Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Shankar is an associate professor of sociology at the Mount Royal University. Her main areas of interest are the sociology of gender, intersectional feminist theories, critical race theory and the sociology of health and illness. Her current research projects concern individualized and gendered constructions of risk and responsibility during the H1N1 Pandemic in Alberta in 2009 and within sexual assault policies and programs on campuses.
Over the years, I have found myself referring students to services and polices for sexual violence that, in the end, are insufficient. Countless news stories echo the difficulty students have had gaining access to adequate services and policies. And perhaps in response to such public attention, public campaigns against campus sexual violence, including the “I believe you” campaign and bystander invention pledges have increased.
But these anti-sexual violence campaigns tend to remain on a rhetorical level. That is, they do not require any systematic action from the university itself as an institution; rather, they too often download the responsibility of addressing sexual violence onto other students. While such campaigns do help to facilitate much needed conversations on sexual violence, what is also needed is the development of critical, responsive and evidence-based sexual assault policies and protocols.
Currently, many universities do the bare minimum in this regard. In many cases, their sexual assault policies are largely constructed in response to state mandates such as Title IX in the United States and the Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan Act in the province of Ontario, Canada. These policies and protocols tend to be created in the interests of the institutions rather than those of the students, faculty members and/or staff.
Moreover, the job of creating policies and protocols tends to be given to administrators hired by the institution to protect its interests, such as the university’s legal team or the human resources department. In other words, those assigned with the job of creating policies on sexual violence are also frequently responsible for protecting the university’s reputation and standing, creating an obvious and disturbing conflict of interest.
As such, it is hardly surprising that the policies and protocols created tend to protect the universities and do little (or may even be actively harmful) for those subjected to sexual violence. For example, according to CBC News, a student at the University of Brandon in Canada, who was recently attempting to access services for sexual violence, was pressured to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited her from talking to anyone outside of the university other than a counselor about her sexual assault.
In light of these dynamics, what can universities do going forward?
First, we must recognize that universities’ interest and students’ interest are not mutually exclusive. We need a fundamental shift in our approach to sexual violence policies and protocols. Essentially, we need to accept that what is best for students is also best for the university. For instance, administrative transparency about incidence statistics, open discussion about the weakness of the policies, and critical analysis of the services that universities currently provide — or lack — can start to identify the ways in which many institutions of higher learning are complicit in sexual violence. These kinds of practices can also start to dismantle the structural barriers that, at times, prevent victims from reporting and getting assistance they need. Without an acknowledgement and a review of the ways in which many of our institutions enable sexual violence, policies and protocols will continue to fail those directly affected by it.
Second, universities need to use the latest academic research about sexual violence. It is particularly disconcerting how many colleges and universities are developing policies and protocols on sexual violence without considering the latest research on the subject. In drafting sexual assault policies, universities tend to refer to (or even blatantly copy) other institutions’ policies. Yet on most campuses, libraries provide access to comprehensive research on sexual violence and faculty members may have research expertise in sexual violence or related areas. And even if faculty members do not have substantive research expertise, academics are experts in identifying and reviewing relevant research. Despite this access to knowledge, however, institutional policies and practices continue to be developed without meaningful attention to and incorporation of the body of research on sexual violence prevention and best practices.
This is particularly salient when it comes to policies and services aimed at the intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender. For instance, while not always, university policies and services on sexual violence in North America tend to be more responsive to educated middle-class woman who have the social and cultural capital required to navigate the bureaucracy of sexual violence reporting protocols and services. Thus, people without these forms of cultural capital are left vulnerable when failed by the university policies that are inadequate in addressing diverse student bodies. Research shows that racialized, low-income and transgender students are more likely to be subjected to violence. When those who create sexual assault policies remain ignorant of the research that readily exists on intersectionality, it can only be viewed as willful ignorance.
Third, include qualified faculty members, students, administrators and community members to construct, evaluate and revise sexual assault policies and protocols. Universities tend to have faculty members who study sexual violence, and/or the intersections among race, sexual orientation and gender. Yet they often exclude those scholars from policy development, so the consultations tend to be superficial acts designed to add legitimacy after the policies and protocols have been drafted, rather than a process of inviting input and generating critical discussion at the ground level. It is troubling that many universities readily invoke the work of their researchers, teachers, students and staff members to promote themselves while completely discounting that same expertise when it comes to the creation of sexual assault policies and protocols. To this end, I recommend meaningful inclusion and adherence to the advice and suggestions provided by these parties.
Finally, complete annual evaluations of policies and services and publicly disseminate the findings. Policy evaluation and revision need to be done annually, and the results of such annual re-evaluations should be made available to the university and the wider community as a whole. That will allow both people on the campus as well as the public to gauge the effectiveness of the institution’s efforts to address sexual violence. Currently, universities keep much of that information private or invoke a form of plausible deniability by not collecting adequate data because they are worried that public disclosure of sexual violence statistics will sully their reputation and dissuade potential students. But if universities are serious about addressing the silence and stigma around sexual violence, they need to start by being transparent.
Moreover, as institutions committed to producing public knowledge, universities have an obligation to lead the inevitably difficult discussions about sexual violence. Through thoughtful engagements with the issue and clear explanations and analyses of sexual violence on campuses (for example, comparison of on-campus sexual violence rates to general rates or which actions are included or excluded from their statistics), universities can facilitate a cultural shift away from the prevailing silence surrounding sexual violence.
In conclusion, universities need to step up, be proactive, and start taking actions that are positive and meaningful instead of drawing on the protectionist logic and disingenuous rhetoric that currently fuels their sexual assault policies and protocols.