SHIFT-ing How We Think About (and Study) Sexual Assault on Campus

If you haven’t already, take a moment to read Jen Talentino’s article “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?” published in the New Yorker last week. Trust me, I’m (technically) a doctor.

The piece briefly covered the history of sexual assault on campus in the last 50 years, but focused more intently on a group of researchers from Columbia University conducting an unprecedented investigation into the sexual attitudes and behaviors of college students. Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Ann Mellins are both highlighted as social scientists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who have been leading the SHIFT project. SHIFT stands for Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, and they employ traditional quantitative measures as well as more progressive ethnographic strategies to examine the sexual health and well-being of their students while also identifying risk and protective factors.

This was a sincerely fascinating read and so many points resonated with me as a social scientist, a researcher working in the field of sexual and domestic violence prevention, and a member of EVERFI’s Campus Prevention Network team. I was particularly interested in the disconnect we often find between the ideal goals of universal prevention education and the realities that exist in higher education. One student, when asked about the atmosphere of sexual assault discussion on campus, responded with:

“I try to remember that some people have been super aware of these issues for their whole life, due to any number of factors, and then there are some people, such as men, who have to actively learn about it while they’re here.”

This reminded me that students are also aware of how many different backgrounds and perspectives make up the cultural milieu around a given topic on a campus. Education methods designed to be implemented for all members of a campus strive to close the gap between those with prior knowledge of a subject area and those with no experience. On average, most college students will be likely to learn about sexual assault and domestic violence prevention during their orientation seminars or through online modules they are required to complete. These provide a great start to shifting attitudes and behaviors, but need to be supplemented with additional follow up content and individualized learning opportunities to really take hold and lead to lasting behavior change. Without continual and engaging reinforcement, Mellins warns that education is more likely to create a “broad disjuncture between what students learn and what they actually practice” in regards to their sexual expectations and interactions.

To attempt to address this, SHIFT researchers have employed ethnographic research strategies in which they interviewed students to learn about the everyday context of their sex lives (including their attitudes and behaviors) in order to document the stories that administrators and prevention practitioners were not privy to. First, they recruited an undergraduate advisory board from all walks of student life across Columbia’s campus to help the “researchers in their sometimes fumbling attempts to classify student identities”. SHIFT’s inclusion of the student perspective in driving the research questions and strategies seems simple, but is so essential when trying to get a comprehensive view of a specific population, especially in regards to such a sensitive and personal topic area. This input helped interviewers to keep conversations intimate while remaining respectful, and allowed them to adjust their procedures based on feedback and experience.

Further, the researchers also asked a sample of students to complete a daily diary of their lives through a short online questionnaire over 60 consecutive days. This included questions about their mood, sleep, sexual activity, substance use, and any unusual experiences. These qualitative data pieces are so exciting because they intrinsically posit that sexual assault is deeply contextualized in the fiber of student life and student behaviors across a broad spectrum. Both perpetrators and victims can only understand events of sexual assault based on their past experience, their schemas and expectations, and their state of mind during the incident. Not only does this framework link together mental health, personal well-being, substance use, and sexual behavior, but this type of research pushes the field of sexual assault prevention forward. In the past, it has often been uncomfortable for students and researchers to discuss private topics like personal sexual experiences; we were limited to asking questions only about victimization and perpetration that, in the end, only yield a relatively limited window of insight into the problem.

As Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of the book Blurred Lines, states in the article, “It’s better for universities if sexual assault is positioned as a matter of sexual health, rather than as a scary threat”. In each instance of sexual assault, there are a constellation of protective factors and vulnerabilities which surround both the victim and perpetrator which must be understood and addressed in the light of day. The researchers driving the SHIFT project understand that every incident of sexual assault is a confluence of a number of consecutive behavioral decisions, and at each of those points there are opportunities to make changes that may lead to differential outcomes. Their goal is to make those changes more ripe for action by “talking to administrators about the interrelationship of mental health, substance abuse, and sexual assault, and about how different types of incidents and different types of students require different types of prevention and response.”

Finally, and possibly most importantly, SHIFT researchers focused on a community-centered approach to prevention. Every school’s environment is different in terms of culture, experience, and interactions, which is why acquiring qualitative data directly from the student body is essential. However, the only way we can cause lasting change at a macro-level is to provide support for the entire population utilizing community-level sexual violence prevention. The SHIFT project recognizes that we need to “protect potential victims and potential perpetrators simultaneously” by focusing education strategies on shared values, beliefs, expectations, and experiences.

With the pervasiveness of sexual assault and domestic violence on college campuses, and the increasingly diverse populations we serve,“reactive” prevention is no longer tenable. As the SHIFT researchers emphatically state:  “We have to stop working one [person] at a time!”