Before they wrote Sexual Citizens, their new book about campus sexual assault and how to prevent it, the Columbia University professors Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan spent much of 2015 and 2016 hanging out with Columbia undergrads and talking with them about their experiences with assault. Their year-and-a-half-long research project was part of a larger initiative to rethink how campuses might approach prevention—and what became clear to them through their conversations is that such an undertaking requires not just a general knowledge of where and under what conditions assaults happen, but an understanding of how students’ emotional lives, social identities, and personal philosophies about sex interact to create situations that can lead to assault.
One of Sexual Citizens’ most compelling arguments is that friends can play a key role in how college students understand their own experiences of sexual assault. Because students frequently facilitate sexual opportunities for one another (think the surreptitious “Let’s give those two a little privacy” exit), an unfortunate side effect is that some friend-assisted hookups end in sexual assault. Khan and Hirsch spoke with students whose assaults were inadvertently enabled by friends and friend groups, and in some cases, those same friends then downplayed what had happened, or hesitated to recognize it as assault, in the name of maintaining group harmony or protecting the group’s reputation. The authors also contend that assault-prevention policies should consider the influence that friends and friend groups wield, in both facilitating and interpreting sexual encounters.
To understand why friends’ opinions of a sexual assault matter, Khan and Hirsch write, one has to keep in mind the uniquely precarious, often lonely position that undergraduate students are in. Especially at an institution like Columbia, “students focus so intensely on getting to college that many have not thought about just how wrenching the transition will feel. So much of college life can be seen through the fundamental tension at this developmental stage: a desperate drive for independence coupled with feeling alone and abandoned.” As a result, “extracurricular organizations and new friendship groups are the glue of college life—where students meet new friends, discover themselves, and find sexual partners.”
Because the going-to-college stage of life so closely overlaps with reaching sexual maturity, one key way friends bond in college is by helping one another find opportunities for dating or sex. “We even have names for the social roles of those whose job it is to arrange sexual relations—the matchmaker and the wingman, for example,” the authors write. In a new environment with its own distinct social landscape, friends’ supervision (and implicit approval) of sexual partners can be a comfort: Many students lightly vet potential dates or hookup partners through mutual friends, and dating and hookup apps, the authors found, are often used in friends-of-friends modalities, which only show users matches with whom they have a friend in common.
The close-knit nature of college friend groups can, however, have a dark side—particularly when one of those friend-orchestrated hookups turns into an assault. The authors describe several interviews in which students confided to them that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow members of student groups and then simply continued seeing their rapists at student-group meetings, too intimidated by the thought of disrupting the group or losing its support to report what had happened. In one example, a male athlete recounted to them a night when a woman whose advances he had verbally rebuffed bought him shots and eventually persuaded him to go home with her for sex. “When he told his friends the next morning they laughed,” the authors write. “Several shared that they’d had the same experience with her; it was almost a rite of passage.”
In other words, his teammates had characterized what happened to him—sex he hadn’t wanted, with someone whose advances he had repeatedly tried to ward off—not as an assault but just bad sex, an awkward, regrettable hookup with an overeager partner. The student felt “weird” about it, he told the authors, but eventually laughed along. Cases like these, the authors note—coupled with the widespread idea that rape requires violence or overt, prolonged physical and verbal resistance—often lead survivors to use phrases like unwanted sex or nonconsensual, and even to describe certain encounters as “rapey,” while stopping short of labeling their experience as assault.
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.
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.
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