A Note On The Importance Of Discussing Sexual Violence In The Classroom

For a year now, I have taught Sexual Diversity, an upper-level 70-student sociology course, at Indiana University.  (And, I am excited to announce that I will be teaching Sociology of Sexuality at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee beginning next month.)  I admit that my personal interests and experiences are sometimes reflected in what and how I teach.  For example, the latter third of the course focuses on the intersections between sexuality and other social axes (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, age).  But, as a good instructor, I do not limit the course to topics with which I am personally familiar.  One topic that I cover in my course is sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment) – a topic I do not have first-hand experience with, nor that I feel obligated to cover simply for academic pursuits.

Nearly a year before I began teaching, I asked the professor for whom I was a graduate assistant whether he ever covered sexual violence in his courses (or, implicitly, why he did not currently cover them in his courses on gender).  He admitted to me that, in his early years as a professor, he devoted a lecture (or two) to sexual violence.  But, due to uncomfortableness of the classroom discussion, he scaled the lecture back to one required reading, then an optional reading, then it simply disappeared all together.  I do not fault him for his anxiety, as it is the same anxiety I experienced from the day I first listed “Sexual Violence” on my first syllabus.  The topic is uncomfortable – the darker side of sex – because it is an unfortunate guarantee that one or more of one’s students was the victim of sexual violence in the past, that one or more students may have committed sexual violence, and that most students will know someone who has been the victim or perpetrator of sexual violence.  And, though I am not sure about the other professor, I was anxious about what I would experience during the class discussion.

Last Semester: Co-Lecture

For my first class, I worried about how my students would perceive me as a “large Black man” addressing a predominantly-white female class about sexual violence.  Though I was quite excited that it would not be another case of a white woman addressing other white women, I was worried that racial and gender dynamics might prevent students from coming to me either before or after “the class.”  I co-lectured the class with a white woman colleague who has extensive training and experience in dating violence among teenagers.  I felt that the lecture went well, but I had not connected with the students that day as I had hoped – and as I was used to with other lectures.  It may have only been my own anxious perception, or, if real, that they were not used to co-lectures (one lecturer being a stranger), that I came across as uncomfortable with the topic, or, for all involved, it simply is an uncomfortable topic.

This Semester: Calling Them Out

In general, my students of last semester balked at guest lecturers, no matter whether they were talking about hooking up, homophobia in schools, queer theory, or sexual violence.  (Panelists relaying their personal experiences, on the other hand, was quite alright – a first-hand look at an issue and a break from intense note-taking.)  So, I decided to stick it out and go alone this past semester in lecturing on sexual violence.  Unlike last semester, I forgot to give a blanket statement in the beginning about being sympathetic to students who will be too uncomfortable to sit through a particular topic (but to drop if that would often be the case), given my strict attendance policy.  This time, I singled out the week on sexual violence – one day on rape and sexual assault, the other listed as “Pedophilia” but that actually covered moral panics – and let my students know they could miss either day, no questions asked, so long as they let me know in advance so we could make other arrangements.  (The final exam covered material from those days.)  Unfortunately, a couple students took me up on that offer – either right before the lecture on rape and sexual assault or, unfortunately, after because of upsetting comments made during that lecture.

In the lecture, I decided to focus on a few key things: definitions, rape myths, victim-blaming, and bystander intervention.  I began, as usual, with a few links of stories in the news, some unrelated but generally about sexuality, others directly related to sexual violence.  Then, I started with a broad definition of sexual violence, reminding them of our lecture earlier in the semester on sexualized oppression (using lynching and the sexual violence at the US prison in Abu Ghraib as examples).  From there, I defined sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, comparing the latter with the legal definition of rape in Indiana:

Rape:

Sec. 1. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a person who knowingly or intentionally has sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex when:
(1) the other person is compelled by force or imminent threat of force;
(2) the other person is unaware that the sexual intercourse is occurring; or
(3) the other person is so mentally disabled or deficient that consent to sexual intercourse cannot be given;

