Carl was a senior at Columbia University when he sat down to talk with us about his life. We were interviewing him to better understand the sexual lives of college students and why sexual assault is such a common element of the campus experience. Carl isn’t his real name; we protect the identities of students who shared their powerful and troubling stories with us through the use of pseudonyms. Our goal was to generate insights that would help prevent sexual assaults. Men commit the vast majority of assaults, and such violence is frequently described as “gender-based.” But the way Carl navigated intimacy cannot be read through the lens of gender alone. It was inseparable from his experiences as a black man.
Carl recounted meeting a white woman at a party one evening. After some flirting, she asked if they could go back to his room. Carl wasn’t comfortable with how drunk she seemed, so he suggested a late-night stroll. After nearly an hour working their way around campus and the surrounding neighborhood, he finally agreed to go back to his room. But he was still worried that she would later claim she had been too drunk to consent. Carl believed he needed to protect himself from the racial biases in campus and criminal adjudication processes. He insisted that they just sit and talk. Only after he judged that she could no longer claim to have been drunk did he consent to sex.
Still, that wasn’t enough to assuage his anxiety. Before she left, Carl secretly recorded the woman saying she was happy with what had happened. He’d done his homework. Carl knew that New York was a “one-party consent” state for recording conversations. The recording he made without her permission could be admissible as evidence in court. “That helped me,” he told us, “just really allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable the moment she left. I at least had some evidence for my own conscience.”
Many of the men we spoke with expressed a fear of being falsely accused of assault (a fear vastly out of proportion to the actual risk of that happening). But Carl’s extreme self-protective measures speak to a broader finding in our research: Black students experience campus sexual violence in significantly different ways from white students. Black women reported higher rates of unwanted sexual touching than white women did; black men, with American history never far from mind, were far likelier than their white counterparts to worry that consensual sexual encounters with white women would lead to unfounded accusations.
Carl was one of more than 150 students we interviewed for our book “Sexual Citizens,” which emerged out of a broader project supported by Columbia University: the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT). In addition to interviewing students, more than half of whom were students of color, we also observed their day-to-day lives. Our research team spent hundreds of hours in fraternity basements, in religious spaces, in dorm rooms, among sports teams and in dining halls on the Columbia University and Barnard College campuses.
Black students we spoke with described feeling hypersexualized by their peers. Time and again, they told stories of unwanted sexual touching. One man we interviewed speculated that white women’s apparent comfort grabbing his penis in a bar derived both from a racialized lack of respect for his autonomy and white fantasies about black penises. Black women’s stories were even more unsettling: Of the 16 black female students we interviewed, every single one told us a story of unwanted sexual touching, mostly on or near campus.
National data doesn’t reflect similar findings: Black women experience no greater risk of sexual assault compared to white women. An analysis from the SHIFT survey led by Claude Ann Mellins confirmed that black women were not more likely to be assaulted overall, but they were twice as likely to experience unwanted touching, compared with other racial or ethnic groups.
It’s possible that every black woman we spoke to told us about unwanted touching because the particular black women who walked into our office wanted to share their stories. The kind of research we do, talking with and observing people, reveals dimensions of experience that are socially significant, even if they aren’t statistically generalizable. Yet we suspect that we heard about experiences that don’t appear on surveys for another reason: Women simply don’t report them. As these women’s stories unfolded, there was an almost banal quality to their narratives. The experiences were burdensome, to be sure. But they weren’t surprising. It seemed like just another indignity imposed upon black women.
The racial dimensions of campus sexual assault aren’t simply about personal attitudes and interactions. The geography of a campus is also connected to race. The unequal organization of social space creates opportunities for assault. Many high-value social spaces, such as fraternities, are frequently controlled by men, but not just men in general: Most often, they’re wealthy white men. In matters from music to what kinds of substances are on offer, students of color, and in particular black students, feel chronically less at home.
One student, Charisma, described the mainstream campus social scene as fratty white guys who drink too much, have bad taste in music, can’t really dance, and go for skinny girls with straight hair and thin noses. She was frustrated by the relatively small numbers of black and Latino men, whom she deemed more suitable partners. Like other students of color, she described Columbia as a “white institution.” Charisma’s search for experiences and people she wanted led her to the Brooklyn apartment of a man she barely knew. They’d been introduced through her roommate and texted back and forth for a couple of weeks. She thought that they’d just smoke a little pot, chill and watch television. Not long after arriving, she felt uncomfortable. But the subway wasn’t running, and she didn’t have the money for a car home. She stayed. He assaulted her. We can’t explain her experience through the perspective of “gender-based violence” alone. A university culture around race that made her feel excluded laid the groundwork for her assault. So did her lack of financial resources. This kind of analysis — what Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectional” to describe — is essential to understanding and preventing sexual assault.
Existing prevention efforts also have unexamined racial dimensions. A singular focus on alcohol and bystanders — common areas of emphasis on many campuses — erases black women’s experiences. That’s because assault isn’t always the same kind of experience. Sometimes it happens in the context of a hookup, as when two people have been drinking together at a party. But sometimes it happens in more intimate settings, like relationships, when people haven’t been drinking and when there are unlikely to be bystanders. Jaylene told us a story about getting up the courage to stop by the room of an upperclassman on whom she was “crushing hard.” She told him how she felt, and she was thrilled when he reciprocated her interest and suggested that they kiss “to see if there’s a spark.” But her excitement turned to dismay as he pressed her for oral sex. In general, men view black women as less-desirable dating partners, something Jaylene experienced firsthand in trying to find a man on campus who was interested in her. She didn’t want to perform oral sex, but she did. Unusually, they discussed it later, and he agreed that he had extracted a yes that she did not want to give.
Jaylene was sober during that interaction. Generally, black Americans drink less than white Americans. And so, not surprisingly, an analysis of the SHIFT survey data led by Louisa Gilbert found that black non-Hispanic female students experience incapacitated assault at significantly lower rates than white ones.
The drunken hookups that predominate in the public conversation cast white students’ experience as universal. White students we spoke with rarely expressed fear about the consequences of drinking. But black students worried that being caught with a fake ID, underage drinking or committing the property damage that is frequently associated with heavy drinking would bring them face to face with law enforcement. Black students were the only ones we spoke with who talked about how those encounters could lead to ending up on the other side of an officer’s gun.
Sexual assault, on or off campus, is not always just “gender-based violence.” It can also be racial violence. A narrow focus on gender inequality may lead to prevention work that, even if successful, exacerbates racial disparities in campus sexual assault. When we assume all students experience campus life the same way white students do, we erase black students’ bodies, and their suffering, from public concern.