The Culture Of Exploitation In Graduate School Facilitates Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Tara Dorje (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate at an urban public university in the Midwest. She could not have completed any of this without her colleagues, to whom she is forever grateful; community is integral to individual success, because we are people through people.

Sexual Harassment In A Culture Of Exploitation

I am writing this essay from a deeply vulnerable vantage point. As a graduate student who is currently working on my dissertation, I am caught in a web of power, hierarchies and the bizarre blurring of personal and professional networks.

This essay serves as a start to a conversation about sexual harassment in higher education, specifically to highlight the power dynamics at play. It is also a call to others to take dialogue about abuse seriously. To move forward in fostering equality, we have to listen to one another in ways that promote a broad recognition of how prevalent sexual harassment is in academe.

Last fall, I attended a panel featuring alums from my program. I spoke with one person after the event, and we discovered that we both struggled with being independent, single, white, privileged, cisgender women who dare to express ourselves. I shared with her, for example, that two of three men professors on my master’s committee sexually propositioned me — one during the program, one right after. It turned out, coincidentally, that while the alum had graduated nearly a decade before me, one of those professors (white, late 60s, tenured) had sexually propositioned her, too, during her early graduate school days. Each of us had him on our graduate committee and each accepted research assistantships with him, while intermittently receiving romantic offers.

Those offers sometimes came cloaked in conference presentations or publications, while other times were disguised as “friendly favors” — like renting a room in his very nice home, carpooling or meals together that far more resembled dates than mentoring. This professor was the most famed in the department and his field, married with grown children and apparently always seeking women graduate students as playmates.

My colleague and I both share a professional loss. When we declined his advances, we lost an important source of collaboration and recommendations for future jobs, grants, publications and other opportunities. After years of research and teamwork, he told her she should ask other faculty members for letters of reference. I was a little bit luckier; I blew up the bridge earlier in my training. I knew back then far too well that asking this professor for anything, let alone for professional favors, was out of the question.

What is the cost to graduate students who are subjected to sexual harassment? How much is lost in opportunity and social capital? How many letters of reference disappear each year? All of the relationships we foster in graduate school are so intertwined with elements of our future success. The power dynamics work in such ways that, as grad students, you will submit to your professors. You will be second, fifth or whatever author spot they assign to you (often regardless of the work distribution), you will go out to dinner with them as requested and you will perform emotional labor by listening to each whim or wonder — all the while frittering away your most valuable resource: time.

Perhaps this just foreshadows the disproportionate demands for service that women later receive as professors, as well — thereby facilitating the reproduction of gender inequality throughout higher education. None of this even touches on the time needed to cope with the emotional strain in lost hours of self-care and the additional emotional labor of processing everything. (“Did this really happen? Am I overreacting? What can I do to defend myself?”)

Stories abound about professors who were known sexual harassers getting fired from one university only to be hired elsewhere, always landing on their feet and likely with their hands down other students’ pants. Higher education institutions tend to recycle more abuse than prevent it, remaining complicit in rape culture even though alternatives to reproducing sexism are available. Look no farther than the continuing headlines or stories we have all heard in academe that blame the graduate students, trivializing or denying unwanted sexual advances or actions and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by such circumstances.

Consequently, I have never taken action. I am afraid of retaliation, so much so that I write this piece under a pen name. Retaliation is a real thing. Simply because I’ve deflected advances, professors have ceased to see me as a professional or respect me as a human being. Interactions are both caustic and insulting, laced with reminders of only their desire (running eyes up and down my body, comments about being on a diet or otherwise referencing my appearance, and so on).

It all furthers the feeling that speaking up will bring far more trouble than it is worth to ever file a formal complaint in an often-hostile organization. I have real fear and concerns that my efforts will just be dismissed, that I will be pinned with a scarlet letter, that I will lose out in funding decisions — and that, ultimately, life will go on as if nothing happened. Instead, I choose to keep quiet.

In all of my years of graduate school, the most unifying and well-attended graduate student meeting last fall addressed some of the most volatile issues and continuing forms of harassment in our department. The main theme identified and agreed upon by fellow graduate students was an overarching atmosphere of abuse, lying and bullying. It was clearly recognized the core issue: that faculty-student relationships are always adversarial as a result of power differences.

While we did not exactly mount an inquisition that day, we did successfully request a meeting with our academic administrators. In response, students (not faculty members, mind you!) received an educational visit from the university’s designated office for handling sexual harassment. Those baby steps have far from provided the support victims of sexual violence need in order to feel encouraged to come forward. It is clear that we must organize and support one another. It is clear that we are in this together. I am cut, you bleed.

