Sexual assault is a consequence of how society is organized

Sexual assault is a consequence of how society is organized
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The Department of Education is about to release new rules about how schools must deal with sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault. There's a lot that's disastrous about this interpretation of Title IX, which is supposed to promote equal access to education for women

But what's largely missing from both the rules and the flood of public criticism they are generating is a discussion about prevention. This is typical of the national discourse about sexual assault on campus and beyond, and of the broader conversations in this era of #MeToo. The singular focus on adjudication reflects two assumptions. 

The first is that victims frequently fabricate claims of sexual assault; all the evidence suggests that false accusations are rare. The second is that sexual assaults happen because of "bad" or "sociopathic" people. The only way to deal with them is through punishment harsh enough to strike sufficient fear into those who commit or want to commit assaults. 


But what if the most sexual assaults were “normal”? Not in the sense that it’s acceptable, but in the sense that it’s often something that everyday people do—  a predictable, if awful, a consequence of how society is organized. In doing the research for our book, Sexual Citizens, that’s exactly what we found. And there’s an important consequence to this finding: we’re not going to punish our way out of these normal assaults.

Because those who commit normal assaults often don't think they're committing assaults, they believe they are having sex. When a student we interviewed for our research with undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard told us "I put on a tie. So I knew I was going to have sex", he meant that, for him, agreeing to go to a sorority formal with a woman who invited him came with an obligation to have sex her. He described doing while she was blackout drunk; he never reflected any awareness that he'd raped her. 

Acknowledging that sexual assault is often socially produced, rather than solely the result of individual moral failings, expands our vision of what to do about sexual assault: rather than responding to sociopaths’ evil acts, the goal also becomes to prevent those harms from ever being committed.

We've been successful using this approach to address other social problems. Think about drunk driving. Since 1982, there's been a 50 percent reduction in drunk driving fatalities. Among those under 21, fatalities have reduced by 80 percent. This tremendous success reflects what public health calls a 'multi-level' response, with efforts that include but go far beyond trying to change the behavior of the individual causing the harm.

Drunk drivers are held responsible, but so are the bar and restaurant owners who over-serve them. Road design has smoothed dangerous curves and urban planners have added speed bumps to slow traffic, complemented by safer cars, drivers' education, points on licenses for repeated infractions, and increased enforcement during periods of greatest risk. The power of moral persuasion has made it socially unacceptable to drive drunk or to allow others to do so and has normalized the idea of a designated driver. 


We need a prevention approach for a sexual assault that parallels the success in addressing “drunk driving”. We still must address the harm done by those who commit assaults. But punishment would not be enough, both because it doesn’t necessarily address harm and because it’s relatively ineffective at prevention. A new approach must be built upon the realization that far more progress will be made through things like education, transforming the physical environment, and drawing upon our moral institutions and commitments. The steps are many, but they are also fairly clear.

The adults at home need to be partners in sexual assault prevention — which means raising children who have the skills to have sex with other people without assaulting them. This is consistent with a central task of parenting: helping children develop the social and emotional skills to manage their bodies so that they can go about their lives without hurting others. When they want something, we say, "don't grab — use your words." We teach them not to hit and to apologize if they step on someone else's foot. We make sure that they know how to drive before we let them borrow the car. Yet our silences around sex have meant these lessons haven't been extended and applied to young people's intimate lives, with disastrous consequences. 

Parents may object that talking about sex is awkward, or that it's the children themselves who shut down the conversations. But many parents are frequently the source of much discomfort. 

When they choose words like "hoo-hoo" or "pee-pee" instead of vulva and penis, they are communicating that some body parts are unspeakably shameful. Children learn very early that sex is not something they can talk about, especially with their families. 

The solution isn't only to start naming body parts. Nor is it to make the discussion technical, talking with young people about fallopian tubes — that's like teaching driving by explaining how spark plugs work. 

What young people need is a moral education: to hear from us that we want them to be fully formed sexual citizens, with the right to say yes and to say no to sex, and that they must always respect that those they're with have the same rights. Adults have a choice: to talk with young people about how sex and intimacy will be an essential part of their lives — how they connect a person they love—or to let their values be shaped by a cacophony of messages from pornography, advertising, and mass media. 

Families can't do this work alone. Children fortunate enough to have the adults in their life help them develop a sense of sexual citizenship will nonetheless go out into a world in which they will be surrounded by others who have grown up in sexual silence and shame. That's why comprehensive sex education is so essential. 

Research suggests that sex ed can reduce the likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence. An analysis of survey data from the Columbia and Barnard campuses showed that women college students who had had sex education that taught them to refuse sex they didn't want were half as likely to be raped in college. That's as strong a protective effect as the flu vaccine. At the population level, high immunization rates create "herd immunity." Protecting everyone. Making sure that all American school-children receive comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically-accurate sex education will prevent a vast number of campus sexual assaults. 

And yet the current American landscape for sex education is starkly unequal; young people who grow up poor or in rural areas are less likely to receive comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education. And as is true nationally, the LGBTQ students we talked with told us that the sex-ed they'd received in high school only addressed heterosexual experiences. They didn't feel just underserved; they feel erased. That erasure is part of their well-documented greater vulnerability to being assaulted on campus.

Beyond parents and schools, faith communities have mainly figured in discussions about sexual violence as sites of perpetration. Those same institutions can and must do more than just prevent harm — they can join as allies in prevention. We have seen through the first-hand experience how powerful it can be for young people to engage in conversations about relationships and intimacy grounded in religious values with trusted adults other than their parents. 

If the fundamental goal of religion is to provide a framework for people to figure out what it means to live a good life, then sex and intimacy must be part of that discovery. Prevention is everyone's job. The character-development element of youth sporting can reinforce lessons of fundamental respect and decency. Musical education can reinforce lessons of listening to one another. Sexual education isn't just about sex. It's about connecting the experiences of what it means to be a good person to one's intimate life. 

Unquestionably, campus adjudication processes should be fair to all involved and not cause more harm. But research conducted on our campus showed that only a minute proportion of all assaults are formally reported; that's typical of many institutions. Getting adjudication right will barely move the needle on reducing sexual assault. We can't spend most of our energy reacting to assaults that have already happened.

There are small clear steps we can take to make assaults less likely to happen in the first place. We need to talk about sex. We need to ground that discussion in moral visions of how we must treat one another. And we need to provide comprehensive age-appropriate sexuality education for young people. The path to prevention is clear. We simply all need to walk along with it together. 

Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan teach at Columbia University and are authors of "Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus."