The SPACE Toolkit: A New Approach to Sexual Violence Prevention

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators risk management podcast. Today’s discussion of the SPACE Toolkit, a new approach to sexual violence prevention on campus, is hosted by Melanie Bennett of United Educators’ Risk Management department. Melanie is Senior Risk Management Council, and [she] is joined by two guests today. 

A reminder to listeners that you can find other UE podcasts as well as UE risk management resources on our website, . Our podcasts are also available on Apple podcasts. Before we begin, we’d like to offer a trigger warning as this podcast discusses actual experiences of sexual assault as students experience them. These can be difficult to hear. Now, here’s Melanie. 

Melanie Bennett: Thank you. I’m pleased to be here with Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan, the authors of the book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus and the creators of the SPACE Toolkit we’ll be discussing today. Jennifer and Shamus, welcome and thanks for joining us today. 

Jennifer S. Hirsch: Thanks so much for having us, Melanie. 

Shamus Khan: It’s my pleasure to be here. 

Bennett: Before we begin, I’d like to thank my colleague, Christine McHugh, for creating today’s podcast episode. The name of the toolkit, SPACE, stands for Sexual assault Prevention And Community Equity. It’s a new approach to sexual violence prevention on campus that’s grounded in a commitment to equity. And we’re really glad to have Shamus and Jennifer here to walk us through this new idea for transforming campuses. Could you start us off with some background about the toolkit? 

Hirsch: Sure. And actually before we jump into the toolkit, we just want to give you a little bit about the book itself because the toolkit is grounded in the research that we did and that we share in Sexual Citizens. And I’m going to open with a story. Lucy, when she arrived on campus, had been pretty sheltered. She’d gone to a single-sex boarding school and had never had a boyfriend. And she had a pretty clear idea of what she was hoping would happen socially in those early months of school. She wanted to meet some boys, make out, and eventually to lose her virginity. And so when one of the girls on her hall invited her out to a bar near campus during orientation week, that felt like it was totally on track. 

So they went out to a bar where they met some seniors, the guys bought them drinks, they danced. And then Scott invited Lucy to go back to his fraternity house with him. And she accepted. And so they walked up toward the fraternity house. On the way there, Lucy’s phone started to ring and at first she ignored it, but then it kept going and so she answered it and it was her friend who had gotten that bystander intervention, which instructs students on how they can look out for each other to prevent sexual assault. And her friend was making sure she was OK.  

And so Lucy convinced Scott to wait for her friend outside the fraternity and then the two girls went in together with him. Into a building, just picture the scene there, where they had never been on a campus where they were newcomers, a building where he lived and was surrounded by his friends on a campus that he had been on for three years, he was starting his fourth year. 

So, he made each girl drink. Students aren’t allowed to have hard alcohol in the fraternities, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have it. It just means they keep it upstairs. So they went up to the second floor for that drink. Lucy’s friend passed out pretty much right away. She had really had a lot to drink, and Scott invited Lucy up to his room. She agreed to go. They were making out. And so it was all good until it wasn’t. He started to unbutton her pants and she was very clear. She said, “No, don’t.” To which he said, “It’s OK.” But as you can probably guess it was not OK. And when she told us that story, she had never described what happened to her as being raped. She told her roommate the next day that it was just one of those crazy things that happened to you where you lose your virginity to a total stranger in the first week of school, because she felt like it was her fault. 

So your take as you hear that story might be, Scott, a terrible person. Now we agree with you, what he did was a terrible thing. But in the SPACE Toolkit and in the research that it grows from, we actually take a step back and look at how interactions like that are built into the campus environment. Think about how freshmen are assigned to housing. Very frequently first-year students don’t have single rooms and they live in spaces where alcohol consumption is very tightly policed because it’s against the law. And what that does is it drives younger students and particularly young women into spaces controlled by older men. And so the fact that Lucy was in Scott’s room, yes, to some extent, reflects decisions by Lucy and Scott, but it also reflects design decisions that once you recognize them, you can think about changing them. 

So in Sexual Citizens, we describe how sexual assault is actually built into the campus environment. Which sounds really depressing until you recognize that seeing how it’s built in can help you think about building it out. And so the power imbalance that’s reflected in Scott’s control over that space is one of the many things that the SPACE Toolkit opens the door towards a campus conversation about changing the environment rather than trying to change individual people. 

