Fall for the Book: Authors Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan

A talk on campus culture and the future of sexual assault prevention


On Monday, Sept. 21, authors Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan met with Mason students in a virtual conversation about their new book “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power and Assault on Campus.” This event was part of Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival — back for the 22nd year and now in an entirely virtual format.

Courtesy of Fall for the Book

“Sexual Citizens” takes a close look at life on a college campus. Rather than attempting to study sexual assault in a one-dimensional sense, the research aims to gather a full understanding of the social and political balances of the typical college experience.

Through that lens, and drawing from interviews with 151 students from Columbia University and Barnard College, the authors analyze and develop an understanding about what factors contribute to the rampancy of sexual assault in college.

The goal, as Khan explained, is to view sexual assault as something “predictable but modifiable.” If we can understand why it happens, we can begin to reduce its presence in our culture.

Though there is no clear answer as to why sexual assault happens so frequently in a college space, power dynamics seem to be what the authors found to be most significant. Age, social standing, queerness and race were just a few of the factors they mentioned when discussing how power can lend itself to sexual violence.

“When we think about assault, we think of it as toxic masculinity,” Khan said. “It’s not the only thing that’s explaining sexual assault. Sexual assault isn’t one thing, it’s many different things, and in order to prevent it we’re going to need many different strategies.”

Sexual citizenship, the titular concept and one of the focal points of the lecture, is simply the recogniti

on of another person’s rights and human dignity.

Though it seems like a simple thing, observing the culture of sex in a campus through the eyes of students – without judgement and with the intention to learn – opens a dialogue that could eventually serve to make college a safer and more accessible space for everyone.

The book was published in January 2020 and does not mention the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked by a member of the audience about how the new landscape caused by the pandemic might play a role in the sexual geography of campus life, the authors shared some of their thoughts — and questions — on the topic.

“How could we take this as a moment of opportunity to rethink college campus spaces?” Khan asked. “Now that we have to redesign campuses, how could we do things so in the first weeks of campus life young people aren’t so anxious about their lack of sexual experience, and to create more opportunities for them to build community?”

Colleges and universities are at a crossroads; the campus experience as we know it might never return, and it may be an opportunity to examine what parts of that experience were doing more harm than good.

By gathering a comprehensive understanding of the college experience as a whole, in tandem with the ways that college students view sex and power in their own lives, the authors of “Sexual Citizens” are beginning to demystify what has long been a dark truth underlying the conventional college experience.