The Center for the Study of Inequality will host Columbia University professors Jennifer Hirsch, sociomedical sciences, and Shamus Khan, sociology, who are changing the narrative around sexual assault.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The Center for the Study of Inequality will host Columbia University professors Jennifer Hirsch, sociomedical sciences, and Shamus Khan, sociology, who are changing the narrative around sexual assault.

October 1, 2020

Inequality Studies to Host Book Discussion, Conversation on Sexual Assault

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Columbia University professors Jennifer Hirsch, sociomedical sciences, and Shamus Khan, sociology, are changing the narrative around sexual assault with their groundbreaking new study.

Through an in-depth analysis of students’ stories of sexual assault, mindsets regarding sex and social contexts, Hirsch and Khan are expanding the discussion beyond the effects of sexual assault to include the social factors that cause it in the first place.

The pair will speak Oct. 1 at 4:30 p.m., as a part of their nationwide book tour on Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power and Assault On Campus, in a virtual event hosted by Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. 

Inequality studies center director Prof. Kim Weeden, sociology, will moderate the event with Nina Cummings M.S. ’92, the director of Cornell’s sexual assault prevention program. Khan and Hirsch will share the most salient takeaways from the book, including the stories of sexual assault that form a major part of their research.

“We will tell stories, we’ll share our ideas and we’ll point to the future,” Hirsch said.

“We hope that the students will feel seen in this and be given tools to think about their own intimate lives,” Khan added.

Their book focuses on the dynamic of sex and power from a sociological perspective, shifting the narrative away from coping after assault to unpack the social foundations that foster such behavior.

Khan and Hirsch also unmask the diversity of reasons why young people have sex and how they view their autonomy in giving consent.

Their ethnographic research was part of Columbia’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, a larger project that Hirsch co-directed with Columbia Prof. Claude Ann Mellins, an expert in medical psychology in sociomedical sciences and clinical psychology. Khan co-directed SHIFT’s ethnographic research with Hirsch.

The study itself was a massive undertaking. Using the expertise and assistance of an expansive research team, Hirsch and Khan conducted more than 150 interviews with a diverse sample of undergraduates, as well as 17 focus groups and more than 600 hours of observing students in their natural settings, from dorms to fraternity parties.

The broader SHIFT project also collected 500 daily dairy entries that extended for a 60-day period and surveyed more than 1,600 undergraduate students from Barnard and Columbia on their relationships and experiences with sex and sexual assault.

“We wanted to change the conversation,” Hirsch said. “So much of the way people think about sexual assault on campus focuses on the campus as a ‘hunting ground’ or ‘bad people’ intentionally hurting others. We take, in Sexual Citizens, a public health approach that looks at sexual assault as actually produced by the campus context.”

The professor pair expanded the discussion beyond gender power dynamics to include other sources of inequality.

“There is a lot of classic work on sexual assault that says its about gender and power,” Khan said. “We build on that work. We say that there are lots of kinds of power inequalities in communities that aren’t just gender. There’s race, there’s class, there’s sexuality.”

In writing their book, Hirsch and Khan said they hope college communities recognize that sexual assault isn’t a problem solely confined to drunk fraternity parties, awkward college interactions and miscommunications within college relationships.

“Sexual assault isn’t just a campus problem,” Hirsch said. “It’s an everyone problem.”