Trigger warning: This article contains content about sexual assault/violence and intimate partner violence.
The fear of campus sexual assault has become an unavoidable part of the “college experience.”
Research has shown that by the time they graduate, as many as one in three women and almost one in six men will have been sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
These statistics lead to questions about why sexual assault is such a common feature of college life? And what can be done to prevent it?
Dr. Jennifer S. Hirsch, a professor of sociomedical sciences, and Shamus Khan, Ph.D., a professor and chair of sociology, sought out answers to these questions through the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) at Columbia University. This study is the most comprehensive study of sexual assault on campus to date. Hirsch and Khan coauthored the book “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus” to report their findings.
Hirsch visited UNO to engage in a book talk hosted by UNMC College of Public Health on Feb. 24.
“Sexual citizenship means that people have a right to choose their own sexual experience and for others to have that right of choice too,” said Hirsch. “They have a right to say yes to sex, and they have a right to say no to sex.”
Dr. Magda Peck, a leader of public health in Omaha, cofounder of the UNMC College of Public Health and of the Peck & Anderson Catalyst Fund, spoke during the event, reiterating the importance of inclusive language in public health.
“Sexual citizenship is a new term coined by these authors,” said Peck. “The use of new language is an opening to new change. Knowing is not enough, knowing together is better.”
“Sexual Citizens” is based on years of researching, interviewing and observing college life―with students of different races, genders, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. The content of this book shares the stories from real life students who decided to share their experience to help with the research.
Hirsch said that during the interviewing process several things occurred—sometimes there were students that realized they were sexually assaulted, and some realized that they had assaulted.
“What was sad was to hear students describe sexual assault like they’re just going to have sex,” said Hirsch.
This adds to the level of complexities when dealing with sexual assault, said Hirsch. There are different categories for sexual assault, which can be a problem for people to label their experience as sexual assault.
Other complexities discussed in this research include race, gender, sexual orientations and socioeconomic background.
“There is an inherent racist inequality when it comes to sexual assault,” said Hirsch. “The way people experience race is connected to sexual activity. Every single black woman we interviewed had experienced touching that was unwanted.”
All of the intersectionality and complexities found in the SHIFT study lead to the main question: How can we prevent this?
“The key component of ‘Sexual Citizens’ is that sexual assault prevention is everyone’s job,” said Hirsch.
One way to change these prior systems that allow the continuous streak of sexual assault is through politics and voting.
“The people who control the narrative control the policy and power,” said Peck after Hirsch’s speech.
Hirsch said for the rest of the world early education is the main component to prevention of sexual assault.
“You can’t understand sexual assault with first understanding sex,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch said that schools need to “step it up” with comprehensive sex education, something that Omaha Public Schools adopted four years ago.
Peck said that there has been immense progress with public health in Nebraska in the past two decades.
Overall, both Hirsch and Peck said sexual assault prevention involves changing social systems and cultural attitudes. Public health works to shift those existing systems and attitudes down to a personal level.
“We can change the social DNA of the University of Nebraska,” said Peck.