But I am left with more questions than answers. How do we develop a collective callout system that supports survivors and holds perpetrators accountable? How do we help graduate students, junior faculty members and other academics to speak up about incidents of sexual harassment that are “difficult to prove” and not as “simple” as cases of rape? What kind of role could restorative justice play here? How can we flip the script in a society that supports and rewards abuse, deception and bullying? My experience with repeated sexual harassment throughout my seven years of graduate training shows how difficult it is to talk about this exploitation, to come forward, to finally bring an end altogether to the tolerance of sexual harassment in academe.

We need to acknowledge the risks in reporting sexual violence that result from power differentials in higher education — notably, the real potential of retaliation. Furthermore, the institutions and individuals within academe too often harm when attempting to help by misdirected, futile and otherwise ineffectual offices, policies and procedures that fail to address the roots of the abuse.

We need to actively create a culture in which speaking out about instances of sexual harassment is supported, encouraged, taken seriously and appropriately addressed. I therefore welcome and promote dialogue that calls out mistreatment and leads to taking action as an important first step — however big or small.

Navigating Graduate School As A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. The anonymous author is a Ph.D. student at a large public research university.

Sexual Violence and Graduate School

I was an excellent student before I was raped.

As a child, I was above average in school. My books were a place to hide, and my teachers were a consistent source of support. My self-worth was intertwined with my performance in the classroom. School was where I felt confident and safe. I excelled.

After junior year of college, I became a person who could not concentrate and was chronically absent from class. I was angry, demanding and inflexible. I do not remember sleeping. I sometimes cried in closets. I lost friends. I stared out of the window during class. I struggled with substance abuse. That perfect student was gone.

In therapy, I often refer to myself before my trauma as “she/her” — as if I were a completely different person. It is the only way that I can think about it without losing my mind. I write this without hyperbole.

After being assaulted in college, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After years in therapy, trying different medications, learning to reinforce boundaries with friends and family (and even professors), I am finally making lasting progress.

Now, as a Ph.D. student at a different institution, I am not standing on top of the parking garage, contemplating stepping off of the edge. I have not had a nightmare in a while, though I still have issues sleeping through the night. These days, I am fairly consistent with my work. I am able to talk about my research without crippling anxiety.

But some of the old challenges remain, while new challenges that are unique to grad school have emerged. Sometimes I feel like a fraud because my department admitted her, but they got me instead.

On Being a Survivor in Grad School

According to the Department of Justice, 18 percent of women in the United States have reported being raped in their lifetime. In 2006, 5 percent of all college women reported being raped. When other forms of sexual assault are included, this number increases to one in four undergraduate women. These statistics do not include survivors who do not identify as women, although studies show transgender students and nonbinary individuals have even higher levels of sexual assault.

But even though there are so many survivors, we don’t seem to have space in higher education. Despite knowing my history, my college professor once embarrassed me by publicly making fun of how zoned out I was in class. In graduate school, a student called me “lazy” and “full of excuses.” Another faculty member told me that they kept it together despite their life-threatening disease, so I should also get it together. Due to my disability, I have experienced public shaming, condescending lectures and slights against my character. It is all very defeating.

I often wish I were her, not me. She would have been so much better at grad school; she would never receive these triggering comments. There would have been a little bit more space for her.

There is no space for me. There is sympathy, but no understanding. There is only critique and an immense pressure to perform like the students without my disability. I find myself begging faculty members to have faith in me and apologizing for things that are outside of my control.

I feel ashamed of my disability. I wish it did not exist. Sometimes, I wish I did not exist.

The typical down-and-out feelings are easier for someone without mental-health challenges to process. When you are a survivor of sexual assault, the typical trials and tribulations of grad school life trigger feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and helplessness. I get triggered, and it is a chain reaction, but I am getting better at managing it. And just to be clear: my disorder makes me stronger and more capable than most people. Even when I do spiral into a shame hole and fall into a 14-hour depression nap, I am still strong.

Even on my worst day, I know deep down that I am extraordinary. It takes a commitment to self, patience and compassion to heal from trauma. Most important, recovery requires support from professionals, family, friends and even institutions.

Offering Support

So, how can we make higher education more supportive for sexual assault survivors?

