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Q&A with Jennifer Hirsch ’88, medical anthropologist who studies campus culture

Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University, Professor Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch ’88 is a Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the author of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. Hirsch sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss sexual assault, alcohol, and campus culture. 

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.


The Daily Princetonian: A brief question we like to start off with when interviewing alumni is ... do you have a favorite Princeton memory? 

Jennifer Hirsch ’88: I look back on when Christine Stansell ’71 was my thesis advisor, and she … well, there were three of us who were her advisees …  she used to bring us in together to give us feedback on our thesis drafts … and I adore Chris, we’re still very close, she was a wonderful and generous teacher, and I think that she really thought that that was for us to benefit for hearing the feedback that we all got ... but it was terrifying! I have many wonderful, frolicking Princeton memories, but that’s just my hot take of one thing I remember from my time on campus. 

DP: What do you think of institutions who have decided to ban Greek life all together and refocus their students’ social environments on other spaces, like Williams and Middlebury? Do you think that's a positive step? 

JH: There are a lot of things that institutions can do to provide a welcoming and sort of homey feeling for students who don't want to get involved in Greek life. If you think about what Greek life offers in terms of spaces where students can host parties and live together … It's like a house. Everybody wants a home. So I think [that] thinking about campus design and living space design such that students who don't want that kind of experience can find another that they do want [is important] ... It's a problem when all the nicest spaces on campus are controlled by wealthy white upper class students who are mostly men in many contexts … The answer to it is not necessarily to take those spaces away, but it's rather to create other spaces.

DP: I remember you bringing up last year at your talk how one unintended consequence of the minimum legal drinking age is that access to alcohol on campus is controlled by upperclassmen, which gives them additional power. In light of that, do you think that colleges should not enforce underage drinking laws on campus? 

JH: Certainly there are ways to take, what we call in Public Health, a “harm reduction approach,” which is acknowledging that people are going to engage in a behavior that you find troubling and thinking about ways that it can be made safer. 


In relation to sexual assault, it's important to remember that a substantial portion of sexual assaults happen in contexts that are not associated with alcohol ... White students drink more than students of color, and particularly black students. So if we only focus on alcohol as a way into sexual assault prevention, what we do is we basically obscure the assault experiences of black women.

In our ethnographic research, every single black woman that we spoke with had experienced unwanted sexual touching. Every single one. For many of them, they described it in a way that was like, “Yes, of course. This does not even bear going into because it's just part of being a black woman in the world.” So I think that for us what that really underlines is that ... you need to ground sexual assault research in racial justice work.

I can't even believe I need to say this, but we can't be doing sexual assault prevention in the year 2020 without really thinking about power. So power means addressing racial inequality on campus, it means addressing gender inequalities on campus, it means thinking about the power when a freshman is in a room late at night with a senior, and then thinking about that power in a different way if the room is his room. And what about if the room is his room in a building that's controlled by his friends? 

DP: How did your research find whiteness playing into drinking culture on campuses? 

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JH: Heavy drinking is a practice of white male privilege in a way that people don't necessarily think about ... It's just part of “being college,” but it's not part of being college for everyone. It's part of “being college” for students who have the resources to pay for the alcohol, or to join the institution that can pay for the alcohol, and are not worried about ending up dead in an interaction with police … and who are also typically not afraid of being sexually assaulted because they think as men, that's not something that happens. So there are all kinds of ways in which the risks of drinking are unequally allocated so that men, and in particular white men, on campus see a greater social risk in not drinking. 

DP: In your research, what did you find as the main reasons that people drink on campus? 

JH: There's drinking to manage anxiety ... We talked in the book about how there’s a logic to pregaming. People drink to manage their anxiety about being in a party environment, parties are not always super fun. They also drink to manage their anxiety around sex. One young woman in the book described drinking before sex is like having novocaine before going to the dentist. Then sometimes students drink because they're sad.

DP: In terms of actions that can be taken on campus, what do you think is the most effective for preventing sexual assault? 

JH: I mean, I don't know what's most effective because we haven't done the research to test any of our ideas ... I really do think about what can be done to modify the environment, so that freshmen can host parties with their friends, so they don't end up drinking on the street, so that women can host parties where they manage the alcohol so they don't have to suck up to some senior guy to get the vodka instead of the shitty beer, right? And a place for minority communities, whether it's LGBT students or students of color, not just programming space, but actually party space ... Party space that is controlled by minority groups, to me, that would be like the biggest takeaway.

Then I think the other thing in terms of programming is we heard so much anxiety from students about being good at sex, and you're not going to get good at sex from watching porn ... that's only gonna make you feel more awful. So I think [that] thinking about sex positive programming [would be effective] … A real need among young people is to have sex that is pleasurable, that doesn't just reproduce the campus orgasm gap.

DP: How do you think we can take active steps to make these social and party environments more inclusive for queer students specifically?

JH: Listening to student leaders. On every campus, student leaders will tell you what they need. So I think lifting up those voices and understanding that again this goes back to what I was saying about black women and diversity inclusion, like understanding the ways in which sexual assault prevention has to be tied in to the broader question of citizenship on campus, not just sexual citizenship, but all citizenship. Building a campus where people feel respected ... that's part of where we need to go with sexual assault prevention.