There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

Science Faculty Can Address Sexual Violence, Too

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Maggie Hardy is a research fellow in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her research program is focused on the discovery of new drugs from venoms. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrMaggieHardy.

Addressing Sexual Violence in Science

I have been speaking publicly about my experiences as a rape victim since I was an undergraduate student. I often find that I have a strong, immediate connection with fellow rape survivors — a kind of bond that allows me to offer a distinct brand of sustenance. I have also had incredibly fulfilling conversations with the partners and friends of other rape survivors who want to provide support.

In this article, I outline the ways that we can talk about rape and sexual harassment in academe. I focus specifically on science because I am a scientist, but my insight can be applied more broadly. You might be wondering what place discussing anything political or activist in nature has in science. But recent events have reinforced the many ways in which science is, indeed, political.

First, let me say that if you are a rape victim, you are not alone. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately one in six American women and one in 33 American men have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. More than 90 percent of perpetrators are men. Statistically speaking, rape victims are everywhere, in every profession, including science — where you can find me.

The statistics suggest that incidences of sexual violence may actually be greater in higher education. For example, among undergraduates, female students (ages 18 to 24) are three times more likely than women in the general population to experience sexual violence; the statistic increases to five times more likely for male students of the same age compared to men in the general population. According to RAINN, “transgender students are at higher risk for sexual violence. In fact, 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females and 4 percent of non-TGQN males.”

What’s more, sexual violence disproportionately affects persons who are already marginalized within higher education. For example, statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that white and black American women are about equally likely to be raped (2.2 and 2.8 per 1,000 females age 12 or older, respectively), but that rate is nearly double for American Indian and Alaska Native women (4.5 per 1,000).

As academics, we are in an ideal position to combat the epidemic of sexual violence in our profession and on our campuses. As mentors and role models, members of professional societies should be prepared to instruct the next generation of researchers not to perpetrate harmful or unethical behavior (in research, academe or life in general), and to model those attitudes personally. Particularly in these uncertain times, it is vital to teach science students skills for success in a global job market and in government, industry and academic roles. Resilience, self-confidence and respect for the autonomy of their colleagues are key proficiencies.

Learning to navigate safe relationships and thinking critically about sexual experiences and personal safety is a hallmark of the college period. For some students, higher education will be their first exposure to extensive, evidence-based sexual education. Elizabeth Smart writes brilliantly about how her abstinence-only education shaped her thinking as a rape survivor and provides a window into what students with similar instruction may be experiencing: she describes feeling like “chewed-up gum” after being assaulted. I have found decolonizing my perspective to be useful in this space and essential to my work as a scientist. The work of Kim TallBear illustrating how the emphasis on virginity and purity is part of a colonial perspective has been revolutionary for me, as have her thoughts on the perception of promiscuity. Understanding the impact of language on your students and colleagues will go a long way toward creating a supportive environment.

How Academics Can Address Sexual Violence

As a proud Queenslander, let me share one of my favorite ways of approaching solidarity: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (This quote is often attributed to Aboriginal artist and activist Lilla Watson, although she considered her work collective and preferred the quote to be credited to the 1970s Aboriginal activists group Queensland.)

Even if you are not a victim of sexual violence, you can advocate for and support victims. The support that good mentors can provide in an academic setting is significant.

Some practical suggestions for academics to address sexual violence and support students who have experienced such violence include:

  • In your syllabus, outline a code of conduct and your nondiscrimination policy (particularly if your course involves fieldwork). Ensure that students understand their rights and responsibilities before class discussions. Model and enforce your own code of conduct, particularly in conversation with students and your colleagues. Overtly sexist behavior is easy for most people to identify, but bias is particularly insidious, especially for women in STEM. You can even take the Implicit Association Test for free online to identify your own biases.
  • Particularly if you work with new students, consider highlighting where to find important contacts for your campus health and sexual assault first responders should they need the information in an emergency. Statistically speaking, you are almost guaranteed to teach at least one student each semester who is or has been a victim of sexual violence, so you might as well get on the front foot. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a fitting point to work in a brief mention.
  • I have written previously about my thoughts on trigger warnings: “We don’t need trigger warnings. We need change.” I mostly still agree with myself, though I do think the terminology of “rape victim” is more appropriate than “rape survivor” now. (For some excellent resources on why, learn more here and here.) When you address difficult material, take the time to explore it carefully. Feel free to add a content note that the material may be difficult and explain the reasons why. Be sure to include information about campus or free resources for students who may have dealt, or are dealing, with issues raised during the course. If you are unsure, ask for insight from other experts.
  • Support those groups and programs on your campus that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence. Offer to serve as a faculty liaison if they need one, dispute budget cuts to their essential work, and advocate on behalf of those they serve. Let the groups know that you are happy to help students who have experienced sexual assault where you are able to (such as with course selection, career advice or in other professional aspects). Listen to their advice about how to support students.
  • If you are involved with a professional society and are interested in shoring up your ethical standards, check out my article “Drafting an Effective Ethical Code of Conduct for Professional Societies: A Practical Guide.” The article outlines 10 practical steps to setting up a code of conduct, and provides an introduction to the ethical considerations of each step in the process.
  • Recently, initiatives to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment at professional conferences have sprung up across academic disciplines, from astronomy to entomology. Make your students aware of those groups, and if your students are attending conferences, ensure they are aware of professional expectations and how to manage unprofessional behavior.