Besides the obvious (stop sexual violence), that’s a hard question to answer. In general, faculty members must have a better understanding of mental-health challenges among their students. When students disclose their disability, faculty members often avoid asking further questions in an effort to be respectful and avoid extending the conversation. I have experienced that, but I have pushed against their discomfort to specifically disclose that I suffer from PTSD. It is not enough to comply with disability accommodations. Faculty members need a general understanding of mental health and how they can avoid triggering students.

Faculty members need to understand depression and anxiety, as they are often consequences of sexual assault. It does not take much time to read up on how these challenges affect students. A quick search (“depression in students”) will return a wealth of information on this subject, although with few suggestions for what educators can do to assist struggling graduate students.

An article by Rachel Adams highlights two important things: 1) students with depression often disappear instead of reach out for help, and 2) due to the stigmas of mental illness and disabilities, many students do not receive a diagnosis or disability accommodation. With that in mind, graduate advisers must take initiative. Although few students will explicitly disclose being a survivor of sexual assault, the subsequent depression and anxiety are more easily recognizable. I am at my best when my adviser is attentive, suggesting breaks and offering advice and reassurance. Anxiety causes me to put off work due to a debilitating need for perfection, but maintaining communication and scheduling weekly meetings has helped me keep me accountable.

Graduate advisers should explicitly tell students to fight the urge to vanish. If you notice that behavior, take initiative and recommend university counseling and disability services. I know that you have a million projects, but it is your job to keep up with your students. Schedule weekly meetings, send emails and advise them on how to balance work and life. I have found the worst thing about being a survivor is feeling alone.

As survivors, we carry the guilt and shame of what happened to us. In academe, people speak in frustrating, roundabout ways. I am not surprised that the conversation on sexual assault in academe is limited. The burden of this conversation falls on the shoulders of those of us who have experienced it — and some of us are just trying to get to tomorrow. It is hard to talk about because it makes me feel vulnerable and unsafe. It is a deeply personal conversation to have in public.

I do not know which is scarier to reveal — my trauma or my experience with my department. That tells me this conversation is absolutely necessary. If I have learned anything from my recovery, it is what you avoid discussing is often the subject that most urgently needs to be addressed.

There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

Science Faculty Can Address Sexual Violence, Too

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Maggie Hardy is a research fellow in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her research program is focused on the discovery of new drugs from venoms. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrMaggieHardy.

Addressing Sexual Violence in Science

I have been speaking publicly about my experiences as a rape victim since I was an undergraduate student. I often find that I have a strong, immediate connection with fellow rape survivors — a kind of bond that allows me to offer a distinct brand of sustenance. I have also had incredibly fulfilling conversations with the partners and friends of other rape survivors who want to provide support.

In this article, I outline the ways that we can talk about rape and sexual harassment in academe. I focus specifically on science because I am a scientist, but my insight can be applied more broadly. You might be wondering what place discussing anything political or activist in nature has in science. But recent events have reinforced the many ways in which science is, indeed, political.

First, let me say that if you are a rape victim, you are not alone. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately one in six American women and one in 33 American men have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. More than 90 percent of perpetrators are men. Statistically speaking, rape victims are everywhere, in every profession, including science — where you can find me.

The statistics suggest that incidences of sexual violence may actually be greater in higher education. For example, among undergraduates, female students (ages 18 to 24) are three times more likely than women in the general population to experience sexual violence; the statistic increases to five times more likely for male students of the same age compared to men in the general population. According to RAINN, “transgender students are at higher risk for sexual violence. In fact, 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females and 4 percent of non-TGQN males.”

What’s more, sexual violence disproportionately affects persons who are already marginalized within higher education. For example, statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that white and black American women are about equally likely to be raped (2.2 and 2.8 per 1,000 females age 12 or older, respectively), but that rate is nearly double for American Indian and Alaska Native women (4.5 per 1,000).

As academics, we are in an ideal position to combat the epidemic of sexual violence in our profession and on our campuses. As mentors and role models, members of professional societies should be prepared to instruct the next generation of researchers not to perpetrate harmful or unethical behavior (in research, academe or life in general), and to model those attitudes personally. Particularly in these uncertain times, it is vital to teach science students skills for success in a global job market and in government, industry and academic roles. Resilience, self-confidence and respect for the autonomy of their colleagues are key proficiencies.

