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.

Why Your Students Don’t Believe That Trump Is A Rapist

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Jamie L. Small is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. She studies the intersection of law, crime and gender, with a particular focus on adult male sexual victimization. She approaches sexual violence education and prevention from a sex-positive perspective.

Teaching About Sexuality, Violence and Power

Here is a fascinating paradox: in the abstract, most people believe that sexual violence is a bad thing. We largely agree that victim trauma is severe, that perpetrators should be punished and that our communities would be better places if we could somehow eliminate this evil. Yet, when we examine specific cases, that consensus unravels.

Adjudication is comparatively straightforward when the alleged perpetrator is a stranger. If the “bad guy” is an outsider, literal or figurative, we have no trouble bringing down the hammer and the full weight of the criminal justice system. But when the alleged perpetrator is an insider, or a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, it becomes difficult to label him as someone who would do such a thing. We start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience.

I regularly observe such mental gymnastics with my undergraduate students. Last fall, I taught a sophomore-level course on sexual violence. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when the students demonstrated clear concern about sexual violence. Many of them were moved by the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, and they were curious about hot-topic issues like child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Starting with what I thought was a degree of fluency regarding sexual violence, we moved on to more subtle points about how we address it (or not) collectively. Why are victims reluctant to report sexual violence? How do race, ethnicity and social class matter for criminal prosecutions? Why do some offending men go unpunished, even as others are targeted disproportionately? My students seemed to get it.

But the 2016 presidential campaign season offered some unanticipated teachable moments. After the election, I asked the students how it felt to have a president-elect who, among other allegations, was in fact caught on tape making lewd, sexually aggressive remarks. It did not seem to bother them.

I was shocked. We had just spent three months learning about sexual violence. How could the sexual allegations against their new president not matter to them? But when the bogeyman is familiar, and when politics are involved, the waters become murky.

I pressed them further. Can we ever actually believe sexual allegations against a high-status man, especially if they come from a comparatively lower-status woman? One student brought up the Bill Cosby case and noted that it took dozens of victims before people really started to believe. With a straight face, I asked whether it takes 50 victims to come forward to counter the denials of a high-status man. They did not pick up on this horrific joke.

During recent sociological fieldwork, I interviewed 75 prosecutors and defense attorneys who work on sexual assault cases. I found that while they largely take sexual assault allegations seriously, they also tend to conflate sex offenders with lower-class men. They stereotype sex offenders as “creeps,” “mopes” and “hillbillies.” In essence, they focus on the man’s identity rather than his behavior. A defendant’s social status becomes a proxy for assessing the veracity of the victim’s allegations.

So when the accused looks like a “creep,” it is much easier to believe the victim, especially if her social identity aligns with dominant groups. But when the accused is a high-status man, we have our doubts. We start to do those mental gymnastics to explain away his alleged indiscretions. Now we are doing those mental gymnastics for the president.

I anticipate that teaching about sexual violence will become more complicated during the Trump presidency. We are likely to see a decrease in federal funding, which will affect college students’ baseline knowledge of the issue. Indeed, the symbolism of a sexually aggressive president may increase young people’s tolerance of similar behavior among their peers.

Action Steps

We must continue to engage college students in these difficult conversations about sexuality, violence and power. Regardless of how anticipated decreases in federal funding and prioritization of the issue play out in the coming years, we must maintain the grassroots momentum that has developed since the U.S. Department of Education issued the Dear Colleague letter in 2011. Here are some ideas.

My course is unusual because we devote the entire semester to sexual violence. But briefer units can be easily incorporated into a range of social science and humanities courses. Instructors might start with sensational issues like sex trafficking, which often captivate students’ attention but can then be used to generate critical analyses of power by focusing on dynamics of labor, immigration and transnational feminism. Frontline has several excellent documentaries on sexual violence that chart institutional responses: for instance, how sexual harassment cases among undocumented agricultural workers move through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. My students also enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Notably, I do not shy away from the students’ tough questions. (For example, they always want to know how consent is determined in cases where both parties are intoxicated.) In the sexual violence prevention field, there is a tendency toward teaching young people incontrovertible facts about the issue. It makes sense when trainers have one hour with a group to drill down to a couple of key anti-rape lessons. But if we want to provide young people with a comprehensive education about sexual violence, then we need to develop their critical-thinking skills. Complex social problems have no easy answers.

We also need to mobilize key networks of campus actors to achieve this comprehensive education. Student learning is not a linear process, and so they need multiple opportunities during their college years to engage with these ideas, both inside and outside the classroom. Those campus networks also need to be in place to ensure that lines of communication and mobilization are open, should there be funding cuts or programming shifts.

This pedagogical work is about much more than sexual violence prevention. It compels us to examine a range of structural inequalities, including those of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, nationality and sexuality. Ultimately, it is about guiding young people to be critical and engaged citizens.

These are important first steps among many acts of resistance.