I asked my students to critique this definition of rape, to which they responded “heterosexist,” “narrowly defined to intercourse,” calling out the way in which rape is limited to heterosexual rape narrowly defined to include intercourse.  (I pointed out that everything else falls under “sexual assault,” which sometimes carries the same punishment.)  Then, bringing back their own responses to the survey I gave them earlier in the semester, we discussed blame.  In every one of a few situations given, a substantial number of the students reported that a woman, if raped, is at least partially to blame – if she was drunk, walking alone at night, wearing revealing clothing, had a reputation as a “slut,” flirted with the man who raped her, failed to clearly say “no,” or any situation at all.  I attempted to refrain from assessing their responses, simply reporting the percentage that noted that the woman in these hypothetical situations was either partially or totally responsible for her own rape.  One student asked, “wait, but what kind of sample was this?”  I was proud that she presented this critical question, and smugly responded, “the sample is this class.”  I could not accurately assess her reaction, but I was oddly pleased with her subsequent silence, as though she could not believe her classmates would think a victim of violence could be blamed for their own victimization.  Typically, if there is silence, I move forward, assuming the students are busy taking notes.  But, this time, I waited, firmly pushing for a discussion.  A few male students, who are typically vocal in the class, offered possible rationale for blame: knowing the risks that exist, one should take precautions, just like wearing a seatbelt in a car.  Some female students agreed as well.  But, though equal in numbers, a more vocal group of students, all female, protested any potential for blame for one’s own victimization.  The comment that seemed to silence the risk-highlighters was “being a woman is a risk in itself.”

Before the tension grew further, I moved onto defining victim-blaming.  The key point I emphasized was that victims of other types of crimes are typically not blamed for their own victimization.  For example, as in the case of the story of The Rape of Mr. Smith, and using two stories from Indiana University’s student news paper, the Indiana Daily Student, one on a woman who claimed to be raped and another on a woman who was robbed, I argued that the way we even talk about rape and sexual assault reflects victim-blaming or that we do not even believe sexual violence happens.  I spent a short amount of time defining rape myths, giving a few recent examples from the news that counter the idea that all rapists are creepy men lurking in the bushes at night, and that all victims of sexual violence are young, white attractive women who are raped for sexual pleasure.  And, knowing that some recent research has found bystander intervention training to be more effective than sexual violence education that treats women as potential victims and men as potential perpetrators, I concluded with charging our community with the responsibility of ending sexual violence.

Feedback

Did I come across as lecturing at my students from a soapbox?  Did some wonder, “who’s this guy talking about rape?  What does he know?”  Did I come across as disinterested, yet teaching the topic out of obligation?  Of course, I left that day worried about the impact I had, or whether I had any at all.  Only a few students came to see me after class, and none had questions or concerns that were about that day’s lecture.  I asked my teaching assistant and future teaching assistant whether the class went well and, more importantly, whether it was important to include sexual violence in future course.  They both gave positive responses.  A student in the class also affirmed the importance of teaching about sexual violence, and noted that she was pleased with the way I had taught the topic.  I wanted more feedback, whether it was good or bad, but I received more feedback (mostly solicited by me) than for any other topic.

The next class day, in the goal of reciprocity, I gave students the chance to ask anything about be me (anonymously), given that they had divulged so much in the two written assignments.  I was surprised to find that one student, relinquishing her anonymity by writing her name at the top of her paper, sought confirmation – did I believe that victims could be blamed, or was I convincingly neutral/objective?  I was satisfied that I had learned to pull myself a bit more out of the class from my first teaching experience, but I was a bit saddened that anyone would leave thinking I would endorse victim-blaming.  I started to email the student to address her concern, but decided it was best to address the whole class.  So, in my short divulge about myself – my queer sexual identity, my genderqueer gender identity, by biracial racial identity, my passion for studying sexuality, and my refusal to tell them the number of sexual partners I have had in my lifetime (though a number asked) – I ended with a disclaimer that I do not believe a victim of any sort of violence can be blamed for their own victimization.  The student who asked emailed later, admitting she was the student who asked (maybe she forgot she wrote her name?), and said that she  was relieved and quite pleased with the way I taught about sexual violence.

A Note On The Importance Of Discussing Sexual Violence In The Classroom

The topic is uncomfortable, but, I feel in my heart that I have failed as an instructor of sexual diversity and the sociology of sexuality if I teach for 15 weeks without ever directly addressing sexual violence.  While it is fun to discuss hooking up, how we define sex, the numerous sexual identities, it is also crucial to discuss the way in which sex is infused with power (queer theory much?) – how systems of oppression shape and constrain our sexualities, how oppression itself can be sexualized, how oppression is reflected in sexuality itself (e.g., the “orgasm gap” in hooking up).  My class may be the “Debbie Downer” of takes on teaching sexual diversity, but I fear that my class may be the only class where students hear an instructor and fellow students talk critically about sexual violence.  I still feel that the lecture itself can be improved, maybe even expanded beyond one day, but I feel good for and have received positive feedback on the work I have done thus far.  I hope that, in some way, I have validated victims of violence, prevented future sexual violence, and enlightened many on the importance of recognizing and ending sexual violence.

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