Bennett: Let’s talk more about how the toolkit works. Later, we’ll talk about the step-by-step  process that you go through when you’re working through the toolkit. But can you start by telling us about the analysis involved in the space process? 

Khan: Absolutely. So Jennifer and I have visited, I would say, over 150 campuses over the last two-and-a-half years since writing Sexual Citizens. Everywhere we went people said to us, “Make a thing.” And I think Jennifer and I are academics and I think we sort of said to ourselves, “We did make a thing.” We wrote this book, and it was a lot of work. But as it turns out, what people were telling us was like, “Give us something, some guidelines to help us critically evaluate what’s happening on our campus. And maybe to take some steps that push us in the direction that you’re suggesting, which is to say, push us in the direction of taking a more public health approach to addressing sexual violence.” What that public health approach means is thinking less about bad people and thinking more about the environments that people are in. 

So the story that Jennifer told about Scott and Lucy, there are lots of things about that story that could be focusing in on how do we find Scott and kick him out, or how do we find men who are likely to be Scott and train them to be better people. But I think if all of us take just one big step back and ask ourselves, “How easy is it to change individual behavior? How easy is it for us to just say change the way that people act by giving them trainings?” I think most of us would recognize it’s not that easy. As Jennifer sometimes jokes, you can’t even get your kids to floss. So what makes you think a 30-minute training is going to radically change the ways that young people act? 

And so what the SPACE Toolkit does is it gives campuses a process, a series of steps to go through to begin a process of transformation. And I want to be really clear here. This is not an easy process. It’s not one that’s grounded in a logic of just compliance. Although it is consistent with logics of compliance, it really is a logic of transformation. And what that transformation requires is looking at this old problem of campus sexual violence, which has been around for a very long time. There are papers published about this going back to the 1950s, looking at high rates of sexual violence on college campuses, and saying, “Why have we made so little progress on this?” As you said, we’re going to talk about what the steps of this are. But in effect what we’re asking communities to do is to make a commitment to transformation, to bring together a wide group of people to assess what’s happening on their campuses, and then to come up with ideas for how to change things, ideas that could be actually totally cost neutral. Some changes in policies may not require any cost at all, and some … may be sort of more ambitious or require more of a financial investment. 

The reason that we outlined a process and not say, “This is what you need to do, these are the three policies you need to enact,” is that every campus is different. Some campuses are fully residential. Some campuses are mostly commuter. Some campuses are embedded within cities, others are in rural areas, others are in suburbs. Campuses serve different kinds of populations. And Jennifer and I are really social scientists so we don’t think, “Oh, we can give you an out-of-the box straight solution that every single campus can apply. But what we can do is give a process that sort of does a Sexual Citizens-esque thinking about the local environment to come up with new kinds of solutions. 

The other thing I’ll say is that what the SPACE Toolkit does is that it gets your community to interact with one another in a slightly different way. As we visited so many campuses, there can be a little bit of an us and them understanding of this problem with students often engaged in protest, people who work in this area feeling like they’re in a lose-lose situation and constantly sort of responding to things that students are bringing forth. What the SPACE Toolkit also tries to do is sort of change the local campus conversation so that everyone’s on the same team or at least working toward a shared goal. In that way, the SPACE Toolkit is really grounded, not in approach of sort of fear and what can we possibly do and feeling paralyzed. But instead, like Sexual Citizens, we suggest a process grounded in empathy and understanding that can really lead to profound transformations. 

Bennett: You’ve mentioned that equity is a big driver in the analysis of campus spaces. Could you tell us more about that piece? 

Hirsch: Sure. So think back to the story that I opened with about Scott and Lucy. Think about the inequalities in that interaction. Scott is obviously older than Lucy, and he’s in a space that he controls and he’s also probably bigger and more sexually experienced and more experienced at drinking. But that’s just one of the many ways in which power inequalities are part of why sexual assault happens on campus. We spoke with a number of women of color whose stories are shared in the book who talked about the Columbia Barnard campus as a white space. And their point was that the ways that people socialize on campus were not predominantly the ways that they wanted to socialize. So, that they felt more comfortable socializing off campus in ways that exposed them to risks of sexual violence. We also heard from every single black woman that we spoke with that they’d experienced unwanted non-consensual sexual touching on campus. You can’t just think about that as gender-based violence, it’s also anti-black racism. 

