Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan's "Sexual Citizens"

Jennifer S. Hirsch is a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and codirects SHIFT, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, at Columbia University.

Shamus Khan is a professor and chair of sociology at Columbia University, and coheads the ethnographic team of SHIFT, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, at Columbia University.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, and reported the following:
Readers first meet Esme in Chapter 1, “Sexual Assaults”, which details the story of her rape. Page 99, in Chapter 4, “What is Sex For?”, shares another piece of Esme’s story: what she describes as her best college sexual experience.
Esme …had grown up watching the television show Girls. It played a powerful role in forming her sexual values. Her college sexual project has a clear narrative arc: she wanted to make out with a lot of random guys, lose her virginity, and then settle into a committed relationship. During the fall of her junior year, Esme was out at her favorite bar with a friend when two guys came in. She’d already hooked up with one of them, and the other, James, she knew from a class. Esme and James “vibed,” she recalls, and spent several hours drinking, talking, and making out— first at that bar, then at another. They were both seeing other people— and Esme’s semi- steady boyfriend was actually James’s friend— so the whole episode felt “a little wrong.” To her, that made it all that much hotter. He invited her back to his place nearby, saying that she could sleep on his couch. She went along, knowing that sex was still very much a possibility. When they arrived, she said she didn’t actually want to sleep on the couch, and James admitted he didn’t want her to either. Esme described the rest of the night— her best sexual experience at college, as she recalled it— as “solid sex,” twice, followed by spending the night cuddling. What made it so fun? The recklessness— “it was not supposed to happen”; in fact, it was “generally destructive for both of us.” She remembered his “crazy nice” apartment and, laughing, how she declined to give him her number the next morning as she left. “The reason I love it so much, or like, really like the experience, is because I felt ice cold, being like, ‘No, I don’t think I should give you my number ... even though the sex was really good. I’m sure I’ll see you around.’ ” His pierced scrotum and fully tattooed arms provided lots of colorful details to share with her friends the next day.
The page 99 test works extremely well for Sexual Citizens.

One of the book’s central ideas, sexual projects, points to the range of goals that students – all people, really – seek to accomplish through sex: “becoming a skilled sexual partner, seeking pleasure, connecting with another person emotionally, defining oneself, and impressing others” (p. 91). We refrain from judgment about students’ sexual projects, but we do highlight the ways in which some of these sexual projects lend themselves to students forgetting that the people they are having sex with are people and not objects to satisfy their sexual desires. We argue that sexual interactions in which students treat each other like objects – particularly ones in which there are substantial power disparities between students – are part of the context that makes students vulnerable to assaulting a peer.

We leave room in the book for readers to decide for themselves what they think about Esme’s interaction with James: some may find it “emblematic of modern women’s sexual agency, while others may read it as cruel, coarse, or inconsiderate” (100). Indeed, provoking reflection among readers about what sex is for, and how people should treat each other during sex, is one of the main goals of Sexual Citizens.
Learn more about Sexual Citizens at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue