An Intersectional Framework For Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nadeeka Karunaratne serves as the student development coordinator in the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, and previously worked as the violence prevention coordinator in the university’s Campus Assault Resources and Education Office. She is a trauma-informed yoga instructor and is fascinated about all things at the intersection of yoga and social justice.

I used to work as the sole violence-prevention educator at a large public research university. So I understand many of the demands placed on staff in campus prevention and advocacy offices. Those demands include fulfilling workshop requests, hosting training after training, creating engaging programming, and educating an entire campus community about sexual violence.

However, I also know that the ways in which we do all of that can be isolating, marginalizing and ineffective for many student communities.

As a woman of color, I have often been in white feminist anti-sexual-violence spaces where my identities and experiences are erased and further marginalized. My journey toward an intersectional framework of prevention — one that focuses on the most marginalized communities and discusses how multiple forms of oppression intersect with sexism — began with my own experiences as a prevention educator.

I began to place my own experiences within a larger context when I heard Jessica Harris speak at the 2016 annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She connected critical race feminism to sexual violence and the experiences of women of color. CRF examines the intersections of race and gender in relationship to power and aims to deconstruct interlocking systems of domination — specifically, white supremacy and patriarchy. Harris shared her conceptual framework, explaining that women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer from violence, but also that their experiences are qualitatively different from those of white women. Indeed, research shows that women of color undergo different rates of violence and have qualitatively different experiences of trauma.

I was able to further develop my intersectional prevention education philosophy through a conceptual framework at the 2016 conference of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There, Farah Tanis of the Black Women’s Blueprint introduced her theoretical expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model. She included “structural” and “historical” levels in her framework and discussed the importance of considering history and systemic structures of oppression in prevention. Indeed, the history of sexual violence in the United States has foundations in racism and colonialism. Rape is a tool in white colonizers’ violent tactics to eradicate and oppress indigenous communities. White people’s use of rape as an oppressive tool continued during slavery, wherein white men raped black women without consequence.

Our country’s system of higher education also shares a history of colonization, as the first colleges were established within a colonial context. Today the media and the dominant narrative in this country can portray stereotypes about women of color that are harmful and serve to legitimize their sexual abuse. In addition, the dominant narrative depicts men of color as preying on innocent white women. This can be seen from the dominant portrayal of what survivors on college campuses look like. It can even be seen in the renowned documentary The Hunting Ground, where the only named perpetrator is a black man who raped a white woman. However, even with all of this historical context and present-day narratives, discussions of racism and other forms of systemic oppression are often absent in our prevention education.

In order to address multiple forms of oppression in our education, we must move beyond supposedly inclusive prevention education, where we use gender-neutral pronouns and images that represent visible diversity, to a framework of prevention that is intersectional at its very foundation.

Below are some of the ways I have begun to do so in my own work. These strategies have been effective in engaging students in complex conversations about issues of sexual violence.

  • I open my workshops by introducing the issues of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence through the lens of power and control. I explain that a perpetrator uses these forms of violence to exert power and control over another person. I then discuss how those forms of violence are about power and control on both an individual and a systemic level. I have used this framing of the issues as an opportunity to educate students about the historical, racist and colonialist context of sexual violence.
  • One of the core tenets of critical race feminism is the importance of storytelling, specifically counterstorytelling. Counternarratives can serve a vital role for empowerment in our prevention education, particularly when mainstream white feminism excludes those narratives. We need to think of how the current national conversation centers on white, cisgender female bodies and then critically reflect on how our programming and prevention education does the same. We must then center the most marginalized in our society within our work. One example of a counternarrative I use is the pushback against the California legislation on mandatory minimum sentences in the aftermath of Brock Turner’s conviction. I explain that, while some advocacy organizations have lobbied for mandatory minimum laws, other organizations, particularly those led by women of color, emphasize the disproportionate impact of incarceration on communities of color. Additionally, I note that the notion of justice is complicated, since the definition of “justice” (i.e., incarceration of perpetrators) does not look the same for all survivors.
  • In many workshops, I discuss trauma-informed approaches for supporting survivors, as a form of tertiary prevention. I address some of the specific barriers to seeking support, leaving abusive relationships and reporting sexual assault (administratively and criminally) that exist in different communities. In addition to discussing barriers, I also talk about the community-specific ways of healing and coping that exist. This is important for moving away from a solely deficit-based way of thinking about marginalized communities. Introducing such nuanced ways of understanding support-seeking and healing will help people to assist any survivors who may disclose to them — and in ways that do not perpetuate further violence or marginalization.
  • When talking about rape culture, we must discuss how different people’s bodies may be represented in the media, rather than talking generally about the representation of women. That includes highlighting how the hypersexualization and exotification of women of color and their bodies, and the negative portrayal of people with disabilities, to name a few examples, contribute to rape culture and sexual violence.
  • One of the most utilized forms of prevention education within higher education is bystander intervention. However, traditional bystander intervention education does not account for the experiences of some of our students on many levels. Common lessons — such as calling 911 as a strategy, asking students to visualize perpetrators and ignoring the influence of identity in intervention — range from problematic to harmful. These lessons may make bystander intervention inaccessible for students from certain communities and further perpetuate stereotypes about men of color. We must complicate how we talk about bystander intervention — for example, by highlighting the salience of identity in intervention and acknowledging specific barriers — in order for it to be an effective tool.

These are just a few ideas and strategies to help us move beyond traditional methods of prevention education. We must invest in research and practices that explore new models, particularly in the context of higher education. Discussions of identity and intersectionality are vital to prevention education. Students are not interested in hearing presentations where their lived realities are not reflected. Students are not interested in engaging in education that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity or that does not address the wholeness of what they experience.

I will end with a quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde that further illustrates the importance of an intersectional framework of prevention education: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”