A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf).

Public conversation about campus sexual assault tends to focus on two different issues. The first stems from the idea that campuses are a “hunting ground”: If we find and punish the sociopathic predators, we can solve this national crisis. The second is how to fairly adjudicate cases that are more ambiguous, as if we could solve the problem by developing policies and procedures that can appropriately resolve “he said/she said” cases. There are certainly predators, and fair adjudication is unquestionably important. But the individual characteristics of those who assault are only one part of the problem, and only a very small proportion of sexual assaults are formally reported; neither of these responses gets to the origins of assault.

Our approach is different. Instead of focusing on predators or procedures after the problem has occurred, we examine the “social roots” of sexual assault. A phenomenon that happens as frequently as campus sexual assault cannot just be the product of individual bad actors or poor choices, and so we look at what makes assaults a predictable regularity of campus life.

Our forthcoming book, grounded in a public health approach and based upon what scholars call an “ecological model,” considers the broader context of young people’s relationships, drawing attention to the systems that produce or influence patterns of behavior, rather than only the specifics of particular interpersonal interactions. Think about successful efforts to reduce smoking: Yes, there was a focus on individual behavior, but it was nested within changes ranging from how people could use space (first airplanes, then restaurants, then public parks, and now even some public housing), to disincentives such as tax-driven price increases, to larger educational and psychological campaigns aimed at reducing the overall cultural acceptability and mystique of smoking.

We analyze a broad ecosystem to make sense of why assaults occur: the sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that young adults have absorbed in families, communities, and school; the relationships students share in campus communities; the power dynamics between them; how sex fits into the larger campus culture; and how physical spaces, drinking patterns, and peer groups create particular types of opportunities for sex while also affecting the way in which sex is subsequently interpreted and defined by those having it. Looking at this broader context raises questions that have been largely absent from previous discussions about sexual assault: from how our communities have been organized in ways that promote sexual illiteracy to the dynamics of underage drinking, social cliques, stress, shame, and even the spaces where students hang out and sleep.

Sexual assault is defined by the absence of consent. And so understanding consent—what it means, how it works, and how it is understood in the campus community—is essential. As the paper by Armstrong et al. reveals, the standard of consent on some campuses, and in some states, is “affirmative,” which means that lack of resistance may not be interpreted as consent. People need to indicate by words or actions that they consent to sex, and they need to do that every time.  Columbia University (and Barnard College) are among the institutions that make this an explicit part of student conduct requirements.

Saying vs. Doing in the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation Study

We conducted 18 months of ethnographic research on sexual assault with undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard as part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a comprehensive, mixed-methods research project that examined sexual assault and sexual health. In that ethnographic research, we found a striking contrast between what students know and what they do. In the 17 focus group discussions we conducted with diverse groups of undergraduates, students easily parroted the principles of affirmative consent: absence of a no does not mean a yes; both people have to give consent; consent to kissing does not convey consent to intercourse. Yet the individual interviews with the 151 undergraduates showed that few students actually have sex that way. Rather, they described a wide range of practices they used to elicit or convey consent – from a text like “you up?’ to the telegraphic verbal “should I get a condom?” to the mere presence of someone in their room. Only a minority of students described practices that meet the standard for affirmative consent.

Furthermore, for many students (and non-students!), drinking and sex tend to be tightly coupled. Some people drink in order to have sex. Drinking helps them lower inhibitions, manage their shame about wanting sex, chat up a new partner, or get naked with someone they don’t know well. It just helps them “loosen up.” This raises another set of challenges for identifying when free consent has actually been obtained. While the strict standard of consent suggests that one needs to have one’s full mental capacities to consent, the reality of many sexual interactions is quite different.

Teaching women how to refuse sex has been shown to be effective at reducing sexual assault. One randomized controlled trial in Canada found that women who’d received “refusal skills training” had a one-year risk of being raped that was about half the rate for women in the control group. Similarly an analysis of the SHIFT survey data found that college women who had sex education in high school that included refusal skills training (and was not grounded in an abstinence-only approach) were about half as likely as others to be raped in college. But such refusal skills are difficult to put into practice in the context described above. And, of course, while it’s important for people to be able to protect themselves, that approach alone can contribute to a victim-blaming mindset (“why didn’t she just refuse more forcefully?”). Moreover, although the focus on women reflects the epidemiological reality – women experience the greatest absolute number of assaults, while most assaulters are men – it obscures the fact that men are also assaulted.

Consent is shaped by context

Additionally, thinking about consent as something that can be taught in a one-off college orientation session – something that people will do differently just because they are told to – approaches consent as an individual practice, or a purely personal negotiation between two people. That gives short shrift to the many ways in which larger social forces and even physical structures shape sexual behaviors and even interpretations of consent.

Other papers in this symposium discuss some of the powerful social factors that shape the way students understand and perform consent. Widely-shared gender assumptions within heterosexual relationships dictate that men initiate sex, and that women’s role is to regulate men’s access to their bodies. These “gendered sexual scripts” mean that in heterosexual interactions giving consent is a woman’s job and getting it is a man’s; men move the ball down the field, and women are the gatekeepers. Relatedly, this implies that men always want sex, so that if women do make sexual advances, men’s consent is assumed rather than sought. One result – though hardly the only problem with this framework – is that some men experience a lot of fear about being accused of not getting consent. Our interviews showed that Black men were particularly attuned to this possibility and to the risks they face in a system of hyper-incarceration.

