Sexual Citizens by Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan

“Unwanted sex felt easier than having a difficult conversation”

I have sat through my fair share of sexual harassment and assault prevention training sessions. In fact, I have even led some of these training sessions. In my humble opinion, these trainings tend to focus more on compliance than actual education or prevention.

Why are these training sessions so bad? Why are the same training sessions required every year? Why are we so terrible at this?

Sex is an extremely complicated, delicate, and awkward facet of our society. Some celebrate it while others are embarrassed by it. Simply put, we do not have a healthy, productive dialogue on sex.

And I am talking about mature adults. If most adults cannot have effective conversations on sex, how in the world do we expect college students to have a successful understanding?

Sexual Citizens by Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan is easily the best book I have read concerning sex on a college campus. Using the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) at Columbia University, the authors present a robust understanding of sex and sexual assault on college campuses.

The book focuses on three concepts: sexual projects, sexual citizenships, and sex geographies. I simplify this down to the why, who, and where of sex. Sexual projects are the “why” of sex. When one seeks out sex or seeks not to have sex, they are choosing that experience. One can be looking simply for pleasure or searching for intimacy. There are countless sexual projects, and one person can juggle numerous projects at once. Many students cannot articulate their sexual projects. They are well aware of the sexual clichés of college sex and often they feel imprisoned by these expectations.

Sexual citizenships are the “who” of sex. The generally accepted idea is that sex only involves the functional participants, but sex involves cultural and communal expectations. One’s family has a great impact on one’s definition of an acceptable sexual partner. Friends, especially in college, define who is sexually attainable and who is off-limits. One’s friends will assist in these pursuits (i.e. wingman, matchmaker, etc.) Furthermore, sexual scripts write certain expectations, such as heterosexual males do not need to present verbal consent to sexual encounters with heterosexual females.

Sexual geographies are the “where” of sex. This is more than simply a map and building structures of a campus. Geographies include the context, access, and ownership of these spaces. A first-year student at an off-campus party (where drinking is involved) is more vulnerable than a fourth-year student who is extremely familiar with off-campus dynamics. Geographies also include the concept of access: stay with your aggressive date or take an expensive taxi ride back to campus.

This book is a treasure trove of knowledge. In addition to the concepts of projects, citizenships, and geographies, this book discusses the concerns of bystander training, understandings of consent, Title IX investigations, and informal resolutions.

This book does not provide all the answers, but it produces a lot of great questions and superior research. It challenged my perspectives which is always a welcomed thing.

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