Teaching About Sexual Violence: Think Intersectional

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Intersectionality And Sexual Violence

In a year in which sexual harassment and rape have made national headlines, classroom discussions about the topic of sexual violence are more important than ever. The classroom can provide a place to consider the larger power structures in place for both victims and survivors of sexual violence as well as the perpetrators of it.

I research and write about people who are often left out of conversations about sexual violence, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer survivors. Academics who research and/or teach on sexual violence often overlook LGBTQ people in their work because this population does not fit the perfect-victim narrative. The work that I do as a feminist security scholar offers a distinctive look at how assumptions about sexual violence play out in the classroom and our research.

Those pushed to the margins of society because of their sexual orientation and gender identity experience unique vulnerabilities to violence that are missed when we overlook those identities. By including conversations about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence in discussions with students about sexual violence, instructors can broaden the framework in crucial, intersectional ways. To better understand sexual violence, instructors should work to bridge attention to anti-LGBTQ violence with attention to patriarchal social norms that drive acts of sexual violence. Making such connections can better inform students about how sexual violence and gender-based violence impact men, women, queers and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Problematic Assumptions About Gender

In my research, I focus on the context-specific analysis of sexual violence in conflict-related environments. Since the 2000 passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, such violence has drawn much more attention, even leading to the establishment of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. This center came out of the Preventing Sexual Violence initiative championed in 2015 by former U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague and the special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie.

Yet such high-profile attention to wartime sexual violence presents challenges as well. For example, some feminist international relations scholars find the new “rape as a weapon of war” narrative that has gained much media attention incomplete or even unhelpful. Part of the resistance is to the framing of women as primarily victims of violence rather than change agents in global politics. A “Monkey Cage” blog post by Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green and Sarah E. Parkinson about the language of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” explains, “Narratives that focus on a narrow subset of sexual violence — strategic rapes, with rhetorically convenient perpetrators and victims — are powerful but dangerous.” When those assumptions minimize or erase the agency of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, it can hinder any efforts to move toward community-based solutions. Another troubling aspect of this frame is how it can neglect to consider the prevalence of sexual violence before and after times of conflict.

One common assumption about sexual and gender-based violence is that it is about sex — that is, sexual desire or attraction. It is actually about power. This is critical to understand when it comes to finding ways to respond and prevent this violence. Another assumption is that men are only perpetrators of sexual violence, while a growing body of literature highlights boys’ and men’s experiences as victims of such violence. Rosemary Grey and Laura J. Shepherd write about the danger of “absent presences in our analysis” when it comes to men and sexual and gender-based violence.

A full picture of those who face insecurity because of their gender requires a context-specific analysis of which individuals may be most vulnerable to rape and other forms of gender-based violence. An intersectional feminist analysis of this violence must account for racial, ethnic, religious, social and political drivers of violence. It is essential to recognize the intersecting systems of oppression when it comes to understanding and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Queering The Conversation

Stories about LGBTQ people are often absent from discussions about sexual violence in the classroom and in research. That is true despite findings that LGBTQ students are more likely to experience sexual harassment on college campuses. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides an overview of violence over the past two decades pertaining to sexual violence and individuals who identity as LGBTQ. Sexual harassment between same-gender peers is also a concern. All of the studies point to the need for more research on this topic, and some note the difficulty of studying LGBTQ individuals as a monolithic group when the assessment of the needs and experiences of each group individually is necessary.

Antiviolence organizations that respond to violence targeting LGBTQ individuals offer some insight into how the sexual violence conversation is already shifting. In the forward to the anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Reina Gossett writes about how work to address sexual violence has evolved over the last decade along with cultural shifts regarding what is considered sexual violence. Gossett explains, “More and more people are naming interpersonal and institutional sexual violence as inextricably linked to other forms of oppression. More and more people are working to reframe who exactly they mean when they say survivors of sexual violence, and more focus is going towards centering strategies that work through prevention, intervention, reparations, accountability and ultimately collective liberation.”

The collection Gossett introduces links to disability justice, sex worker rights, gender self-determination, queer and trans liberation, and prison-industrial complex abolition. Considering how race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and disability impact a person provides necessary contexts to framing acts of perpetuating sexual violence, as well as navigating society as a survivor. As a blog post for Ms. notes, “Educating students, for example, about preferred gender pronouns, the connections between sexual assault and hate crimes, racialized gender stereotypes, and how people with different physical and mental abilities express consent, should be part of a comprehensive antiviolence strategy.”

Classroom discussions about sexual violence can be improved in important ways by queering assumptions about both perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence. Those leading these conversations should consider the following five questions:

  • How do you define sexual violence? How do you define gender-based violence?
  • How can we move the conversation in the classroom and in research about sexual violence beyond common assumptions about who is a survivor and who is a perpetrator?
  • Which voices are we including in discussions to understand and respond to sexual violence? Including perpetrators as well as survivors is important.
  • Is the conversation about sexual violence intersectional? For example, an intersectional conversation will avoid white savior tropes and heteronormative assumptions.
  • Do you discuss the role of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence? How do hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity relate to this conversation? Consider providing context about how cis privilege, monosexism and heteronormativity influence assumptions about who is a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence and how this limits our frame of understanding.