AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Sex, power and assault - those are at the heart of a new study that looks at what it is that makes college the perfect storm for misunderstandings around sexual encounters. Just a warning - some of this content we're about to hear may not be appropriate for all listeners. Beginning in 2015, Professors Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan interviewed more than 150 Columbia and Barnard College undergrads to learn about their sex lives - you know, what they wanted out of sex, how troubling encounters unfolded and how layers of misunderstandings led to assault.
Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan join me now.
JENNIFER HIRSCH: Thank you so much.
SHAMUS KHAN: It's a pleasure to be here.
CHANG: So you both come up with terms in this book that help give language and context for what students experience. For example, there's this phrase you guys keep using - it's called sexual projects; people pursue sexual projects. Tell us what you mean by that.
HIRSCH: Sexual projects directs people's attention to what sex is for, which initially, you might think is the kind of question that only a social scientist, right?
HIRSCH: That it's obvious what sex is for. But actually, it's not obvious. Young people, like all people, have sex for a lot of different reasons, and lifting up the diversity of those reasons helps us see how they get into situations in which they're vulnerable to being assaulted or to assaulting other people.
CHANG: Well, give us an array of some of the reasons you've heard, some of the sexual projects you've heard in your research.
KHAN: So the most obvious one is pleasure. But there are many other things that people are doing when they're having sex. For example, a lot of young people are in relationships, and so in that context, sex is for perpetuating a relationship. We heard from one young man who told us a story of just how important it was for him, as a young gay man, to be in a relationship and how not being part of a hookup culture was something that he really valued.
KHAN: And he told us this story about how his boyfriend came home one evening and, in his words, basically raped me. And for him, though, he thought of this as just something that was worth tolerating because his sexual project was a sexual project of being in a relationship.
CHANG: Wow. The center of this book, the center of really any conversation about sexual assault, focuses on the idea of consent. Consent can get lost in the mix, you say, because people with, you know, different so-called sexual projects can misunderstand each other. And you write that assault can happen when there's, quote, "a failure of empathy and imagination." What did you mean by that?
KHAN: So much of what we think about when we think about assault is predation or sociopaths - that is, people who are trying to assault someone. But what we found really frequently was that often people who assaulted others thought that they were having sex. One young man told us a story, for example, and he said to us, I put on a tie so I knew I was going to have sex.
CHANG: You mean he was showing up, making the effort. She had expectations. He felt like he had to deliver.
KHAN: Exactly. And, you know, he felt like she really liked him. She'd invited him to this formal. And she had gotten very drunk, and he described to us her going in and out of consciousness as he, in his words, had sex with her.
CHANG: Thinking that was what was expected.
KHAN: Thinking that's what, in some ways, he was obligated to do. And in that context, you know, it has to do with the sexual project of men, who often think about their own needs and desires but who also think about, you know, sex as something that they accomplish and not really considering what the other person was thinking or what the other person's project might be in that moment.
CHANG: You talk about situations where there isn't any obvious aggression, but what there is instead is just enormous neglect.
HIRSCH: There's neglect, and there's also in many cases a lack of awareness of their own power. In the book, we tell the story of a freshman, Lucy (ph), being assaulted by Scott (ph). These are pseudonyms. Lucy was a freshman. It was orientation week. She met Scott in a bar. They stumbled back to the fraternity. He led her upstairs to his room, started to take off her pants. She said no. He said to her, it's OK. But it wasn't OK. He raped her.
And obviously, he's a senior, she's a freshman, so it's not just gender as power; it's also age, it's control over the space, it's control over alcohol. So there's so many forms of power that produce those experiences, those moments of vulnerability to assault. And the most charitable interpretation that we could give for Scott's behavior is that he was unaware of how much power he exerted in that moment.
CHANG: But what I found equally interesting in your book is not only do you interview individuals who did not realize at the time of the sexual encounter that what they were doing was committing assault, you were talking to people who didn't realize they were being assaulted. You know, I know you talked to individuals who felt that they just kind of went along with a sexual encounter because it just felt so awkward to stop, and the desire to avoid awkwardness completely overwhelmed the desire not to have sex.
KHAN: Yeah, we heard from many young women who told us that they were in a room with a man and they didn't really want to be there anymore, and so they just performed oral sex on him to get out of there. And those young men didn't force those women to have sex, but I think that they fundamentally didn't recognize what it was that the person that they were with wanted to do.
The title of our book, "Sexual Citizens," it refers to young people's understanding that they have the right to say no to sex and that they have the right to say yes to sex. And the way that we look at that experience is through a profound failure of sexual citizenship both on her part and on his part. On her part because she didn't think of herself as someone who had the right to say no when she didn't want to do something.
KHAN: And then his part, he didn't really think of her as a human being who had the same equivalent sexual rights as he did, or he didn't bother to check in. And so from our perspective, we think that the communities - which means parents, schools, religious organizations - have failed both of those young people in raising them up in ways where they're not sexual citizens.
CHANG: So you're saying that in situations where one person fails to exercise the right to say no and the other person doesn't adequately check in to make sure the other person doesn't want to exercise their right to say no, in that situation assault occurs.
HIRSCH: We're saying that focusing only on the interpersonal interaction and on the labeling of that is missing the broader story of where this comes from. There's been so much conversation about campus sexual assault, and one of the ways in which "Sexual Citizens" is really different is that it looks at what we can do to prevent it, as opposed to focusing on the fact that different people might have different understandings of the same interaction.
CHANG: Yeah. You say we have to begin to solve the problem at a much earlier stage. What would that look like?
KHAN: Most young people describe the sex ed that they received as a sexual diseases course or something that was incredibly fear-based. And instead, we need to think about talking to young people about sex that's something that will be really important in their lives and to talk to young people about sex where they treat the other person that they're having sex with as a human being, not just a toy that they're going to be playing with.
HIRSCH: Right. We need to change the system. Just as in my work on HIV, this is not a problem we're going to solve one penis at a time.
CHANG: So well said. Jennifer Hirsch is a professor of sociomedical sciences, and Shamus Khan is a professor of sociology, both at Columbia University.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was fascinating.
HIRSCH: Thank you so much.
KHAN: Thank you for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SAYS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.