Perhaps the most devastating case in the book is that of Rebecca, a student who described being raped in her own apartment by two male friends who’d walked her home after they and a few others had spent the evening drinking and dancing at a bar. The next morning, Rebecca described the assault to Jed, a male friend who had been out with her at the bar. He told her she must have misunderstood their mutual friends’ intent, that she’d been very flirty and physically affectionate, and that what happened afterward was perhaps just a natural continuation of what had begun at the bar. Rebecca later told another male friend who was not part of the friend group from the bar. He told her she’d been assaulted and to go to the hospital immediately. When Rebecca went in for a forensic exam, Jed once again tried to intervene, asking whether she really wanted to go through with what would surely ruin their friends’ lives.
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Eventually, Rebecca reported what had happened to her to school authorities, who opened an investigation. She told Khan and Hirsch, however, that her friends came to feel as though they had to pick sides, and the circle of support she so desperately needed after her assault crumbled instead. “Stories of assault have the potential to fracture friend groups,” the authors write. Which is, they note, part of why students decline to report their assaults, or hesitate even to call them assaults. “Social continuation often wins out over social rupture.”
Sasha Canan, an assistant professor at Monmouth University who researches sexuality and sexual assault, told me that Hirsch and Khan are not the first to draw a direct line between the power of peer pressure and students’ spotty patterns of recognizing and reporting rape. She pointed to other research works, such as Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s 2015 book, Paying for the Party, in which the authors came to similar conclusions.
Still, she said, the point is worth reemphasizing in any discussion about campus sexual-assault prevention. She knows of prevention programs in which students are invited to think through what they would do if someone confided to them that they’d been assaulted. But “when you live at a university, you tend to have a fishbowl of a social system,” she noted. Given that most victims of campus sexual assault know their assailant, “if they tell a friend, that friend might also likely know the perpetrator. It’s important to [ask], ‘What would you do if you knew both of them?’ Because likely they will.”
Hirsch and Khan, at the end of Sexual Citizens, address how understanding the relationship between social dynamics and sexual assault can be instrumental in prevention, and it sounds a lot like what Canan suggested. Of course, the need for social acceptance cannot simply be programmed out of young people, even with the best and most comprehensive sex ed, but they recommend an approach that involves “helping students think through how to balance their commitment, as a friend and member of a peer group, to set up sexual situations, with how to, as a friend and member of that same peer group, care for all members of the community.” That is, the book suggests educating students on how to both act as supportive matchmakers and hold their friends accountable.