Columbia University Speaker Set to Spark Discussion About Sexual Assault

  • Maya Moffat ’23

Today, Jennifer Hirsch, a professor at the Mailman Institute of Public Health at Columbia University,  will be presenting to the upperclassmen at SHP about her recently published book Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, which she co-authored with Shamus Khan. Since the book’s publication on January 14, 2020, Hirsch has been presenting to colleges about her groundbreaking study surrounding sexual assault. In fact, as Dr. Lisa Harper, English teacher and a long time friend of Hirsch says, “She’s mostly speaking at colleges right now, we are the only high school that’s on her list… we’re hoping that this conversation will help bring her into more high schools.”

As can be seen, the fact that Hirsch is coming to our campus is extremely significant. Her work is not only important to current students but also to those out of high school. Her team’s research has been groundbreaking, and according to the Kirkus Review, Hirsch and Khan have completed “a serious study of the causes of campus sexual assaults along with proposals for tackling this very real problem.”

Sexual assault has been a problem for a long time, and for years experts have been trying to find ways to end it once and for all. But despite all this work, it is far from gone, especially on college campuses. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, one in five women are assaulted during college along with one in sixteen men. Jennifer Hirsch and her colleague Shamus Khan have been working to find answers to why assault is still happening and figure out what the next step might be.

Over the past five years Hirsch and Khan have been conducting and learning from a study of undergraduates at Columbia University called the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation or SHIFT. The goal of this study, and the book, is to better understand why sexual assault happens and the factors that effect it so to be able to limit it going forward. As Health and Wellness teacher Ms. Monika Nagy puts it, “Hirsch is trying to understand the patterns and different factors that either increase or decrease the likelihood of sexual assault happening on college campuses.”

As a way to explore the risks of sexual assault on college campuses and the use of consent, Hirsch and Khan use a few central concepts: sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies. By doing this Hirsch and her team create “a language to talk about intimate relationships that really changes the game,”says Dr. Harper.

Consent has been a big part of the conversation about sexual assault for awhile. Most people know what consent is and what it entails. Even at SHP consent is a big part of the conversation and curriculum, particularly in Health and Wellness. Dr. Harper says that, “We have a lot of conversations… with students about sexuality, relationships and particularly around consent.” Dr. Harper also recognizes that “consent has been the go to point of education around sexuality,”  but she emphasizes that she doesn’t really “get the sense that it is working to keep people safe.” 

Although consent is still important to understand and respect, it seems that it is time to find more ways to prevent sexual assault particularly on college campuses. And Hirsch’s book really explores how to achieve that. Dr. Harper claims that when Hirsch speaks to the SHP students she believes it is “really important that students get new more precise language to think about intimate relationships.” Hirsch’s visit with the students should not only inform them about the environment that they are preparing to enter, but also educate them in order to be able to deal with new and different situations in the college environment.

During her presentation Hirsch will be introducing some interesting new ideas surrounding sexual assault, and some of them will most likely tie in with some concepts students have already become familiar with in Health and Wellness.While the specific ideas that are explored may differ they both have similar goals of keeping people safe and working to fix social problems. In Health and Wellness we learn not only about consent, but also MSMO and Social institutions which are all important factors in the decisions we make. In terms of social institutions Ms. Nagy talks about some questions that are explored in Health and Wellness and may also overlap with Hirsch’s research about sexual assault: “What are the different messages that I am receiving from my social institutions, how do those influence how I think about social activity, why, and when, and where I choose to engage in those kinds of activities, trying to give people more of a chance to think critically about those things.” When Hirsch visits students will get a chance to build on these ideas and learn about them from a new perspective.

“One of the reasons to [only] include juniors and seniors in the conversation is because her research is really about on college campuses.” After watching her present “in small groups students will have an opportunity to self-reflect what might we do to foster healthier sexual citizenship in the community.” So not only will students be learning about Hirsch’s work, but they will be able to apply to their own lives to see how to make their own community better and safer.

The 9th and 10th graders will not be able to participate in this event and Ms. Nagy explains that the reasoning behind this decision is that “giving students who are closer to that experience the opportunity to think ahead. Especially seniors, they’re going soon.” But she also talks about how “it’s a brand new way of thinking about things, and there could be lots of other ways that we bring their ideas into the 9th and 10th grade curriculum.”

In a final reflection about Hirsch’s visit, Dr. Harper says that “I hope that the student response is really open and enthusiastic… and that students are empowered to think more critically and more optimistic about their relationships. I hope they get more language to think about what they want out of an intimate relationship, how to navigate an intimate relationship and how to do that safely.” Not only is this an opportunity to learn about the years ahead of us, but our school is giving us a chance to change the way things work around sexual assault, not only in our own community, but going forward.

Photo from Eventbrite

By Axel de Vernou

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