So you have to think about campus sexual assault as the product of many intersecting forms of inequality. Now you can’t expect campuses to be magic spaces that undo all of the inequalities that happen in the surrounding social world, but you can expect campuses to have policies that don’t amplify those inequalities. And so rather than saying to campuses, “You should be more equal,” because that is an abstract and not particularly useful piece of advice, “We say look at the ways in which policies about the allocation of social and residential space on campus actually amplify those inequalities and then think about allocating space in a way that mitigates those inequalities instead.”  

So the SPACE Toolkit brings together the work that campuses are doing about diversity, equity, and inclusion with the work that they’re doing on sexual assault prevention, with the vision of building campus communities where all students can thrive. 

Bennett: Now, there are four phases to the SPACE process. Let’s walk through them. 

Khan: So the first phase is commitment. And as we said earlier, this is not an easy process. We don’t think it’s an impossibly difficult one, but it requires a good bit of commitment from the institution to make it happen. And we think about these commitments as multiple. First, that the upper-level administration of the university or the college are committed to this idea of rethinking how it is that spaces and spacial  policies create and augment inequalities that exist in the world, and to evaluate and transform those things. So it requires some institutional support for an approach to sexual violence and diversity, equity, and inclusion work, as Jennifer just indicated. It means giving the range of people who are involved that will be faculty, staff, students, time to engage in this work. It takes about a year to just sort of think through it and then even more time to implement policies. 

And then it requires resources. Now resources don’t need to be extensive, but if this is just another unfunded mandate on already extended workers, it’s not likely to be as successful. Or, if students on campus who might want to participate and you might want to participate have to choose between a paying job on campus and doing this work, you’re not going to hear the voices of students who might experience greater financial insecurity, who are particularly at risk and are particularly important. And so this means sort of modest investments of maybe food for meetings, supplies, some administrative support to schedule meetings, as well as support for low-income students who might want to participate and support for staff who are going to be doing this work. That’s the commitment phase. 

The second phase is the convening phase. And here, what we want is campuses to begin to think about who are the wide range of institutional stakeholders involved in campus life? This of course means the senior administration, the offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion, people in Title IX. It also means people in housing and residential life, if you’re a residential campus. People who are part of the parking policies, if that’s part of your student body’s experience. Faculty, but also student activities, people who are engaged in student life and athletics, the office of the chaplain and those tied to different affinity groups. People who are engaged in student wellness and institutes on campus, faculty who are involved with studying social power. This could mean women, gender, and sexuality studies, African American studies, Latino studies, schools of social work or public health. And to bring in staff members who are part of facilities to the conversation. The idea is to get a wide and diverse set of perspectives on how it is that policies are being experienced. And to make sure that if there were recommendations coming out of this group they’re actually actionable because the people who generated the recommendations are also going to be the people who implement them. 

In addition to these administrators, staff, and faculty, you need to bring students into the process. We think this is really important because students are the people you’re trying to help. And so convening students means bringing together students who represent diverse experiences with power on campus. Of course, Black and Latino and Asian American students, Indigenous, international students, students from different years and different gender identities and sexualities thinking about disability, transfer students, work study students. The list is long, and it may seem kind of overwhelming. But the aim is to think if we are going to make real change within these communities, we need to gather together the widest range of perspectives, and we need to make sure that the students feel like they’re part of a different kind of discussion with what’s happening. Not a discussion just of how they’ve been wronged, but instead how they are critical members of these communities whose input really matters and who are going to be affected by the range of policies that are suggested. I’ll let Jennifer talk about phases three and four considering and change. 

Hirsch: So consider means, think about sexual geographies, which has two sub-parts. The first is to help everybody in the SPACE Toolkit working group or the SPACE commission, or you could even call them the SPACE force to help everybody who’s on the project understand what it means to describe the allocation of social space on campus as a sexual geography. So there’s a handy little video that the toolkit links to and we have explanations of it. Basically sexual geography, it crystallizes the idea that there is a patterned way in which people come together to socialize. And so the first part of considering is just getting everybody on board with what the sexual geography means. 

