How Findings From the Book Sexual Citizens Translate to K-12

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management podcast. Today, Dr. Shamus Khan, professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton University and co-author of the book Sexual Citizens, Jamie Forbes, CEO of Learning Courage, and Melanie Bennett, Senior Risk Management Counsel at United Educators, will discuss the book Sexual Citizens and the lessons it provides for creating a comprehensive sexual misconduct prevention program in a K-12 environment. 

Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of the Prevention and Protection podcast, as well as risk management resources, on our website, This and all podcast episodes are also available on Apple Music. Now, here’s Melanie. 

Melanie Bennett:Thank you. I’m Melanie Bennett. I’m very pleased to have with me today Shamus and Jamie. Shamus, I’m happy to welcome you to the podcast. 

Dr. Shamus Khan: I’m glad to be here. Thanks. 

Bennett: And Jamie, welcome back. 

Jamie Forbes: Thanks, Melanie. I’m happy to be back. 

Bennett: Jamie, let’s start with you. In our prior podcast, we discussed how Learning Courage started and your mission to help schools prevent sexual misconduct. Given that your organization helps K-12 schools and Sexual Citizens documents lessons learned from colleges and universities, I found it interesting when you started working with Shamus. What made you think his work would be helpful in the K-12 arena? 

Forbes: What I found was an immediate connection when I started listening to, I think it was first a YouTube link that someone sent me with Shamus and his co-author, Jennifer Hirsch, as they talked about their research at Columbia University. There they were, two social scientists doing quantitative research about sexual violence in college with a particular focus on understanding how to prevent the violence from occurring. And that’s really what we do at Learning Courage. So as I was listening to that, I started thinking, “How can we apply this work at lower levels and really get at some of the root causes and ultimately make some changes, use the data to make changes?”

The other thing that was really appealing to me was just the title itself, Sexual Citizens, because that’s really what we aim to create at Learning Courage. Rather than speak from the standpoint of discouraging sexual activity, we’re really focused on creating healthy sexual relationships, and it was clear that that’s what Sexual Citizens is all about. So I was really interested in learning more, and that led to the relationship that I have now with Shamus. 

Bennett: Shamus, I agree with Jamie that when I read the book, many of the lessons resonated as important for higher ed and K-12 — and same with the scenarios. They sounded so familiar from higher ed students and K-12 students. And I also want to mention, I’m really excited to have you here with us today. The book is such a page-turner. It’s interesting, it provides lessons, and it’s just filled with hundreds of scenarios that are so real world. So I want to take a step back for anyone not familiar with the book. What led you to write Sexual Citizens

Khan: For Jennifer and I, I think there are two things that drove us to write this book. The first was this research that we were doing. The idea behind the research was to really try for the first time to move the needle on rates of sexual assault and sexual violence on college campuses and with a sort of insight that so much of what we had been doing was reactive and not proactive. So much of the conversation, which I think was a really important conversation, and remains so, was about, “Look at the terrible things that people are doing, how do we find them and punish them?” And the idea that we can transform communities in positive ways through punishment is kind of a naive one. It also doesn’t have a lot of evidence in the social science literature. Punishment is one way to guide behavior, but, especially as educators, we know that there are so many other more effective ways. 

So a huge part of this project, and Sexual Citizens draws upon a massive research project that Jennifer Hirsch co-led with Claude Ann Mellins and there were 30 of us as part of it as researchers, the aim was to produce scientific knowledge that was really going to transform how we understood sexual violence, and that understanding was grounded in the idea of prevention. It was a public health approach. Now in this era of COVID, a public health approach makes a little bit more sense to many of us, some of us may not be so positive about that kind of approach, but the idea of a public health approach is that changing individual behavior is really hard. Getting individuals to act differently, creating a different kind of human can be really, really challenging, but transforming contexts in ways that guide people to act in the way that you want is a little bit easier. 

So what does a prevention oriented mindset look like? What does it mean to create environments and context that young people grow up in and then experience when they come into their own sexual awakening that make them less likely to harm one another? Now, that was aim No. 1. 

