Open And Honest Discussions About Sexual Violence In Our Classes

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Shawn Patrick is a biracial cis woman (and not an Irish pub, as some tend to think) and an associate professor and professional counselor. Her take on higher education is influenced by her training in multicultural counseling and narrative theory. She blogs at The Rolling B about teaching, mental health and social justice.

Talk With Students About Sexual Assault

It was quiet when I shuffled into my house late one night. My children had long ago fallen asleep. My husband lounged on the couch framed by the blue light projected from some late-night television show. I dribbled onto the couch like a ripped sack of potatoes and said, “I think this course is starting to get to me.”

I was teaching a graduate course on abuse and violence. I had lectured about sexual assault in other courses, but this was the first time I have devoted an entire course to the topic. As a therapist, I have counseled many adults and children who have experienced forms of sexual, physical, emotional, mental and/or religious abuse. I have also supervised counselor trainees as they learn to work with clients who experience violence.

None of this is ever easy work. While my mind tends to spin regardless after a full day, any day in which I encounter the subject of sexual assault will guarantee me a sleepless night. This particular evening’s insomnia was brought on by the dawning realization that a full course on violence meant constantly living in abuse-related material.

Students identify abuse and trauma as the topic that they feel least prepared to address. Degree programs include courses or curricular expectations for basic training in abuse and trauma work. However, I suspect it is not a lack of knowledge that makes students anxious about the topic. Instead, the worry more likely stems from personal resonance fluttering near someone’s consciousness, threatening to remind them of just how familiar they are with abuse and assault.

“Rape culture” is a phrase bringing together the multiple factors contributing to an environment that normalizes sexual exploitation. While some people attempt to dismiss this and phrases like trigger warnings as “liberal whininess,” the statistics are clear. Conservative estimates indicate nearly one in two women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence, stalking or partner violence. More than 70 percent of men and women who have been assaulted experienced this before the age of 25. Sexual violence does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, but the majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men, and most are known to their victims.

The myths about sexual assault abound in society, including perceptions that men “can’t be raped” or that women “ask for it.” When a recent presidential candidate (now president) boasted about assaulting women, many Americans quickly dismissed such behavior as “locker room talk.” College and university administrators have conveyed the message to victims that they should leave the university “for their own safety,” essentially ending their education, while their perpetrators are allowed to continue on.

Such social conditions contribute to why the reporting of sexual violence tends to be low. The older a person is when the assault occurs, the less likely they are to report it. Family and friends often overtly and covertly coerce victims into staying silent — many of them intending to help but most likely doing more harm than good. Male victims of sexual violence are the least likely to report it due to fears of being ridiculed or not believed by others. Critics take nonreporting as proof that claims of rape are false. But silence is not a sign of guilt or weakness — rather, it is many victims’ last resort to protect their humanity.

It is not possible to live in our society without encountering the effects of a culture that normalizes rape. I know that when I teach a course about sexual violence, most people in the room have been affected by it. Trigger warnings, or essentially prepping students for the possibility that they will hear material that is potentially upsetting or disturbing, are normal. This is no different than explaining grading procedures or commenting on the weather. These comments acknowledge the reality we live in and demonstrate respect for everyone’s right to have a say in what happens in their physical space. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, trigger warnings do not shut down conversations; instead, they invite students into safe spaces. Because we have the courage to address sexual assault openly, we create trust and show students how to take a different stance towards violence.

Humility, Not Bravado

Sexual assault is no stranger in my life, either. I am often asked, “How do you do this work without your own history getting in the way?” As counselors, we ask this question mostly because therapy is meant to focus on the people whom we serve, not ourselves. But for students, this question is more related to fear that conversations about rape will overwhelm them. This is the power of sexual assault; it tries to convince us to hide, to mute our voices. Curiously, however, asking this question demonstrates the desire to put sexual assault in its place and not be silenced by it.

I tell my students what I tell myself. Professors hold an illusion that our histories and identities exit the room when we teach, as though we are simply talking textbooks. This is an unnatural and unrealistic expectation. We are who we are in the classroom, and tapping into the many facets of ourselves is what makes our teaching work the best. After last Nov. 8, I could not walk into my classroom and pretend that many students were not afraid of living in a country that decided women and people of color existed solely for the gratification of men. There was no way that I could honestly address myths about sexual violence without allowing my students to talk about those fears. I felt powerless; I could not pretend I was unaffected, was not “triggered” by watching men on television and in my community swagger and boast about “winning.”

Responding to students who also felt powerless, I had to remember that humility, not bravado, opens us to compassion. Embracing feelings of disgust, anger, sadness or hurt when witnessing stories of violence is not a sign of failure. Rather, it is the appropriate response — the human response. Stifling ourselves is exactly what assault wants so it stays in control. When we allow our reactions to breathe, we show ourselves what is valuable. Disgust reminds us human dignity should not be violated. Anger proves the act never should have occurred. Sadness lets me see the integrity of the other. And hurt tells me how much our connections matter.

Does this translate into telling students every intimate detail about my life? Of course not. I get to choose what I share and what I don’t. Students will see that I have feelings. But will this make me appear human in the classroom? I hope so.