Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia. Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Be sure to see their first blog post on challenging taken-for-granted assumptions in research on sexual violence.
Feminists have long advocated that sexual violence is more about power than about sex, yet few people understand what this means. Further, when mainstream feminist movements (i.e., white, middle-class, educated, cisgender women) highlight that power is integral to understanding sexual violence, that usually (re)centers power connected with only sexist oppression. While misogyny, patriarchy and sexism contribute to sexual violence, we argue that the root of sexual violence is deeper than the sum of these sexist systems.
The root cause of sexual violence is oppression, in all of its manifestations, including racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism and sexism. Oppression results from people abusing power or lacking consciousness about how power influences their own and others’ experiences. For these reasons, we advocate a power-conscious approach to addressing sexual violence.
What does “power conscious” mean? Simply put, it means paying attention to power dynamics at work in individual, institutional and cultural systems of oppression. Developing power consciousness means that we ask:
- Who is missing in this discussion? Who is centered? Why? (See our previous essay for a fuller discussion on this.)
- Who has the power — both formal and informal — in this system?
- How do social identities influence who is heard and who is ignored and silenced?
- Who benefits from this system? Who does not?
For example, how do social identities influence people’s experiences in the criminal justice system? The cases of Cory Batey and Brock Turner illustrate how racism and classism show up in sentencing processes. Cory Batey was a black football player at Vanderbilt University; Brock Turner was a white swimmer at Stanford University. Both men were convicted of committing sexual violence. Batey was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Turner was sentenced to six months in jail. Although state law and specific contexts make up for some of the discrepancy in sentencing, they cannot account for the drastic differences in the sentencing in these cases.
How does that relate to our campuses?
College campuses are mostly made up of the same people who make up our larger communities, so racism and classism are showing up in our campus accountability systems, as well. Campus police, campus judicial systems and even victim advocacy services are not immune from failing to consider the ways people from historically minoritized communities may not experience campus systems the same as students with mostly dominant identities.
So, what do we do? Below, we offer three specific recommendations for approaching sexual violence from a power-conscious perspective.
Learn the history of rape and racism. Ahistoricism, or failing to understand or account for the history and context of an issue or topic, leads to incomplete and ineffective strategies for dealing with sexual violence. For example, sexual violence law is fundamentally racialized.
Early sexual violence laws in America were rooted in property law. White men were the only people who could file charges of rape, as rape was considered a property crime — something that reduced the value of a man’s daughter, essentially his “property.” Additionally, in the time period after the Civil War, white men falsely accused black men as perpetrators of sexual violence directed toward white women to maintain white men’s power and dominance.
More recent sexual violence laws, specifically, the Violence Against Women Act, emerged during the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s, which was also highly racialized. People in that era sought to address drug abuse, but drug laws and enforcement focused primarily on poor communities and communities of color, contributing to the continuation of portraying men of color as criminals.
Given the racialized history of sexual violence law and the current context of racism in legal and policy systems, administrators and educators on college campuses should consider community accountability processes as an option for addressing sexual violence. Community accountability, as described by the INCITE! women of color against violence collective, means that communities stop relying on systems that perpetuate violence toward them and start relying on each other to hold perpetrators of violence accountable and work to transform perpetrator behavior. Community accountability is not appropriate in all cases and must be carefully implemented under the leadership of people with a significant understanding of it (specifically, women of color, who created it).
Further, in cases where campus adjudication systems are used, people involved in those systems must be educated about the role of oppression in legal and policy response, as well as the history of the intersections of oppression and sexual violence. A deeper understanding of history may lead to more equitable outcomes in campus adjudication systems.
Employ an intersectional, identity-conscious perspective. Foundational intersectionality scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw provides a number of examples to illustrate centering women of color and poor women in interpersonal-violence work. Crenshaw helps us understand that, by centering the most marginalized people in efforts to address interpersonal violence, no one is left out. When white, cisgender, heterosexual women at elite institutions of higher education are centered in sexual violence work (as they are now), they are the only ones to benefit. However, when marginalized populations are at the center of antioppression work, strategies are more comprehensive, resulting in more effectively dealing with interpersonal violence.
That being said, incorporating intersectionality into student affairs practice does not mean that every program has to be for every student. There is no such thing as an “all-inclusive” program. In fact, this is dangerously close to the concept of “color blindness,” or the notion that one does not “see” color when discussing race. In addition to the ableist nature of the term “color blindness,” using an “identity-neutral” approach to any issue effectively (re)centers people with dominant identities, who are treated as the norm or default.
Related to campus sexual violence, seemingly identity-neutral approaches effectively make the experiences of any victim who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman invisible. Designing programs that specifically center the experiences of men survivors, trans and queer survivors, survivors of color, and survivors with disabilities (re)centers their experiences in the conversation. Doing so will result in better-informed providers and more empowered survivors. This also frees up space to develop programs specifically for white, cis, hetero women, whose experiences are distinct in and of their own — just not the only experiences, as currently portrayed.
Focus on perpetrators. We are working on a research project examining the ways sexual violence is portrayed in campus newspapers. An initial review of the data reveals that perpetrators are invisible in most articles about sexual violence. Language used throughout newspaper articles often implies that sexual violence just “happens,” as though there is no actor or explanation for it.
By making perpetrators invisible, we ignore important power dynamics at play. Perpetrators — not alcohol, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not miscommunication — are solely responsible for sexual violence. Failing to acknowledge this ignores the power that perpetrators wield, placing responsibility for ending sexual violence on the wrong people: potential victims, bystanders and advocates.
Campus administrators and educators should work to ensure that perpetrators are made more visible in discussions of sexual violence prevention. For example, rather than only focusing on teaching potential victims how to avoid being assaulted, we should spend more resources teaching people not to rape. Focusing on perpetrators as the cause of sexual violence may contribute to increased community accountability for their actions. People will begin to see the perpetrator — not alcohol or miscommunication — as the key problem.