Aim No. 2 with Sexual Citizens was to communicate these scientific findings to an audience in a way that would reach everyone. And Jennifer and I are not particularly modest, so really we wrote Sexual Citizens in an attempt to meet every single person in the United States where they are. You didn’t need a Ph.D. in public health or in sociology to read this book. Anyone could pick it up and read it. Someone who’s a 19-year-old who’s becoming a parent for the first time and is thinking, “How do I raise my kid?” could read it, as, too, could a school board member or someone who has a Ph.D. in the social sciences and wants to know what we learned. 

So those two aims to change the conversation to really be located in prevention and then to write a book in a way that communicates that scientific knowledge to a really broad audience was our aim. 

Bennett: Do any of the lessons from the book particularly resonate to you for the K-12 arena?

Khan: I think there are several things that are applicable to the K-12 context, and to explain what they are, I think I just want to take one little step back and say what the three major concepts of the book are and then maybe think about what they mean for a K-12 context. 

So the book is organized around three ideas: sexual projects, Sexual Citizenship, and sexual geographies. Sexual projects is the answer to the question, “What is sex for?” It might seem like only two social scientists could ask a question like, “What is sex for?” but as it turns out, it’s a really important question because most young people aren’t having sex or sexual experiences of any kind for reproduction. They’re doing it for other kinds of reasons. And what we argue in the book is that a lot of young people grow up in a context where no one ever really talks to them about what sex is for. That they grow up with a sense of sex in terms of ignorance and shame, and that’s a real institutional failure, not just of schools, but of families, of churches, of all kinds of organizations that raise up young people. So the first concept, sexual projects, is something that I think can apply to the K-12 context because we could do a lot more work in helping young people understand what it is that they’re trying to accomplish with their intimate lives. 

The second concept, which Jamie pointed to earlier, Sexual Citizens, is the idea that people have the right to sexual self-determination and an obligation to recognize that equivalent right in others. This is really where Jennifer and I bring in a language of morality to sex and sexuality, and we’re not afraid to do that. Often we think, “Oh my gosh, morality and sexuality, that’s all about sexual shame. Or it’s about saying that LGBTQIA students are not legitimate.” No. Actually, it’s important to think about how we treat other people in the world and that it’s really important for us to think about layering moral lessons that we get onto sex education. 

The third concept, sexual geographies, is the idea that space matters. It’s not just a backdrop. It’s actually a really critical player in why sexual violence happens. 

Let me give one example: So imagine two students, they’re at college, they’re at a party, the party ends, the bars are closed, there’s nowhere for them to go. So they go to a room and they open the door to that room, and what do they see? Four pieces of furniture: a desk, a chair, a bureau, and a bed. Where are they going to sit? Well, if they’re going to sit together, they’re going to sit on a bed and like it or not, beds have social meanings. 

Now, our argument isn’t that beds like that produce sexual assault, but that the geography of campus life, the way that space is organized within a campus, has a big impact on people’s sexual experiences and futures. So for a K-12 space, you might think, “What are the geographies of experience for our students, and how does that create equalities or inequalities that may be tied to experiences of sexual violence?” 

So I think those three concepts, we use them to make sense of stories in a college and university setting, but I think they can be broadly applied to many other settings, whether it’s K-12 or workplaces or community organizations. 

Bennett: So for K-12 administrators who are currently listening to you and they’re hearing those lessons, and they’re saying, “I want to bring these lessons to my school,” what advice do you have for them for enhancing their current sexual education and sexual misconduct prevention programs with your lessons? 

Khan: So I think the first major one is on the enormous importance of sex education. In the broader research that we did, within that research, one of the major findings is that for women in college who had had comprehensive sexuality education that included practicing saying no to sex they didn’t want to have, those women were half as likely to be raped in college. Just want to repeat that for a second because that is a massive, massive effect size. For women who had comprehensive sex ed, they were half as likely to be raped in college. 

Now, if we choose not to provide that, we are choosing to double the rate of rape for the young people that we are educating. That is a choice, and I have to say that it is a choice that if you make, you make knowingly. I realize I’m coming very forcefully on this, but I think it’s really, really, important for us to recognize we could do an enormous amount. 

It’s also important to recognize that one of the strongest predictors for being assaulted in college is having been assaulted in high school. So if people have adverse experiences in K-12 with their sexuality, those harms are likely to continue in their college and then later in life. So I think failure to act is really a profound failure of responsibility here. 

