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.

On Solving The Tenure Problem

jamieNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. 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.

Why Most of Us Won’t Get Tenure

The academic job market is bleak, as most certainly all of you reading this are well aware. Over the summer, Gawker gathered some personal stories to highlight just how bad things are out there. One adjunct wrote about how they work at Starbucks to make ends meet, while another realized the janitor at their institution makes more than they do.

This conversation in popular media reveals how out of touch those with tenure often are regarding the future of their students in the academy.

I work in the field of international relations, and a couple of pieces published over at Foreign Policy made the rounds a few months ago about what those of us on the other side should do on our journey to the ever-elusive tenure-track job. First was the piece about how to get tenure. Then some women academics pointed out how gender also factors into the experience of seeking tenure in the academy.

Yet both of these pieces focus on individual actions rather than looking at the larger institution granting tenure. In her response, which Foreign Policy opted not to publish, Laura Sjoberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, wrote in a blog pot for Relations International:

“One the one hand, this advice is solid — after all, to an extent, we all navigate the existing system individually. On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I have two serious concerns about the advice provided. First, I am concerned that providing advice for navigating the gendered system of achieving tenure without strategizing to change the system as a whole puts the primary responsibility for overcoming bias on the victims of the bias. Second, I am concerned that a significant number of the strategies provided are only available to a small percentage of those who might seek professional success as political science faculty, narrowing the spectrum of those to whom tenure might be available.”

I, too, am concerned about the lack of a larger strategy for institutional change. But I am most troubled by how the conversation seems to keep missing the biggest question. This query was raised in a post for Ducks of Minerva by Annick T. R. Wibben: “Why do we keep focusing on getting tenure when most junior academics will never be on the tenure track?”

Indeed. And I would add: Why is it that those in the most precarious position — doctoral candidates and adjuncts — are seemingly left to make a living, and discuss and resolve this tenuous academic landscape on our own, barring a few vocal feminist tenured professors?

Rather, the prospect of a tenure-track future hinges on departments renegotiating institutional infrastructure, creating a new landscape of possibilities for adjuncts and students alike. With this in mind, I offer five ways to address the reality of the tenure track today. I offer these tips primarily for tenured and tenure-track faculty, although they may be useful to graduate students and other members of the faculty as well.

  1. Tenure-track faculty must recognize openly that as the system stands, tenure is not a possibility for most Ph.D.s, regardless of merit or method. Daniel Dreznor reflected on the academic job market in Foreign Policy back in 2013, noting, “The job market is brutal. The academic job market has been abysmal for as long as I can remember, but things have only gotten worse recently. Just click here and make sure that there are no children in the room, because the numbers are so horrific they should be rated NC-17. If you’re not going to a top-20 school in your field, well, those numbers are even worse.”
  2. Talk directly with doctoral students about adjuncts, acknowledging how the labor force has shifted at your institution as well as in the field as a whole. Even a cursory Google search reveals the extent to which the university system has steadily been corporatized, class sizes have increased and the adjunct labor force has exploded. The Adjunct Project of CUNY offers a number of ways to Bring It to Class, including blurbs to put in your syllabi, ideas for class lessons, a video to show and articles about adjuncting. Directly acknowledging adjunct labor creates a safer space for doctoral students to discuss the issue with faculty members as well as other students.
  3. Know that the route to the tenure track is not an equal playing field. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the class, race and gender dynamics of tenure denial — to say nothing of getting a tenure-track job in the first place — have continued to make headlines this year. A great resource for understanding this is the book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris. One of the editors explains, “Existing academic structures facilitate different realities and rules of the game for members of historically underrepresented groups as compared to those of their white, heterosexual colleagues.” The book concludes with a chapter of recommendations and lessons, including a section on tenure and promotion.
  4. Departments should gather data about their work force and practices in the field to share with faculty members and students. They should make information about average class size readily available, as well as how this number has changed over the past five or 10 years. Departments should also make clear the number of tenure-track positions in the department versus part-time or adjunct positions. They also need to gather data about job placement of students in the department and field, especially for Ph.D. students. That information should be gathered and distributed as part of best practices for the department — not something that precarious faculty members, administrators or students are expected to investigate and report on their own.
  5. Senior faculty can use their bargaining power to address low pay, inadequate health care and a lack of job security for most of their department’s work force when negotiating contracts. Placing the impetus for change on the backs of the most vulnerable people within the system is unreasonable. As Jennifer Gaboury wrote in a Facebook status update about the recent contract negotiations at the City University of New York, “When pay was deprioritized as an issue in the last two contracts, what gets said is: that’s too big of a fight, and the support isn’t there among ladder-rank faculty — a minority of the faculty but a majority of voting members in the union. Yes, more adjuncts need to become members of the union and push for pay. So many adjunct activists that I know, having worked on these issues for years, feel alienated from this work and burned by the union.”

During the time I have been part of a doctoral program, a number of colleges and universities have negotiated contracts for adjuncts. We no longer need advice for individual faculty. We are overdue for attending to real institutional change. Hope for most young professionals in the academy relies not on following tips for obtaining a tenure-track job but rather in the solidarity from those with job security when it comes to tackling the growing insecurity of the majority of the academic work force.