For students who are victims of sexual violence, their academic progress or performance may be affected — in addition to many other facets of their lives. One thing that we can all do is to help support healing by ensuring victims of sexual violence are able to live their best lives afterward. Here is some specific advice for writing letters of recommendation.

  • Offer to address the topic in your letter directly, for example, “As an undergraduate, [student] was one of the many college students to be affected by [sexual violence/unfortunate events/extenuating personal circumstances/etc.].” Be sure to check what language the student would like you to use.
  • Highlight achievements relative to circumstances. If the events resulted in an additional semester or a class that had to be repeated, emphasize the student’s progress and dedication to the discipline, technical proficiency or leadership.
  • Avoid gender and other bias in writing letters of recommendation. Here’s a great list of suggestions from the University of Arizona.

Rape victims are powerful, and we are many. I talk about my experience as a rape victim because I care. During her incredible speech at the sentencing of her attacker, Emily Doe, who was assaulted at Stanford University in 2015, quoted author Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” My light is on.

Open And Honest Discussions About Sexual Violence In Our Classes

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Shawn Patrick is a biracial cis woman (and not an Irish pub, as some tend to think) and an associate professor and professional counselor. Her take on higher education is influenced by her training in multicultural counseling and narrative theory. She blogs at The Rolling B about teaching, mental health and social justice.

Talk With Students About Sexual Assault

It was quiet when I shuffled into my house late one night. My children had long ago fallen asleep. My husband lounged on the couch framed by the blue light projected from some late-night television show. I dribbled onto the couch like a ripped sack of potatoes and said, “I think this course is starting to get to me.”

I was teaching a graduate course on abuse and violence. I had lectured about sexual assault in other courses, but this was the first time I have devoted an entire course to the topic. As a therapist, I have counseled many adults and children who have experienced forms of sexual, physical, emotional, mental and/or religious abuse. I have also supervised counselor trainees as they learn to work with clients who experience violence.

None of this is ever easy work. While my mind tends to spin regardless after a full day, any day in which I encounter the subject of sexual assault will guarantee me a sleepless night. This particular evening’s insomnia was brought on by the dawning realization that a full course on violence meant constantly living in abuse-related material.

Students identify abuse and trauma as the topic that they feel least prepared to address. Degree programs include courses or curricular expectations for basic training in abuse and trauma work. However, I suspect it is not a lack of knowledge that makes students anxious about the topic. Instead, the worry more likely stems from personal resonance fluttering near someone’s consciousness, threatening to remind them of just how familiar they are with abuse and assault.

“Rape culture” is a phrase bringing together the multiple factors contributing to an environment that normalizes sexual exploitation. While some people attempt to dismiss this and phrases like trigger warnings as “liberal whininess,” the statistics are clear. Conservative estimates indicate nearly one in two women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence, stalking or partner violence. More than 70 percent of men and women who have been assaulted experienced this before the age of 25. Sexual violence does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, but the majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men, and most are known to their victims.

The myths about sexual assault abound in society, including perceptions that men “can’t be raped” or that women “ask for it.” When a recent presidential candidate (now president) boasted about assaulting women, many Americans quickly dismissed such behavior as “locker room talk.” College and university administrators have conveyed the message to victims that they should leave the university “for their own safety,” essentially ending their education, while their perpetrators are allowed to continue on.

