Sexual Citizens: Book Review

A book that will hopefully change campus culture and sexual assault.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

I’ve been chipping away at (and complimenting) Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan’s book, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, for a while and I recently finished it. 

In publishing, the use of hyperbolic words like “landmark” and “groundbreaking” are exceedingly common, but in this case, they are simple statements of fact. 

I hope this book changes everything.

Both the results of a stunning qualitative assessment of students’ experiences/understandings of their intimate lives and a synthesis of the underlying sociological and psychological factors at play, it is also an enthralling read.

It situates the consideration of assault in a broader context of the landscape of 1) people’s sexual goals, 2) the critical role of context, including control over space, and 3) understanding that like everything else in life, we cannot understand sexual assault apart from people’s social and relational networks.

1. Sexual goals (which they call “projects”): "Becoming a skilled sexual partner, seeking pleasure, connecting with another person emotionally, defining oneself, and impressing others.”

2. Space : “Space has a social power that elicits and produces behavior.” Wealthy students have more space, better space, more access to quality/large quantity of alcohol. More access to Uber to get out of dangerous situations.

“The almost tidal flow of students in and out of each other’s bedrooms is a defining element of residential higher education. Dorm life is a fundamental sexual assault opportunity structure.” We need to examine this problem.

3. We also can’t understand assault outside of the context of social status. Willingness to label troubling sexual contact as “rape” versus “rapey/gross/awkward” often varies based on the status of the perpetrator and the influence of friends.

Friends play an incredibly strong role in this labeling and contextualizing: “The power of the group both to organize opportunities for sexual contact and to downgrade instances of assault.” This is an example of shared construction of meaning (hivemind!).

One of my favorite quotes of the book is: “The feeling of a right to say yes, to desire sex, is fundamental to being meaningfully able to say no.” It reminds me of a lot of conversations with Anne Collier for my book, HIVEMIND, about approaching tech and youth from the perspective of their digital citizenship.

What to do about all of this… We need to “remake the rails.” We need to address inequities in terms of space and power and money. We need to conduct actual sex education that is sex-positive and respects variations in sexual projects. “Some people feel entitled to others’ bodies, and others do not feel entitled to their own bodies.”

“[E]very single Black woman student with whom we spoke had experienced unwanted sexual touching on campus. That bears repeating: every single one.” 

Let’s pause there, as I paused there when reading, and feel the horrid weight of that sentence.

The horrid weight of it.

“But just as explanations that are purely psychological (sociopathic perpetrators) are incomplete, so too are ones that are entirely cultural (toxic masculinity). We are all responsible. Most of us have never committed assault. But all of us have allowed social conditions to persist in which many young people come of age without a language to talk about their sexual desires, overcome with shame, unaccustomed to considering how their relative social power may silence a peer, highly attentive to their personal wants but deaf to those of others, or socialized to feel unable to tell someone 'no' or to give a clear and unambiguous 'yes.'”

Building a campus where all students can thrive and there is less sexual assault “requires action across four interrelated areas: issues of diversity, power, and inequality; sex and sexual assault; substance use; and mental health.” Yes, all of this, yes.

“Sex is a critical life skill — vital for our sense of self and for connecting intimately with others.”

Thank you, Jennifer and Shamus, for this remarkable work.