Power-Conscious Approaches To Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Harris & Linder

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.

3 Questions Researchers Should Ask About Sexual Violence

Jessica Harris and Chris Linder

Harris & Linder

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia.

Starting in 2016, we began conceptualizing and co-editing our book, Intersections of Identity and Sexual Violence on Campus: Centering Minoritized Students’ Experiences. When people ask us what exactly the book is about, we often reply that it provides a critical approach to campus sexual violence. Since the book was published, we have reflected on what we learned from the editing process. But even more, we find ourselves asking what makes this book and our work critical. What does a “critical approach” mean, especially as it relates to campus sexual violence?

While our answers are always changing, we understand that critical approaches to sexual violence account for systems of domination, power and privilege. Critical approaches challenge dominant ways of knowing and expose hidden assumptions that are often taken for granted. Critical approaches center the lived experiences of minoritized individuals who are pushed to the margins by those systems of domination, dominant ways of knowing and hidden assumptions.

As a result of our reflections, we wrote this essay to further explore critical approaches to campus sexual violence research. We interrogate three seemingly straightforward questions that researchers must re-evaluate with a critical lens in an attempt to eradicate — not just prevent — campus sexual violence.

Whom Are We Studying?

Whom we study may be, for some researchers, the most straightforward question within campus sexual violence research. When examining the existing research on campus sexual violence, one might discover that we, as researchers, study women students and sexual violence or perhaps men as perpetrators of sexual violence. Straightforward populations, right? But if we aim to critically interrogate campus sexual violence, we should be very skeptical of seemingly straightforward answers, because they are often riddled with assumptions and essentialism.

For example, for those of us who study women students, whom do we mean by “women”? Do we really mean white women? Or do we mean women across racial and ethnic identities? Are we only including cisgender women students without naming them as such?

We must be clear as to what we mean when referencing identity and whom we study. Clarity not only helps the reader understand whom they are reading about but also helps avoid further minoritization of already minoritized campus communities. For instance, claiming that research focuses on women when it really only accounts for white cisgender women maintains an assumption that white cis women are the prototype, or norm, by which all women’s experiences are measured and understood. We must be explicit from the beginning (not just in our methods sections) about whom we are researching.

When we are explicit, we can identify who is represented within campus sexual violence research and who is not. Being explicit allows us to center students who hold identities that are rarely, if ever, centered in such research. For example, when it is made explicit that research on men and women students who are survivors of sexual violence refers to cisgender heterosexual white men and women survivors, we can readily identify a gap in research that explores the experiences of trans and/or women of color and/or men of color survivors. In being explicit, we can identify the intersections of identities that have not yet been accounted for, and may be masked, within existing research.

What Are We Studying?

In our research, we must also interrogate what we are studying. When asked, “What are you studying?” we might answer, “Campus sexual violence.” Or we may answer, “Sexual violence prevention” or “The connection between alcohol and campus sexual violence.” Indeed, those latter two replies may be common, as the majority of research on campus sexual violence focuses on sexual violence prevention and/or sexual violence and alcohol.

But unfortunately, focusing only on surface-level issues like alcohol use or abuse masks and maintains systems of oppression that influence sexual violence on campus. In short, researchers exploring those topics often gloss over the deeper “What?” of sexual violence.

If we aim to eradicate sexual violence on campus, we must move beyond research that interrogates individual or surface-level issues. We must shift what we explore so that our research interrogates systems, issues and contexts that influence and perpetuate such violence. Researchers should ask, “What systems, structures and histories must we focus on in an attempt to better interrogate and destabilize a culture of campus sexual violence?”

For instance, researchers have repeatedly explored how alcohol intensifies men students’ sexual aggression, which may influence their perpetration of sexual violence. Here, the “What?” centers on sexual violence, alcohol and male aggression. But if we asked a different “What?” question, we challenge the assumption that alcohol is the precursor to male aggression and, subsequently, sexual violence. If we interrogate what it is about the campus context, the campus drinking culture and the patriarchal systems and sexist environment that encourages and condones men’s aggression as a tool to dominate others, then we may be better equipped to dismantle the roots of sexual violence.

When Are We Studying?

As we worked on our book, we came across an article that referred to campus sexual violence as an epidemic. That word, in connection with campus sexual violence, did not sit well with us. We could not put our fingers on why exactly we were uneasy, so we looked up the word “epidemic” in an online dictionary. Webster told us that an epidemic “affects a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time and is characterized by very widespread growth or extent.” The response in our heads was simply, “No.”

Why? Because claiming that sexual violence is an epidemic is to negate and excuse the violent finding and taking of the United States. Specifically, it excuses how white men, throughout history, have used rape as a tool of colonization, domination, terrorization and control. For example, white colonizers introduced a patriarchal and white supremacist system to the North American continent through the rape of indigenous women’s bodies. Their violent terrorization not only asserted control over those women’s bodies but also over indigenous culture.

When violent histories are acknowledged, it becomes clear that sexual violence has not become an epidemic. Researchers must account for this history throughout the research process — from the conceptualization of research questions to the writing up of data. When asking questions, analyzing data and writing reports, scholars must be sensitized to the fact that sexual violence has always been around and disproportionately affects and violates communities of color.

Additionally, we must be careful not to implicitly contain campus sexual violence to a specific time period. We have read many articles and books that introduce readers to campus sexual violence through recent Title IX legislation and the 2011 Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights. In fact, we may be guilty of this in our own writing. We encourage scholars to reach before 2011 and beyond current legislation, and acknowledge that sexual violence has always held a violent presence within this country and on college campuses.

Researchers must not forget that, while some may frame sexual violence as an epidemic — a disease that affects the United States — rape is a symptom of larger social diseases, including white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, ableism, genderism, capitalism and other oppressive systems. Moreover, research must interrogate how U.S. institutions of education not only exist on the very land in which these individuals and communities were violently assaulted, but also how they rest upon the histories, values and (colonial college) systems that this use of force helped to construct.