Such social conditions contribute to why the reporting of sexual violence tends to be low. The older a person is when the assault occurs, the less likely they are to report it. Family and friends often overtly and covertly coerce victims into staying silent — many of them intending to help but most likely doing more harm than good. Male victims of sexual violence are the least likely to report it due to fears of being ridiculed or not believed by others. Critics take nonreporting as proof that claims of rape are false. But silence is not a sign of guilt or weakness — rather, it is many victims’ last resort to protect their humanity.

It is not possible to live in our society without encountering the effects of a culture that normalizes rape. I know that when I teach a course about sexual violence, most people in the room have been affected by it. Trigger warnings, or essentially prepping students for the possibility that they will hear material that is potentially upsetting or disturbing, are normal. This is no different than explaining grading procedures or commenting on the weather. These comments acknowledge the reality we live in and demonstrate respect for everyone’s right to have a say in what happens in their physical space. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, trigger warnings do not shut down conversations; instead, they invite students into safe spaces. Because we have the courage to address sexual assault openly, we create trust and show students how to take a different stance towards violence.

Humility, Not Bravado

Sexual assault is no stranger in my life, either. I am often asked, “How do you do this work without your own history getting in the way?” As counselors, we ask this question mostly because therapy is meant to focus on the people whom we serve, not ourselves. But for students, this question is more related to fear that conversations about rape will overwhelm them. This is the power of sexual assault; it tries to convince us to hide, to mute our voices. Curiously, however, asking this question demonstrates the desire to put sexual assault in its place and not be silenced by it.

I tell my students what I tell myself. Professors hold an illusion that our histories and identities exit the room when we teach, as though we are simply talking textbooks. This is an unnatural and unrealistic expectation. We are who we are in the classroom, and tapping into the many facets of ourselves is what makes our teaching work the best. After last Nov. 8, I could not walk into my classroom and pretend that many students were not afraid of living in a country that decided women and people of color existed solely for the gratification of men. There was no way that I could honestly address myths about sexual violence without allowing my students to talk about those fears. I felt powerless; I could not pretend I was unaffected, was not “triggered” by watching men on television and in my community swagger and boast about “winning.”

Responding to students who also felt powerless, I had to remember that humility, not bravado, opens us to compassion. Embracing feelings of disgust, anger, sadness or hurt when witnessing stories of violence is not a sign of failure. Rather, it is the appropriate response — the human response. Stifling ourselves is exactly what assault wants so it stays in control. When we allow our reactions to breathe, we show ourselves what is valuable. Disgust reminds us human dignity should not be violated. Anger proves the act never should have occurred. Sadness lets me see the integrity of the other. And hurt tells me how much our connections matter.

Does this translate into telling students every intimate detail about my life? Of course not. I get to choose what I share and what I don’t. Students will see that I have feelings. But will this make me appear human in the classroom? I hope so.

Responding With Empathy When A Student Has Been Raped

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Marina N. Rosenthal is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon. As a therapist, researcher and teacher, she focuses on trauma and sexual health.  In this blog post, Marina describes three actions she takes when she is feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

Responding to Students’ Trauma Disclosures With Empathy

I am an educator who teaches undergraduate courses like Psychology of Trauma and Human Sexuality. Not surprisingly, given the content of such courses, my students often disclose personal experiences of sexual violence to me. I want to meet their truths with kindness and trust, but sometimes I feel unsure or stuck as I try to determine how best to respond.

To help me through these moments, I have developed an approach to guide me. Other educators whose work touches on topics that are inherently intimate may find my approach helpful for supporting their own students who experience sexual violence.

Trauma disclosures surface in many forms. For example, some students quietly share their experiences when panic attacks related to an assault impede their progress on an assignment or when a friend is raped and needs resources. Some students linger after class and say with certainty that they were harassed, abused or assaulted. But many of my students are less direct and less sure. Instead, they often weave disclosures into essays, reading responses or emails. Sometimes, these admissions are either obliquely expressed or nearly hidden, tucked carefully away in the middle of a paragraph, within parentheses or in a postscript. Their revelations are often laced with doubt. They write, “Maybe it was abuse, but I didn’t know it at the time …” Or they wonder, “I’m not sure if I was raped. I know that I didn’t want it to happen.”

My students are not unusual. A recent qualitative exploration of college women’s perspectives on these unwanted but undefined experiences (called “unacknowledged rape”) highlights tremendous ambivalence in their understandings of what has happened to them. Victims commonly vacillate between uncertainty (with statements like “I don’t know, is what happened to me, is that … rape?”), certainty (“I felt taken advantage of, right from the get-go”) and ambivalence (“I know it was kind of rape … but I have a really hard time coming to reality with that”). I hear my own students’ voices in these quotes; I see them wavering between conviction and doubt.

