Columbia professors discuss campus sexual assault, sexual safety

Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 7:14pm

Columbia University professor Jennifer Hirsch speaks about campus sexual assault at a talk and panel about her and Shamus Kahn's new book, "Sexual Citizens," at Rackham Amphitheater Thursday afternoon.

Columbia University professor Jennifer Hirsch speaks about campus sexual assault at a talk and panel about her and Shamus Kahn's new book, "Sexual Citizens," at Rackham Amphitheater Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Alice Liu/Daily

Students, faculty and community members filled Rackam Amphitheaterto hear Jennifer Hirsch, professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University and Shamus Khan, chair of sociology at Columbia speak about the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses. 

Education graduate student Kamaria Porter spoke alongside epidemiologist and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed on a panel addressing campus sexual assault.

Hirsch and Khan discussed their research regarding sexual assault and their book, “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus,” which was published in January. 

Allison Alexy, assistant professor of women’s studies and modern Japanese culture at the University, described her experience working with survivors of sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is something that looms large in our society,” Alexy said. “Students regularly share their experiences with me. Sometimes because they are looking for formal or informal support, sometimes because they need my help specifically, sometimes because they are reflecting on how their experiences with sexual assault — or university responses to it — have shaped their lives and their world views.”

Before discussing her research in sexual assault, Hirsch spoke directly to her audience and reassured them that they have her support.

“To the survivors in the room,” she said. “We see you.”

Hirsch continued by sharing a story of a freshman girl at Columbia who was sexually assaulted at the beginning of her college career. Hirsch said that, as most survivors do, the girl partially blamed herself for the events that took place. She added young people should know that it is their right to set boundaries, a message that resounded with the audience.

Hirsch also said, though this example she used exemplified toxic masculinity, there are many other types of assault that can take place.

“Sexual Citizens outlines how to prevent campus sexual assault,” Hirsch said. “Our focus is on the social roots of sexual assault.” 

Hirsch and Khan said their study aims to make sexual assault a less common feature of college life.

Khan discussed ways to reduce campus sexual assault: starting sexual education from a young age and acknowledging gender dynamics so that people will know what to expect as they mature and contacting policymakers and demanding comprehensive sexual education.

“Those silences around sex are the kinds of things we want to focus on,” Khan said. “Refusing sex can be awkward, but it’s a teachable skill.”

Khan shared a story about another Columbia student who said that “having unwanted sex felt easier than having a difficult conversation.” He explained only 5 percent of sexual assault cases on campuses are reported, which is likely because most victims are assaulted by people they know. 

Throughout the event, students were visibly nodding their heads in agreement as the speakers described their efforts. Students were also able to text questions to the panel so the speakers could elaborate on ideas  during the event. 

El-Sayed spoke on the panel and said he grew up in a culture where sex was considered “fundamentally taboo.”

“I have a 2-year-old daughter … and I think a lot about the world she’s going to grow up in,” El-Sayed said. “I’m walking into parenting without being parented (on this issue).”

Khan concluded the event with a positive outlook on the issue at hand.

“We wanted to give you a sense of empathy and hope,” he said.

Reporter Meghana Lodhavia can be reached at mlod@umich.edu