Learning to navigate safe relationships and thinking critically about sexual experiences and personal safety is a hallmark of the college period. For some students, higher education will be their first exposure to extensive, evidence-based sexual education. Elizabeth Smart writes brilliantly about how her abstinence-only education shaped her thinking as a rape survivor and provides a window into what students with similar instruction may be experiencing: she describes feeling like “chewed-up gum” after being assaulted. I have found decolonizing my perspective to be useful in this space and essential to my work as a scientist. The work of Kim TallBear illustrating how the emphasis on virginity and purity is part of a colonial perspective has been revolutionary for me, as have her thoughts on the perception of promiscuity. Understanding the impact of language on your students and colleagues will go a long way toward creating a supportive environment.

How Academics Can Address Sexual Violence

As a proud Queenslander, let me share one of my favorite ways of approaching solidarity: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (This quote is often attributed to Aboriginal artist and activist Lilla Watson, although she considered her work collective and preferred the quote to be credited to the 1970s Aboriginal activists group Queensland.)

Even if you are not a victim of sexual violence, you can advocate for and support victims. The support that good mentors can provide in an academic setting is significant.

Some practical suggestions for academics to address sexual violence and support students who have experienced such violence include:

  • In your syllabus, outline a code of conduct and your nondiscrimination policy (particularly if your course involves fieldwork). Ensure that students understand their rights and responsibilities before class discussions. Model and enforce your own code of conduct, particularly in conversation with students and your colleagues. Overtly sexist behavior is easy for most people to identify, but bias is particularly insidious, especially for women in STEM. You can even take the Implicit Association Test for free online to identify your own biases.
  • Particularly if you work with new students, consider highlighting where to find important contacts for your campus health and sexual assault first responders should they need the information in an emergency. Statistically speaking, you are almost guaranteed to teach at least one student each semester who is or has been a victim of sexual violence, so you might as well get on the front foot. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a fitting point to work in a brief mention.
  • I have written previously about my thoughts on trigger warnings: “We don’t need trigger warnings. We need change.” I mostly still agree with myself, though I do think the terminology of “rape victim” is more appropriate than “rape survivor” now. (For some excellent resources on why, learn more here and here.) When you address difficult material, take the time to explore it carefully. Feel free to add a content note that the material may be difficult and explain the reasons why. Be sure to include information about campus or free resources for students who may have dealt, or are dealing, with issues raised during the course. If you are unsure, ask for insight from other experts.
  • Support those groups and programs on your campus that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence. Offer to serve as a faculty liaison if they need one, dispute budget cuts to their essential work, and advocate on behalf of those they serve. Let the groups know that you are happy to help students who have experienced sexual assault where you are able to (such as with course selection, career advice or in other professional aspects). Listen to their advice about how to support students.
  • If you are involved with a professional society and are interested in shoring up your ethical standards, check out my article “Drafting an Effective Ethical Code of Conduct for Professional Societies: A Practical Guide.” The article outlines 10 practical steps to setting up a code of conduct, and provides an introduction to the ethical considerations of each step in the process.
  • Recently, initiatives to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment at professional conferences have sprung up across academic disciplines, from astronomy to entomology. Make your students aware of those groups, and if your students are attending conferences, ensure they are aware of professional expectations and how to manage unprofessional behavior.

For students who are victims of sexual violence, their academic progress or performance may be affected — in addition to many other facets of their lives. One thing that we can all do is to help support healing by ensuring victims of sexual violence are able to live their best lives afterward. Here is some specific advice for writing letters of recommendation.

  • Offer to address the topic in your letter directly, for example, “As an undergraduate, [student] was one of the many college students to be affected by [sexual violence/unfortunate events/extenuating personal circumstances/etc.].” Be sure to check what language the student would like you to use.
  • Highlight achievements relative to circumstances. If the events resulted in an additional semester or a class that had to be repeated, emphasize the student’s progress and dedication to the discipline, technical proficiency or leadership.
  • Avoid gender and other bias in writing letters of recommendation. Here’s a great list of suggestions from the University of Arizona.

Rape victims are powerful, and we are many. I talk about my experience as a rape victim because I care. During her incredible speech at the sentencing of her attacker, Emily Doe, who was assaulted at Stanford University in 2015, quoted author Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” My light is on.

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.

Responding With Empathy When A Student Has Been Raped

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Marina N. Rosenthal is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon. As a therapist, researcher and teacher, she focuses on trauma and sexual health.  In this blog post, Marina describes three actions she takes when she is feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

Responding to Students’ Trauma Disclosures With Empathy

I am an educator who teaches undergraduate courses like Psychology of Trauma and Human Sexuality. Not surprisingly, given the content of such courses, my students often disclose personal experiences of sexual violence to me. I want to meet their truths with kindness and trust, but sometimes I feel unsure or stuck as I try to determine how best to respond.