I recognize how charged the sex ed landscape is, but let me be really clear, there’s a lot of research on this. Across the political spectrum, parents are highly supportive of sex ed. There are parents who are very vocal in their opposition, but the vast majority of parents want this to be provided. So I would say one of the things that we need to think about is the reason we even titled the book Sexual Citizens is we think of a sexual education and an understanding of sexuality as a fundamental component of being a citizen in this world. And if part of the job of schools is to raise citizens, is to raise that next generation of people, some component of sexuality education that has this moral component of how you treat other people has to be part of what we do. 

Bennett: Jamie, we just heard how important it is to include a comprehensive sexual education curriculum. I know you with Learning Courage work with schools to create curricula. Do you have any additional thoughts?

Forbes: Sure. Well, just piggybacking really on what Shamus has been talking about, one of the things that we believe strongly is in the importance of having ongoing training. Instead of just having training be just a moment in time and you check the box, what we know is that from a student standpoint, they are really hungry to have conversations about sex and sexuality and gender and identity and they want to be safe and be able to keep their friends safe. And in order to do that, they need to have safe places where they can have conversations. So what we do with schools is create those safe spaces and provide the tools and the training for teachers and other leaders in the school to have those conversations in different places and different modalities with peer groups. So that’s really how we try to reinforce the creation of Sexual Citizens

And then certainly there’s a lot of training that is involved with the educators as well. They need to know how to start those conversations. Some of them feel very comfortable and it’s a natural conversation, and others feel less so. So for those who are less comfortable, we just provide lots of different ways for them to lead into the conversation. And again, we’re talking with everyone from coaches to dorm heads, to advisors and educators themselves. So we believe that the more touch points there are for these conversations, the better. 

Bennett: Shamus, in addition to preparing these students for their everyday lives in the K-12 arena, teachers, administrators, also want to help those students get ready for college, do you have any advice for helping prepare students for life after high school? 

Khan: Absolutely. And I’ll say first, actually some of the people who have the highest risks of assault are people who don’t go to college. So thinking broadly about people in terms of life after high school is so important because a lot of people don’t go to college and they have to be prepared as well. So a few things I would say, the first is that so much of this conversation is grounded in fear and the lesson is be afraid, be very, very afraid. And that could either be, be afraid of being assaulted or be afraid of assaulting someone or being accused of assaulting someone. What we try to do in the book Sexual Citizens, Jennifer and I try to actually change the sort of emotional tenor of the conversation from fear, which is what so much of our sex ed is about, don’t get an STI, don’t get pregnant, here are all the terrible things that will happen to you if you have sex, to empathy and hope. What does it mean to have a much more positive vision? 

So I would say as K-12 educators are thinking about preparing students for their transition to adulthood, which means life after high school, what would an empathetic, hopeful vision of their sexual futures be? I would say, “Don’t just think about how to make them protect themselves against sexual violence, but instead, what would positive accounts of sex and sexuality be?” And I think that one of the challenges is that we so frequently devalue sexual intimacy. 

Almost every young person we spoke to had a conversation with an adult in their life where that adult said something to them like, “You’ve got to think about your future. You need to plan for that future. You need to make sure that you take the right subjects in school, you set yourself up for the right kind of job, you perform really well in that job, you take advantage of all of these economic and labor market opportunities.” No one that we spoke to had an adult who said to them, “You know, having a partner is going to be one of the more important parts of your life. You should think about what you want from that person and who you want to be to that person and develop the sets of skills to actually make that positive impact on that other person’s life and then on your life through that.” 

So what would a more empathetic, hopeful vision of affirmation be where people were encouraged to sort of actively think about their sexual projects, actively think about their commitment to other people in terms of how they treated them in their intimate lives? And rather than just talk about it, actually practice some of this. I don’t mean we train people how to have sex, that’s not what I’m talking about, but I do mean practice having these conversations. Don’t just conceptually have them, have people play them out. Bring in art and bring in science, where we talk about the biology but then we talk about the conversations in a way that it’s seen as part of a holistic education grounded and empathetic and a hopeful vision of the future rather than a fear-based education. 

