Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
“There is no solution to sexual assault,” Shamus Khan, a professor of sociology at Princeton, told a packed auditorium last week, “by which I mean, there must be dozens of solutions to sexual assault.”
Khan — alongside Jennifer Hirsch, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia — discussed their research into sexual assault on college campuses, as published in their 2020 book “Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus.” The conversation, which was held last Thursday in the Mead Art Museum’s Stirn Auditorium and organized by the Department of Residential Engagement and Wellbeing, revolved around the researchers’ novel three-pronged approach to understanding sexual assault, based on sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geography.
This approach, the researchers explained, is a reaction to traditional attempts to understand sexual assault through a single lens, like toxic masculinity or rape culture. While these are important elements, Hirsch and Khan opted for a public health approach that aims to encompass the many factors that contribute to sexual assault.
The first prong, sexual projects, refers to questions like “What is sex for?,” which may seem to have straightforward answers but become more complex upon further reflection. Sexual citizenship, for which the conversation was titled, is the idea that each person has a right to sexual autonomy and self-determination. And sexual geography signifies the importance of space and power in sex.
One of the key realizations of their research, Khan and Hirsch said, was that many perpetrators of sexual assault, especially on college campuses, did not intend to hurt anyone, and were sometimes unaware that they had committed sexual assault at all.
They referenced the story of a young man who only realized that he had committed sexual assault when asked to define the term during his interview with researchers, then broke down in tears.
This insight led the researchers to an important conclusion: “We can’t punish our way out of this problem,” in Khan’s words. “Many of the experiments that we’ve had with mass incarceration have had really disastrous consequences for communities. And in colleges and universities, if we think that punishment is basically the pathway to transformation, I would say yes, but it’s going to be a bad transformation.”
Khan and Hirsch advocated for many different preemptive measures as an alternative to what they see as a current overreliance on punishment.
For one, they said, sexual education plays a crucial role. Even though women who receive sexual education are far less likely to experience assault in college, many states — Massachusetts included — do not require it to be taught.
“Young people are very underprepared,” Hirsch said, adding that not being educated about sex limits one’s sexual citizenship, or their ability to practice autonomy in sexual situations.
The sexual education that does happen, the pair noted, often focuses just on physical health, like the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Hirsch likened this to only learning about stoplights before starting to drive. “You need to have a broader education,” she said.
The researchers also emphasized the role that physical spaces play in creating power dynamics, particularly on college campuses.
For instance, they pointed out that dorm rooms are one of the main places where students hang out. “When parties end,” Hirsch said, “and people are funneled back into sleeping spaces, that’s a sexual assault opportunity.” The researchers have recommended to many colleges that they add new public spaces for students to congregate, even late at night.
They also suggested that the policy of many colleges, Amherst included, to give priority dorm selection to upperclassmen can create power inequalities, as younger students who attend parties are often “funneled” into spaces controlled by older students.
“It creates an environment,” Hirsch said, “where you’re in a space where someone else is operating the keg, where someone else knows the rules, where someone else lives in that space and is surrounded by their friends.”
Hirsch and Khan agreed that designing spaces to limit these power inequalities is one of the most immediate ways colleges can address sexual assault. In Khan’s words, more generally, “If power is the problem, then equity is the solution.”
And part of creating equity, the researchers said, is being aware of the ways in which identity interacts with power. For this reason, they recommend an intersectional approach to sexual assault prevention.
“Every single Black woman with whom we spoke in ethnographic interviews recounted experiencing unwanted sexual touching,” Hirsch said, “every single one.” She added that it’s important to view these experiences not only as sexual violence, but also as anti-Black racism.
Khan also recounted the story of a young gay man they interviewed who experienced sexual violence from his partner, but didn’t feel comfortable coming forward about it.
While the anecdote speaks to the way that sexual assault can be different in an intimate relationship, Khan said, it is also important to consider that “his sexual project of being a gay man was profoundly illegitimate to his family, and it created a context where he experienced an enormous amount of silence and shame for his sexuality — and that put him at risk.”
The point, the researchers said, is that context matters in sexual assault. “And creating contexts of equality is going to require a lot of work in a lot of different sectors by pretty much all of us,” Khan said.
The researchers encouraged the audience to support the Massachusetts Healthy Youth Act, a bill that aims to require schools that teach sexual education to provide a “scientifically accurate curriculum that features age-appropriate information about gender identity and sexual orientation.”
The event was moderated and organized by Lauren Kelly, associate director of health and wellbeing, who explained that its content aligns with the college’s own efforts. Amherst’s Sexual Respect Education Program, she said, “provides a comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention using evidence-based public healthy theory and rooting our work in a social justice framework.”
Emma Strawbridge ’25, who attended the talk, said that “the public health approach is really good. The educational approach is excellent. I think that’s really the way we should be thinking about things and thinking about sex and sexual citizenship.”
However, Strawbridge expressed concern about the speakers’ decision to focus on cases in which perpetrators of sexual assault do not intend to commit harm.
“It was jarring for me, as [someone who’s] not a man, to hear them kind of dismiss, and not talk about a lot of the people who I do feel like come to the situation with malice,” Strawbridge said.
With regard to the anecdote about the man who didn’t realize he had committed sexual assault, Strawbridge added, “that sort of really upset me because I felt like they didn’t spend enough time talking about the fact that he was in the wrong.”
“I think serious miseducation is a big problem,” they said, “but it was jarring to hear it spoken about in that way.”