And then the second part is to do a sort of collective mapping of the campus sexual geographies. And we say that in plural, not just because academics like to make everything plural but because actually different kinds of students have different experiences of the campus space. So that means a series of meetings and there’s all kinds of different ways that SPACE working groups can document the campus sexual geography. Basically what they’re trying to do is to describe how students use social and residential spaces. That will happen over a series of meetings and there are resources in the toolkit for how to actually proceed in a more concrete way with that. 

And then the phase four, that’s the sort of the crucial part of it all which is to change. Nobody’s going to snap their fingers and make a change. And so digging a little bit deeper into what’s involved in that, the SPACE working group will brainstorm a range of changes that could potentially be made on campus in the way that brainstorms work, where nobody’s told that their idea is stupid, everyone just gets out there. OK, now that we’ve accounted for how a SPACE is used on campus, let’s think about how it might be used. 

And then once they articulated a range of possible changes, they’re going to try to find this sweet spot, because there’s some changes that would be easy to make, but that might have no impact. And there will be other changes that would be very hard to make and so it doesn’t matter how much impact they would have because they’re virtually impossible. Some campuses with very deep pockets might decide, “OK, let’s build palaces for all the students.” That will be the solution, everybody has their own palace. We think that’s pretty unlikely. And so another criteria that obviously campuses are going to take into account is how much things are going to cost. So they’re going to try to find this sweet spot with something that is feasible, affordable, and impactful, and then actually make an operational change for what are the policies that would need to be transformed to set that change into motion. 

It doesn’t have to be one change, it could be a couple of changes. Or, the working group might want to decide, okay, let’s go with something that feels like pretty low-hanging fruit so we can get a win and we can take that win back to the Provost or the President or the Dean of Students and show them that this is actually a process that can work. So these four steps you could stop, assess, and then repeat again, but that’s basically it. Commit, convene, consider, and change. 

Bennett: As our listeners start thinking about implementing this process on their campuses, could you tell us a bit more about the types of campus spaces they should be considering? 

Khan: Absolutely. So think about on a residential campus, what residential policies are like. There’s almost a naturalization that more senior students should get access to better space, better residential space. So who gets first priority with housing? Seniors or juniors who are going to be seniors the following year. That’s almost universal. And if you take a step back for a moment and think about it, what you pretty quickly realize is that means that the people with the most social power have access to the, “Best space,” with the greatest possibilities of socializing. That does something on campus. It produces contexts where younger students are funneled into spaces that older students control. It means that younger students are funneled into spaces where alcohol is more likely to be present, because older students can legally buy it and have much greater ease in accessing it. 

What this will do is sort of make people think about, “Oh, what kinds of housing spaces exist on campus? What are our policies around those? And how is it that our policies may be creating even greater inequalities rather than addressing existing inequalities and making them lesser?”  

And so we’ve talked to campuses where the captains of sports teams get access to the highest value social space. We’ve been on campuses, actually, even in our own research at Columbia, where students would go back to their residential space and find that there was a social group having a meeting in their common room. 

Imagine, Melanie, for a moment, that you go home and after a long day like today, and suddenly you find that there’s like a group having a meeting in your living room and they say to you, “We’re going to be here for the next four hours.” I mean, that would be very alienating. And so, the first thing to think about is, “How is it that residential spaces are being used? What are the policies around them? And how could those be changed in ways that are grounded more in a commitment to equity?” 

The second set of spaces would be social spaces where students have fun. An obvious example here is Greek life, not everybody has Greek life on campus. But if social spaces are dominated by men, one of the things that we know is that men drink a lot more than women and people of other genders. They’re the group that drinks the most. And so if men have control over most of the social spaces, drinking will be more central to socialization on campus. It doesn’t make men bad. It’s not just a critique of masculinity. It’s saying, “Well, we’ve made some decisions in having Greek life in the way that we have it. By national policy, fraternities are allowed to serve alcohol and sororities are not.” Well, that means that parties are going to have more alcohol, and men have control over the spaces where parties happen. 

Now beyond Greek life, it means thinking a little bit more about the spaces, the size, the quality, the location, alcohol distribution, where students are socializing and how policies around those spaces could be reevaluated. We’re not saying, “Get rid of Greek life.” What we’re saying is look at your Greek life policies and say, what would it mean to say to these different hellenic organizations, “In order to receive recognition, you have to do the following things.” Which might mean giving access to your space to different student affinity groups at different times, etc. So thinking about how social spaces on campus often create inequalities in gendered ways, also in racialized ways, the alcohol story, white Americans drink more than other ethnic groups and so if white students control socialization spaces, it’s just more likely to have alcohol present in them.  