Bennett: What are some of the obstacles to reducing sexual violence for K-12 students?

Khan: I think that often we think of schools as magical institutions. So what I mean by that is most kids are in school for less than half the days of the year and less than half of their waking hours within those days. So schools get kids for a quarter of their time and then we think that those schools should be able to make sexual violence disappear, labor market inequalities disappear, gender inequality disappear, racial inequality disappear. They should produce American citizens with the right sense of civic good and duty. One of the major obstacles is that we can’t just rely on schools to do this. And I realize that I’m speaking to an audience that is grounded within those institutions, but I fear giving another unfunded mandate to those places and being like, “If you don’t do this, you’re failing.” 

So I would say that one of the major things that we can think about within K-12 educators and their context is, what does community building look like where there are lots of other institutions that are engaged, where religious organizations the bar isn’t are they not committing sexual harm? That is a pretty low bar for a religious organization and how are they involved in this conversation? Sports teams, sort of voluntary organizations, how can they be part of it? 

Most fundamentally what Jennifer and I argue in Sexual Citizens is that a broad-based community commitment to equity is central to sexual assault prevention. Educational institutions are actually great at producing education and equity, and the problem is that there’s a lot from outside of them that doesn’t help with that project. So I would say I don’t want to give the people listening along another unfunded mandate where they’re set up and destined to fail in this kind of project. I would say that their major obstacle that K-12 institutions face is that many of the institutions and organizations around them don’t support them in their projects. So we need, as civic members of communities, not to think about how we make schools better, but also to think about how we make our communities better in ways that can help support the good work that’s happening within schools. 

Forbes: Can I just add to that? One of the hurdles is that as Shamus said, the majority of parents want sexual education in schools, and what we often hear is [a] loud chorus from people who are uncomfortable with that. I think what we need is some moral clarity among school leaders, backed up by data, to really stand strong and say, “This is why we’re doing this, we’re actually helping protect our kids, and that’s what we’re here to do.” 

Bennett: Great. And this last question I’m going to ask to both of you, starting with Shamus. How are Learning Courage members and other K-12 schools using this research to create sexual misconduct prevention programs and sexual education programs more broadly?

Khan: So Jennifer and I have been on a speaking tour, talking to 150, 200 communities, organizations over the last two years, and it’s sort of limited in what we can do on a person by person basis and so we’re actually beginning to develop some of these tools. We’ve just created a sexual geographies or a space toolkit for institutions to think about institutional redesign. That’s something that we’re going to be making free and open source to all kinds of communities. 

Now, that’s really grounded in an attention to colleges and universities, but I think other organizations like Learning Courage can pick up its insights and its dynamics and build upon it. For people who are interested in that, they can email Jennifer and I at to get sort of information as that begins to come out. We’re in a beta testing phase right now with 10 institutions, from Ivy League institutions to community colleges to see how that process goes. But Jennifer and I really are deeply committed to making sure that there are free, available resources that institutions can draw upon that we’ve developed to help apply our work and then that places like Learning Courage can adopt for other contexts. 

Forbes: And from a Learning Courage standpoint, I mean, as I talked about in response to your question about how I connected with Shamus originally, one of the things that got me really excited was the opportunity to create qualitative data around the work that we do because it is generally a very qualitative piece of work, and quantitative data is really what helps make arguments about why this work is so important. 

We’re in the process of finalizing a climate survey that will be delivered to schools where we’re asking very pointed questions about attitudes and behaviors around sex and sexuality, and that will enable us to provide quantitative data to schools about what’s really happening there. And with that data in hand, we can really identify where there is risk and develop actions to address that risk from a programmatic standpoint. And then we can also measure over time, at the same school, to see how we’re doing with those data points. And we’re also able to aggregate that data in an anonymous basis to really create some, I think, very powerful information about what is truly happening in schools today. So the data that really is so important to our work and in many ways was inspired by listening to the work that Shamus and Jennifer did. 

Bennett: That’s the end of today’s episode. I would like to once again thank Shamus and Jamie for speaking with us today. 

Khan: It was such a pleasure to be part of this conversation. 

Forbes: Thanks so much. 

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection podcast. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website,


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