3 Questions Researchers Should Ask About Sexual Violence

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