It requires a little bit of an investigation about social spaces. I think Jennifer can talk about other ideas or other spatial contexts that we might consider. 

Hirsch: Yeah. So super important third kind of space is public spaces. And these are spaces to which all students have access, and they sort of exemplify one of the core experiences of being in college in the United States, which is the possibility of encountering people who are different than you. And they also the spaces that are frequently really entirely under the control of the university administration. So, an example might be when we were doing this research on the Columbia Barnard campus, we were in conversation with a lot of senior administrators, including the Vice President for Housing and Dining. And as we described to him, how students socialize and the fact that when the bars close and the parties end, students are pretty much funneled back into rooms where the only place they can sit together is on the bed. You could see a light go off over his head. He was like, “Aha. I can do something about that.” 

So he decided to keep one of the cafeterias open all night. And this was a cafeteria that has cozy places to sit and greasy French fries. It’s not the main cafeteria. It’s like the snack food cafeteria. And the point is not that late night French fries are going to prevent all sexual assaults, but that it becomes a sort of democratic space of encounter that all students could have access to. 

Another sort of moment of triumph. The lawns on the Columbia campus are highly contested spaces. They’re frequently not accessible to students because there’s the law-and-advocacy contingent who want to keep the lawns beautiful so that when alumni come back to the campus to visit the lawns are pristine. And we saw those lawns as sort of untapped potential public space for community gatherings. And so then one year at orientation after we had done our research, we saw that there was actually a whole carnival set up on one of the lawns. So the lawn stakeholders had apparently backed down, and the people who were responsible for residential life had access to that space and they had a bouncy castle and they had all kinds of activities going on that were probably terrible for the grass. But it was an intentional institutional decision to use a public space in a way that would promote collective well-being. So public spaces is super, super important. 

Programmatic space is spaces where students host and attend non-academic things, things like club meetups. When we started the research, the LGBTQ student activity group, they had a meeting space, which was great, but it was literally in a closet in the basement. Not great, not disability accessible, not accessible after hours. And so moving that space to a building where students could access it and students of all access needs could access it after hours was really important. 

And then the fifth kind of space is virtual space, which shapes a lot of how students encounter each other. In our experience, largely virtual space is outside the control of universities. And so it may be really important to understand how it’s working, and we would be super excited to hear about any campus that has an exciting and innovative vision for how to change it. So those are the five kinds of spaces. 

Bennett: Before we wrap up, I want to ask about a topic that’s often on the minds of administrators – budgets. What kind of financial investments do these changes require? 

Shamus Khan: So I think this is why we wrote a toolkit that different campuses can choose different pathways with. There are a lot of zero-cost solutions that campuses can use, like changing the distribution of housing policies. There are other big cost solutions. And our aim here is to give campuses a framework to use that fits within their capacities, abilities, and really their financial constraints. And so I just say that the toolkit itself is totally free. This is not a financial moneymaking rack for me and Jennifer. It’s something that we want to be freely available to any institution. You can download it right now. And that some institutions that may have resources to devote to this problem can do that, and others can do a lot of zero-cost solutions.  

And if this is an ongoing process, I think the budget can be something that you go through the process, you see how it works, you’re excited about it, and then maybe it becomes something that you budget a few more resources to. But really campuses can make their own decisions about this. 

Bennett: Jennifer and Shamus. Thank you for sharing this SPACE Toolkit with us today. I’m sure many of our listeners will want to implement it on their campuses. And I know you’ve offered it as a free download. Can you let listeners know where to find it? 

Hirsch: The entire toolkit can be downloaded from our website, which is And you’ll see at the top, on the left-hand side, it says “SPACE Toolkit.” You can click on that and you can download it. We’re very excited that the first cohort of schools will be using the space toolkit starting this fall. So stay tuned for updates from us about how that’s going. And Melanie, thank you so much for having us today. 

Khan: Yeah, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much, Melanie. 

Bennett: Wonderful. Thanks again to both of you for joining me today. 

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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