisions they might have made and the harm they might have caused, but on what set them up to not know how to do better.
Think about driving. If people just grabbed the keys and started driving when they were drunk, they would cause a lot of harm. That is pretty much how a lot of sex happens. Students are just bumbling through, figuring it out. Obviously not all assaults happen under conditions of intoxication, but we have failed to build a world in which young people know how to have sex without hurting each other. That’s our fault—our fault in society. We could do much better.
B&W: Do you think that our definitions of consent and survivorship and perpetration are limiting?
JH: People should choose the words that help them do the work they need to do. For some people, assuming the identity of “survivor,” it feels really useful and productive and empowering. We wrote a whole paper about that. For some people, they do not want that to be their college story. Our point was never to put people in preexisting boxes, but rather to represent the breadth of experiences that students actually have. It became a goal to broaden the conversation out from consent to a different conversation about how to respect other people’s sexual citizenship.
B&W: In the book, you give pretty specific suggestions on how we could create better landscapes for sexual citizenship, and that goes from shifting geographies, like reorganizing spaces to make assault less likely to happen, to comprehensive sex ed. Have you seen Columbia taking strides to implement measures for prevention?
JH: There are three central ideas in the book: sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies. Our vision of prevention is one in which not just young people but everyone has an opportunity to get clearer about their sexual projects. In which there’s a clear message, there are structures that help everyone learn that they have the right to sexual self-determination and that other people have those rights. And geographies of equality, which are not just gender geographies of equality, but racial geographies of equality and economic geographies of equality. There’s been really exciting uptake of these ideas on campuses that we’ve been in conversation with.
Shamus and I actually developed a thing, because we’ve been to so many campuses and they’re like, make a thing. And we’re like, We already wrote a thing, we wrote a book. What else do you want? But they wanted a guide to using the book. So we created the SPACE Toolkit, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Campus Equity Toolkit. It’s not like a cookbook for prevention, but it’s a framework to bring together people who are doing sexual assault prevention with people who are doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work, people who are responsible for space planning with students. To have a conversation that maps out campus sexual geographies and then chooses things to change, with a focus on social and residential space. There are campuses that are using the SPACE Toolkit, which is in its beta test.
That’s super, super exciting. The way that we’ve moved the conversation from teaching people consent, which—back to the driving metaphor, it’s like teaching people to stop at red lights. If that is the only thing that you know about driving, I do not wanna share the road with you. Sex is complicated. I think focusing on consent is mostly trying to scare people into not breaking the law. It’s certainly better than never mentioning consent, but it doesn’t teach people the skills to have sex with other people in a way that they won’t cause harm.
B&W: Something that has really been in the conversation has been this topic of reproductive health—campuses providing broader access to contraception and to abortion medication. Barnard will be providing that for 2023. How do you think that topic of reproductive justice fits into the conversation on sexual citizenship?
JH: I think reproductive justice, equal protection for queer people, anti-racist policy making, it’s all part of advancing sexual citizenship. How can you feel like you have a right to sexual self-determination if you can’t access sexual and reproductive health services? Depriving people of sexual and reproductive health services is a very clear policy message undermining sexual citizenship.
So yes, all the medication abortion. In fact, a conversation about abortion that goes beyond “safe, legal, and rare,” to acknowledge that abortion can be a great choice.
Similarly, all of the anti-queer policy making, it’s not just undermining people's sexual citizenship, it’s undermining their actual citizenship. It’s important to engage with the concept intersectionally. Every single Black woman that we spoke with had experienced unwanted, nonconsensual sexual touching. And it wasn’t like they described that in response to the question about sexual assault. They just described it in describing their everyday life on campus and in New York.
Promoting sexual citizenship requires building a world in which people [are] recognizing everyone is treated with dignity.
B&W: Your past research is on the anthropology of love. Can we talk a little bit about love and Sexual Citizens?
JH: This was my first research project with college students in America. A takeaway from my work on the comparative anthropology of love is there’s not one way that people aspire to loving. Ideals for love vary across time and across societies. Rather than starting with some preformed idea about what people’s relationships ideals are, … you start with an open mind. We were so touched by the way young men talked about their dream of taking a girl out on a swan boat. That was just the ultimate for some guys. We also spoke with students who described being in a relationship as like a four-credit class.
So it was clear that there’s a tension between aspirations for finding your person and all of the other pressures that students are navigating that don’t leave a lot of room for finding that person.
B&W: You talk a lot about messy and complex and hostile sex, unkind sex. Is anyone having good sex?
JH: I think it’s important to note that it’s not that it’s rarely pleasurable, but that there is a big orgasm gap. It’s particularly unlikely to be pleasurable for cis hetero women having sex with men. And we could do better. That’s not an inevitability. Again, that is socially produced.
B&W: When you look at an ideal sexual landscape that acknowledges sexual citizenship and sexual determination: What does sex look like there?
JH: People are going to have different tastes and preferences, so it’s not a question of which tab goes in which slot. It’s a question of people having the opportunity to think about what they want and then be in a context where they feel seen enough that they could share that with someone, and where they can find somebody else who has that same sexual project. Some people really just wanna hook up, and they should live their best lives, right? I’m not their mom. We’re not judging them. Other people really want to meet the person they’re going to marry and get married. Say they wanna have a Columbia spouse and a Columbia wedding, a little Columbia children, and—fine, they should live their best lives, too. It’s not about saying which is the right or the best sexual project.
The hill that we will die on is that your sexual project can’t treat other people like objects. You can’t realize your sexual project without being aware of other people’s right to sexual self-determination. But what the project is—who am I to say?