To help me through these moments, I have developed an approach to guide me. Other educators whose work touches on topics that are inherently intimate may find my approach helpful for supporting their own students who experience sexual violence.

Trauma disclosures surface in many forms. For example, some students quietly share their experiences when panic attacks related to an assault impede their progress on an assignment or when a friend is raped and needs resources. Some students linger after class and say with certainty that they were harassed, abused or assaulted. But many of my students are less direct and less sure. Instead, they often weave disclosures into essays, reading responses or emails. Sometimes, these admissions are either obliquely expressed or nearly hidden, tucked carefully away in the middle of a paragraph, within parentheses or in a postscript. Their revelations are often laced with doubt. They write, “Maybe it was abuse, but I didn’t know it at the time …” Or they wonder, “I’m not sure if I was raped. I know that I didn’t want it to happen.”

My students are not unusual. A recent qualitative exploration of college women’s perspectives on these unwanted but undefined experiences (called “unacknowledged rape”) highlights tremendous ambivalence in their understandings of what has happened to them. Victims commonly vacillate between uncertainty (with statements like “I don’t know, is what happened to me, is that … rape?”), certainty (“I felt taken advantage of, right from the get-go”) and ambivalence (“I know it was kind of rape … but I have a really hard time coming to reality with that”). I hear my own students’ voices in these quotes; I see them wavering between conviction and doubt.

As I read or hear my students’ disclosures, particularly the veiled and wary, I struggle to achieve clarity on how to respond. As a teacher, I am caught in the middle. I am always an educator, sometimes a mentor and constantly an evaluator. I spend hours every week helping my students to strengthen their writing and refine their thinking. My feedback is intended not only to nurture their development but also to assess their academic progress. Teaching a class on trauma does not free me from the reality of having to deliver sometimes disappointing grades to my striving students. So, yes, I can be a confidante, a source of support. But tomorrow, I will also be a critic, a judge.

Amid my confusion, I have found three small steps to follow when I open an email or essay that discloses to me yet another traumatic experience — three actions to perform when I am feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

First, I allow myself to mourn for the pain and violence plaguing my campus, for the sweet soul tentatively reaching out. Sometimes I cry in the bathtub or sprint in circles on my block in the dark. I create space for sorrow. Hearing trauma stories can — and perhaps should — hit hard. By greeting my heartache with acceptance and offering my grief an outlet, I grant myself the same compassion I hope to give my students.

Second, I can provide information on how to report, where to seek health care and how to obtain counseling. I can also grant accommodations should students struggle to meet deadlines or finish assignments. I ask my students whether they want this type of tangible support, and I respect their answer either way.

Third, I remember that as a teacher and — perhaps more important — as a human, I can always offer belief and empathy. Research supports this final step; survivors who feel that someone believes their story report fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. My response matters greatly, especially for survivors still in the process of comprehending what happened to them. Amid engulfing and callous noise — victim-blaming news media, unsupportive administrators, insufficient resources — expressing faith in and empathy for survivors is a powerful act. In the lines of the PowerPoints I present and the readings I assign, in my office, and in the margins of essays, I can compose the verses of my own quiet chant: “I believe you. It was not your fault. I am so sorry this happened to you.”

My students arrive in class as evolving and messy mosaics, not dry sponges ready to absorb knowledge. Their identities and experiences are not separate from or irrelevant to the work that we do in the classroom. In this sense, responding compassionately to sexual assault disclosures is an integral duty in my role as an educator. Reacting with acceptance and kindness, especially when students are just beginning to articulate what happened to them, is a gesture of love and resistance.

I wish I had access to spells or incantations, a literal enchantment to protect the students on my campus. I lack such magic, and my work sometimes feels futile. I feel caught in a cycle, unable stop the relentless deluge of violence. But while the expanse of what I cannot do is vast, I can take action, however imperfect or insufficient. I take my three small steps. I allow sadness to flow through me. I concretize and compile what I can contribute in resources and accommodations. And finally, always, I speak words of belief and empathy.

Why Your Students Don’t Believe That Trump Is A Rapist

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Jamie L. Small is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. She studies the intersection of law, crime and gender, with a particular focus on adult male sexual victimization. She approaches sexual violence education and prevention from a sex-positive perspective.

Teaching About Sexuality, Violence and Power

Here is a fascinating paradox: in the abstract, most people believe that sexual violence is a bad thing. We largely agree that victim trauma is severe, that perpetrators should be punished and that our communities would be better places if we could somehow eliminate this evil. Yet, when we examine specific cases, that consensus unravels.

