Five Offline Strategies to Build ‘Sexual Citizenship’ Online

By Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan

Dick pics, revenge porn, cyberbullying — there are so many sexual ways that people can hurt each other online. For those of us who didn’t grow up with such a deep intertwining of the internet and sex, the anxiety about ‘those crazy kids these days’ is real. But we need to remind ourselves of the centuries-long history of fear about technological change and sexual danger. 200 years ago the ‘technology’ was bicycles and the concern was that riding them would, among other things, disrupt women’s menstrual cycles. Fast forward a century, and a different new technology — new types of women’s corsets — became the focus for debates about, ‘racial purity, national security, and heterosexual privilege.’ In the 1940s, the new technological site of sin was… drive-in theaters?

When it comes to addressing sexual violence, the problem is almost never the technology. The dick pic may be a new form of sexual harassment, but one of us still remembers all too vividly being flashed by a creepy guy on the street — in seventh grade. We need to break away from shame and fear as our go-to ways to reduce sexual harm. This means focusing less on individuals and more on our social and cultural context in which young people emerge into adulthood, regardless of whether they are Luddites or were the first in their friend group on TikTok.

Integrating Offline and Online

First, we need to step back and realize that there’s no big barrier between online and offline. In our semesters of immersive research with Columbia and Barnard undergraduates, we saw this new generation of digital natives effortlessly hop between digital and in-person socializing. Online interaction is inseparable from our offline lives.

In-person interactions give you a real “feel” for someone, but it’s frequently enabled by the efficiency of some online checking. If you’re at a party and think someone’s cute, a quick look at their Facebook profile can tell you a lot about their sexuality or whether or not they’re in a relationship. Sending a friend request (back when young people used Facebook) or starting to follow them is a good signal that you’re interested. Online tools can also help save you some embarrassment. It’s hard to make a move on someone in your social circle. If they’re not interested and you take a chance by asking them out, spending time together among your shared friends might suddenly be awkward. Liking their old posts is a (not very subtle) expression of interest, and matching on Tinder an equally clear sign to proceed.

Once we acknowledge that young people don’t have online and offline lives, they just live one life, we see some the more fundamental challenges. If you pour sour milk into a different glass, it still stinks. So too, with the flow between in-person and digital interaction. This realization comes with an opportunity. The positive work we do in both spaces can have spill-over effects. Our research points to the importance of cultivating sexual citizenship — an understanding of one’s own right to sexual self-determination, and the recognition that others have equivalent rights.

Learning Sexual Citizenship

For so many young people, the main message they get about sex from their parents before leaving home is ‘not under my roof,’ and the best they can hope to learn about sex at school is that sex is a dirty rotten nasty thing they should only do to someone they love after they are married. For queer kids, the message isn’t just that they shouldn’t have sex now, but that the sex they want to have will never be legitimate. Sexual citizenship isn’t something young people are born with. Instead it’s a collective social project. Young people face a nonstop barrage of messages undermining their sexual citizenship, and too little real education in respecting other people’s sexual citizens. It’s profoundly unrealistic to expect them to suddenly magic up a sense of self-determination when they become sexually active. And if they haven’t gotten that message regarding in-person interactions, how exactly do we expect that their online selves will be any different?

Moral panics aren’t going to get us where we need to be, because online experiences aren’t the root cause of the problems. Young people today are likely having less sex than their parents did at the same age, and their first sexual experiences may be later in life; remember that the next time you think with horror about how online technologies make sex too “easy.”

Creating Safe Online Spaces

Of course there are specific things that online spaces can do. If we are committed to equity as essential to sexual assault prevention, then allowing sexist, racist, or anti-LGBTQ+ content on platforms will lead to more sexual violence. Building virtual communities where everyone can thrive means using the control of those virtual spaces for good. And education in consent requires more discussion of time and space about — specifically, helping people understand that saying ‘yes’ to something sexual in an online or offline space doesn’t mean ‘yes’ in another space. But the broader point there — understanding that saying yes to something at one point doesn’t produce an obligation to do it later — just underlines how effective sexual assault prevention offline should have online ripple effects.

Practicing sexual citizenship online requires building a world in which it’s supported offline. We offer five concrete strategies to make this possible.

  1. Improve access to sexual and reproductive health services — it’s hard to have sexual self-determination without reproductive self-determination.
  2. It’s not only health care that must be gender-affirming — all policies need to be. How can we expect trans youth to feel like they have a right to sexual self-determination if at every turn they feel erased?
  3. Inclusive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex ed can help all young people understand that they have the right to say yes and the right to say no, and that others have those same rights.
  4. Sexual citizenship is inseparable from a broader climate of respect and belonging, and so inclusive school curricula grounded in a commitment to equality must be part of the solution. That means not just gender and sexuality, but race, disability, class, and all forms of difference and disadvantage.
  5. Build an inclusive media environment. When people are staring at their screens to consume media rather than interact, all kinds of bodies and sexual desires must be represented as sexual citizens. It’s hard to feel like a sexual citizen when advertising, film, and television render you sexually invisible.

Behavioral change requires structural transformation. And so instead of fretting about how technology will save or damn us, we need to build a world that promotes sexual self-determination, alongside a commitment to respecting the fundamental dignity and moral equivalence of those we are intimate with. Just like shame and fear won’t get us to a world with less sexual assault, they also can’t effectively promote online safety. Instead, we need to do all we can to educate all people about what it means to respect themselves and one another.

Jennifer S. Hirsch is a Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Shamus Khan is a Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Princeton. Together they are coauthors of Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus (WW Norton), which was named an NPR Best book of 2020.

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This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re bringing attention to online harassment and abuse and providing solutions on how we can prevent it.

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National Sexual Violence Resource Center

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

NSVRC provides research & tools to advocates working on the frontlines to end sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.

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