As I read or hear my students’ disclosures, particularly the veiled and wary, I struggle to achieve clarity on how to respond. As a teacher, I am caught in the middle. I am always an educator, sometimes a mentor and constantly an evaluator. I spend hours every week helping my students to strengthen their writing and refine their thinking. My feedback is intended not only to nurture their development but also to assess their academic progress. Teaching a class on trauma does not free me from the reality of having to deliver sometimes disappointing grades to my striving students. So, yes, I can be a confidante, a source of support. But tomorrow, I will also be a critic, a judge.

Amid my confusion, I have found three small steps to follow when I open an email or essay that discloses to me yet another traumatic experience — three actions to perform when I am feeling bewildered, despondent or incapacitated by a student’s disclosure of sexual violence.

First, I allow myself to mourn for the pain and violence plaguing my campus, for the sweet soul tentatively reaching out. Sometimes I cry in the bathtub or sprint in circles on my block in the dark. I create space for sorrow. Hearing trauma stories can — and perhaps should — hit hard. By greeting my heartache with acceptance and offering my grief an outlet, I grant myself the same compassion I hope to give my students.

Second, I can provide information on how to report, where to seek health care and how to obtain counseling. I can also grant accommodations should students struggle to meet deadlines or finish assignments. I ask my students whether they want this type of tangible support, and I respect their answer either way.

Third, I remember that as a teacher and — perhaps more important — as a human, I can always offer belief and empathy. Research supports this final step; survivors who feel that someone believes their story report fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. My response matters greatly, especially for survivors still in the process of comprehending what happened to them. Amid engulfing and callous noise — victim-blaming news media, unsupportive administrators, insufficient resources — expressing faith in and empathy for survivors is a powerful act. In the lines of the PowerPoints I present and the readings I assign, in my office, and in the margins of essays, I can compose the verses of my own quiet chant: “I believe you. It was not your fault. I am so sorry this happened to you.”

My students arrive in class as evolving and messy mosaics, not dry sponges ready to absorb knowledge. Their identities and experiences are not separate from or irrelevant to the work that we do in the classroom. In this sense, responding compassionately to sexual assault disclosures is an integral duty in my role as an educator. Reacting with acceptance and kindness, especially when students are just beginning to articulate what happened to them, is a gesture of love and resistance.

I wish I had access to spells or incantations, a literal enchantment to protect the students on my campus. I lack such magic, and my work sometimes feels futile. I feel caught in a cycle, unable stop the relentless deluge of violence. But while the expanse of what I cannot do is vast, I can take action, however imperfect or insufficient. I take my three small steps. I allow sadness to flow through me. I concretize and compile what I can contribute in resources and accommodations. And finally, always, I speak words of belief and empathy.

Nondisclosure Agreements Silence Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches classes on American literature, theory and media history. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Silencing of Sexual Violence Survivors

Back when I was a freshman in college many years ago, something happened. This something involved someone who was a member of my college’s faculty and me, and it resulted in my filing a complaint relating to allegations of sexual assault. But now, 15 years later, I am compelled to rely on those kinds of ambiguous nouns — something and someone — in lieu of specifics. At the behest of college administrators and representatives, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from sharing anything more specific about that something and that someone.

At the time, I understood my silence to be a necessary cost levied in exchange for protection and support. I brought my complaint to a trusted faculty member who, in turn, forwarded it to the appropriate administrator. That administrator then told me that I had two options. I could take my complaint to the police, thereby exposing myself to a public trial, newspaper reporters’ inquiries and the scrutiny of our entire college-town community. Or I could let the college handle the investigation, as long as I was willing to aid that investigation by keeping contractually quiet.

I was 18 years old, living more than 1,000 miles from home. Save for that one trusted faculty member, I had not told anyone about the something, not even my roommate or my parents. So I agreed to a private, internal investigation and signed the nondisclosure agreement — before speaking to a lawyer, before receiving any impartial advice and before having the opportunity to tell my story to anyone who might have been in a position to offer me support.

What Are NDAs?

Nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are legal agreements that are employed with the aim of protecting sensitive information. In business, “sensitive information” may amount to trade secrets or specific details about a product. In higher education, colleges and universities have historically turned to NDAs when investigating allegations of sexual violence or misconduct.