Adjudication is comparatively straightforward when the alleged perpetrator is a stranger. If the “bad guy” is an outsider, literal or figurative, we have no trouble bringing down the hammer and the full weight of the criminal justice system. But when the alleged perpetrator is an insider, or a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, it becomes difficult to label him as someone who would do such a thing. We start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience.

I regularly observe such mental gymnastics with my undergraduate students. Last fall, I taught a sophomore-level course on sexual violence. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when the students demonstrated clear concern about sexual violence. Many of them were moved by the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, and they were curious about hot-topic issues like child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Starting with what I thought was a degree of fluency regarding sexual violence, we moved on to more subtle points about how we address it (or not) collectively. Why are victims reluctant to report sexual violence? How do race, ethnicity and social class matter for criminal prosecutions? Why do some offending men go unpunished, even as others are targeted disproportionately? My students seemed to get it.

But the 2016 presidential campaign season offered some unanticipated teachable moments. After the election, I asked the students how it felt to have a president-elect who, among other allegations, was in fact caught on tape making lewd, sexually aggressive remarks. It did not seem to bother them.

I was shocked. We had just spent three months learning about sexual violence. How could the sexual allegations against their new president not matter to them? But when the bogeyman is familiar, and when politics are involved, the waters become murky.

I pressed them further. Can we ever actually believe sexual allegations against a high-status man, especially if they come from a comparatively lower-status woman? One student brought up the Bill Cosby case and noted that it took dozens of victims before people really started to believe. With a straight face, I asked whether it takes 50 victims to come forward to counter the denials of a high-status man. They did not pick up on this horrific joke.

During recent sociological fieldwork, I interviewed 75 prosecutors and defense attorneys who work on sexual assault cases. I found that while they largely take sexual assault allegations seriously, they also tend to conflate sex offenders with lower-class men. They stereotype sex offenders as “creeps,” “mopes” and “hillbillies.” In essence, they focus on the man’s identity rather than his behavior. A defendant’s social status becomes a proxy for assessing the veracity of the victim’s allegations.

So when the accused looks like a “creep,” it is much easier to believe the victim, especially if her social identity aligns with dominant groups. But when the accused is a high-status man, we have our doubts. We start to do those mental gymnastics to explain away his alleged indiscretions. Now we are doing those mental gymnastics for the president.

I anticipate that teaching about sexual violence will become more complicated during the Trump presidency. We are likely to see a decrease in federal funding, which will affect college students’ baseline knowledge of the issue. Indeed, the symbolism of a sexually aggressive president may increase young people’s tolerance of similar behavior among their peers.

Action Steps

We must continue to engage college students in these difficult conversations about sexuality, violence and power. Regardless of how anticipated decreases in federal funding and prioritization of the issue play out in the coming years, we must maintain the grassroots momentum that has developed since the U.S. Department of Education issued the Dear Colleague letter in 2011. Here are some ideas.

My course is unusual because we devote the entire semester to sexual violence. But briefer units can be easily incorporated into a range of social science and humanities courses. Instructors might start with sensational issues like sex trafficking, which often captivate students’ attention but can then be used to generate critical analyses of power by focusing on dynamics of labor, immigration and transnational feminism. Frontline has several excellent documentaries on sexual violence that chart institutional responses: for instance, how sexual harassment cases among undocumented agricultural workers move through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. My students also enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Notably, I do not shy away from the students’ tough questions. (For example, they always want to know how consent is determined in cases where both parties are intoxicated.) In the sexual violence prevention field, there is a tendency toward teaching young people incontrovertible facts about the issue. It makes sense when trainers have one hour with a group to drill down to a couple of key anti-rape lessons. But if we want to provide young people with a comprehensive education about sexual violence, then we need to develop their critical-thinking skills. Complex social problems have no easy answers.

We also need to mobilize key networks of campus actors to achieve this comprehensive education. Student learning is not a linear process, and so they need multiple opportunities during their college years to engage with these ideas, both inside and outside the classroom. Those campus networks also need to be in place to ensure that lines of communication and mobilization are open, should there be funding cuts or programming shifts.

This pedagogical work is about much more than sexual violence prevention. It compels us to examine a range of structural inequalities, including those of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, nationality and sexuality. Ultimately, it is about guiding young people to be critical and engaged citizens.

These are important first steps among many acts of resistance.