Peers also influence consent processes by helping friends interpret what happened. While we think of consent as happening in the moment, people often make sense of sex after it has happened. Peers may actually also set up sexual situations, serving as “wing men” or “matchmakers.” By doing this they establish conditions where sexual contact is more acceptable, thereby influencing people’s interpretation of consent.

Time and place also matter. As one of our forthcoming papers led by Matthew Chin shows, people use the time of day and the physical location of interactions to make sense of whether situations are sexual and whether sexual advances are more or less likely to be received. For example, at a recent training session on consent for freshman (not at Columbia), a young woman we know heard the speaker say that when someone sits on your bed, that’s not consent to have sex. A man in the audience responded, “dude, that’s totally consent; if someone sits on your bed, she obviously does.” But the physical context here is critical. In a private home, with plenty of places to sit, it might be legitimate to see the choice to sit on one’s bed as a sexual invitation. But in most dorm rooms, there are only two places to sit: on the bed or on a hard-backed desk chair. After hearing this exchange, the young woman went out and bought a big comfy chair for her dorm room, so that visitors would have someplace else to sit.

Of course, not everyone can afford to furnish their own dorm room, nor could all dorm rooms even fit furniture beyond the standard bed-desk-dresser. But this example shows how taking a step back and examining the modifiable social factors that shape consent provides new avenues for intervention. Drawing on these and other findings in our research, our own institution has changed dining hall policies so that one dining hall on campus is now open all night, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere for students who want to hang out together and now have someplace to do so other than one person’s bedroom. Such changes are part of what public health calls “a multi-sectoral” response – trying to address a problem by leveraging support from those who shape all facets of the undergraduate experience, rather than only relying on prevention educators.

Consent in developmental context

But an ecological framework does more than expand sexual assault prevention beyond the typical domain of discipline and health education. It incorporates a developmental perspective, reminding us that students do not step onto campus as blank slates — that being attentive to their pre-college experiences is vital in building a bolder and more comprehensive vision of what sexual assault prevention needs to look like. For one thing, many students are sexually assaulted before college: SHIFT found that 20 percent of students who participated in our survey had experienced a sexual assault before college. It’s not only pre-college assaults that matter, but students’ whole lives before college. The families, schools, religious communities, and youth-serving institutions that shape the young people who show up with so many hopes, dreams, and fears on freshman move-in day could play a vital role in preparing them to have sexual relations in a way that is respectful and not harmful of others. But mostly, we found, these institutions fail to prepare young people, bombarding them with fear-based messages that tell them what not to do rather than promoting what we think of as the foundational element of comprehensive prevention. This is the principle of “sexual citizenship”: the internal “acknowledgement of one’s own right to sexual self-determination” along with recognition of “the equivalent right in others.”

Some students grow to young adulthood in a context that promotes their own sexual self-determination, but ignores the corollary, so that they view prospective sexual partners as objects or metrics of achievement. Other students emerge into adulthood having been subjected to intense shaming about sex. If they have never been granted space to imagine circumstances under which it is ok to say yes to someone, it turns out that it’s also hard to say no, because having sex at all feels very confusing. When a young woman describes to us giving a blow job to a man in whom she’s not interested “just to get out of there,” that may not be assault – but it’s certainly reflective of a broader context in which many young women grow to adulthood without being encouraged to develop as sexually-self-determining, while many young men grow to adulthood being encouraged to extract as much sex as they can from women, without being attentive to their wishes, much less their pleasure.

Sexual assault is not one thing, it is many things

As we’ve shown in the papers from the SHIFT project, and as we describe in compelling ethnographic detail in our book, sexual assault is not one thing, but many things. The diversity of experiences, contextual factors, and forms of power at work means that there’s unlikely to be any single intervention or program that by itself will measurably move the needle on campus sexual assault. In this respect, as a public health problem, preventing sexual assault is more like preventing traffic accidents than inoculating against measles (although resistance to the measles vaccine also reminds us that even when highly effective technical solutions exist, that’s no guarantee of real-world uptake). To reduce traffic accidents, engineers work to build safer roads. Highway police set up sobriety checks on New Year’s eve. An elaborate educational apparatus has been developed, with parental support, skills-based education, and social support for peer-to-peer safety interventions (designated drivers), all to promote people’s capacity to drive without harming others with their cars. Where is the corollary social effort at teaching young people not to harm each other with their bodies?

And so while no one program is likely to fix campus sexual assault by itself, our biggest policy prescription is comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. There’s strong evidence that sex education can modify the beliefs and characteristics associated with committing an assault.  Helping people who might assault others learn not to do so is an achievable social goal and an important corollary to “refusal skills” programs. It’s not just the technical information that young people need, it’s the ethical framing. It’s also unnecessary to add fear-based messages about assault /to the existing hodge-podge of scary images and warnings about pregnancy that many young people in America already get. Rather, comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education must be grounded in respect for young people’s right to sexual self-determination. Part of teaching young people to listen when someone else says no, or to feel confident about saying no, or even to know internally whether they want to have sex at all, is acknowledging their right to say yes.

Jennifer S. Hirsch is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and can be contacted at jsh2124@columbia.eduShamus Khan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. He can be reached at sk2905@columbia.edu.