NDAs typically mandate that both parties involved in the complaint remain silent so as to avoid impeding a college’s investigation (which sometimes includes the gathering of witness testimony). And in order to further discourage those involved from speaking, NDAs often specify that financial penalties and personal liability are likely to result if either party breaks the agreement. (See, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of the subject in the context of former presidential candidate Herman Cain.)

But in recent years, critics of the practice have pointed out that such confidentiality agreements stifle student speech and prevent victims — be they the accusers or the accused — from speaking out and sharing their sides of the story. What’s more, as a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article explains, NDAs place comprehensive bans on speech that extend beyond investigative proceedings and remain in effect long after the details of a case have gone public.

That means that victims of sexual violence are unable to shape the narrative that gets told and retold about them — instead, they are held hostage by the whims of gossip and hearsay. This situation has prompted some people to ask whether there might be such a thing as too much confidentiality, since, as one expert explains in the Inside Higher Ed article, “Colleges and universities rarely if ever intervene to correct the public record — even if they were to obtain the consent of both parties.”

Citing those same concerns, in addition to mounting public pressure, some colleges and universities have recently moved to discontinue the practice of requiring NDAs for those people wishing to file complaints of sexual violence or misconduct. American University, for instance, announced last year that it would no longer require students to sign them when filing complaints of misconduct against other students.

But as a more recent series of articles in The Guardian points out, NDAs are particularly common — and thus particularly pernicious — where student complaints against faculty or staff members are concerned. In such cases, NDAs “allow alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again,” thus “masking” the very prevalence of issues of harassment, violence or misconduct — all in the name of confidentiality.

What to Know and What to Do

What all higher education professionals must understand, then, is that such practices governing confidentiality are still very much the norm today. Most institutions still rely on them, which is why it is important that faculty and staff members read and acquaint themselves with institutional policies regarding confidentiality and voluntary disclosure. But, even more important, they need to take an active role in communicating their understandings of those policies to students.

I am not saying that folks in higher education need to memorize their campus’s policies and approach all interactions armed with chapter and verse. Rather, now a faculty member myself, I am arguing in favor of a heightened awareness that may permit university professionals to engage candidly and responsibly with student victims. If a student approaches you with the expectation of confidentiality, you need to inform that person of your ability to listen and, perhaps, act in confidence.

For example, if you hail from one of the many professional disciplines that make you subject to mandatory reporting laws (like law, medicine or social work), or if you serve in the capacity of a campus security authority — which, under Title IX, may also require you to report — you need to be honest in explaining that you may be unable to comply with a student’s wishes regarding confidentiality. A colleague at my institution’s law school recently told me that she was thinking of putting a sign on her door to declare her status as a mandatory reporter so that students would be able to consider their options before approaching her. Similarly, if you know that official student complaints on your campus are likely to be met with secrecy in the form of compulsory nondisclosure agreements, you must be up front and explain as much to a student beforehand.

Here’s why a willingness to be both honest and informed matters: what followed my decision to sign that NDA some 15 years ago were, frankly, the worst four months of my life. I was removed from the course that I was taking with the faculty member in question and instead enrolled in an independent study course, conducted by another faculty adviser who had no experience in the topic and little direct interest in overseeing my studies anyway.

Meanwhile, my absence in the class had not gone unnoticed, and rumors proliferated — rumors that I was contractually bound to accept with good grace since I was not allowed to talk about what had happened. The administrator who had dealt with my case had warned me that my violating the NDA “could compromise the investigation or could violate someone’s privacy and expose me and the college to liability.” Those were not my college administrator’s exact words, but they are the words of confidentiality agreements used by higher education institutions today.

There are alternatives, though. American University, for instance, now favors a confidentiality agreement that includes a First Amendment rights statement. The statement is designed to assure victims that confidentiality is the responsibility of their university but not necessarily required by them.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct on college campuses requires a sincere commitment to acknowledging that sexual violence and misconduct do indeed happen — that they have been happening for some time now, that they are happening right now. Nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements have historically helped to keep us, as university professionals, from acknowledging that. Yet in order to imagine better, fairer alternatives to NDAs, we must start by facing the facts concerning their ubiquity and prevalence on our own campuses.

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.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

From March to November 2017, we will be featuring a series of weekly blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  We are especially pleased to note that this series is intersectional to its core, offering narratives that reflect on sexual violence as a manifestation not just of sexism, but also racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and fatphobia.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Failures of Title IX Policy and Programming

Research On/And Sexual Violence

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia: